In a recent post, I used the term "complex responsive process" to describe the nature of human interaction - a phrase that was coined in the late-1990s by Ralph Stacey, Patricia Shaw and Doug Griffin at the University of Hertfordshire (see Postscript). Having read this, somebody asked me why I ordinarily use the term "complex social process" to describe the dynamics of organizations, rather than "complex responsive process". A Good question! Here's my attempt at an answer ...
The complex responsive process of communicative interaction
Stacey et al settled upon the phrase complex responsive process to emphasize that it is through the process of "communicative interaction" (essentially conversation) that organization is enacted "in the living present".
As they are still at pains to point out, the underpinning theory uses the complexity sciences as a source domain of analogies for human interaction. In contrast to most others who have sought to integrate the insights of this ‘new science’ into their view of organizations, they do not apply these principles directly to the human world. In particular, they draw attention to the unavoidably political and paradoxical nature of human interaction, which takes place between conscious – and especially self-conscious – individuals who are interdependent beings. That is, there is no individual without the social and no social without the individual. They also robustly dismiss the notion of organizations as systems – whether complex or otherwise. That is, they adopt a temporal and process view of human interaction, rather than seeing organizations as nested systems of bounded entities that are presumed to have the capacity to act in some way ‘outside’ this local interactional process.
Organizations as dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations
I agree with all of this. And, in Informal Coalitions, I similarly recognize the complex, political, paradoxical, and conversational nature of human interaction that constitutes organization. To reflect this, I define organizations as "dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations."
These conversations always embody differing – and often competing – interpretations, interests, ideologies and identities. And the sense-making-cum-action-taking process that is at the core of human interaction is a self-organizing, patterning process. This (in my terms) means that the more that people make sense of things in a particular way, the more likely they are to continue to make sense in similar ways going forward. At the same time, the potential always exists (e.g. through misunderstandings, mistakes, humour, conflict, or other randomly occurring stimuli) for pattern-shifting to occur and novel outcomes to emerge.
Similarities and differences
On the fundamentals of organizational dynamics, then, as I’ve argued many times in this blog, I believe that my perspective differs only ‘at the edges’ from that advanced by the Hertfordshire ‘school’. I recognize, of course, that they might see the differences as more substantial. But, in comparison to others who claim to reflect the complex dynamics of organization in their descriptions/ prescriptions, I believe that we have ‘pitched our tents’ on broadly the same ground.
Against this background, I believe that the terms complex responsive process and complex social process provide equally accurate descriptions of the socially complex dynamics of human interaction. At the same time, I would readily concede that the term complex responsive process more precisely describes the essentially conversational nature of these dynamics. That is to say, it reflects the fundamental point that meaning is not contained within a particular act of communication (the "gesture", after George Herbert Mead) but rather is co-created in the ongoing gesture-response process.
So, given this, why do I use the adjective social rather than responsive to describe these dynamics? I would identify four reasons in particular:
- Misappropriation: I don’t want to imply that my own views, and the practical implications that I draw from them, are wholly congruent with the carefully crafted theory of complex responsive processes. They are not. I first used the term informal coalitions to describe my thoughts on the dynamics of organizations in the mid-‘90s, before exploring and explaining the concept more fully during my masters degree on managing change between 1997 and 1999. It would therefore be a distortion to use the label "complex responsive process" to describe my own thinking and practice. The term "complex social process" echoes the same themes (of social complexity, interdependence, process-based dynamics, and ‘boundarylessness’), without misappropriating the Hertfordshire term.
- Diverse origins: The theory of complex responsive processes arose in the context of teaching, research and reflection within a specialist department of a UK university. As such, it offers a comprehensive and coherent view of organizational dynamics, which is underpinned by a wealth of academic writing – not only in the field of complexity, but also embracing perspectives drawn from philosophy, sociology and anthropology amongst others. In contrast, I introduced the notion of informal coalitions to explain what I saw as the hidden, messy and informal reality of day-to-day organizational life, and to contrast this with the neatly packaged theories and prescriptions offered by mainstream writers and consultants. The term therefore arose primarily from my own observations of the complex social dynamics of organizational life, gleaned over many years as a practising manager. And this perspective has been further reinforced by my consulting experience. However, although the term "complex social process" appears extensively in this blog, I use it sparingly in my consulting practice, where I tend to talk solely in terms of conversational interaction: "talking about complexity without talking about complexity", as a fellow consultant once put it.
- Pragmatism v Purity: I see the complex responsive process perspective as carrying with it a particular stance on leadership (and consulting) practice that seeks to preserve the ‘purity’ of the descriptive (rather than prescriptive) nature of the theory. As such, those who consult from this viewpoint, do so solely through their participation in its ongoing, conversational life – adopting a reflective and reflexive approach to the patterning of interactions in which they are participating. I similarly see my informal coalitions/complex social process perspective as being descriptive of what is actually going on in all organizations today, regardless of managers’ formal stance on the nature of organizational dynamics and their own practice. And I, too, see organizations as dynamic patterns of conversation in which we all participate. So, once again, we agree on this. However, I take a different view when it comes to making use of sense-making frameworks. I recognize the dangers inherent in their use. But I believe that such frameworks can be designed and used in ways that help managers to gain new insights into their own practice and to recognize that the conversations really are the work.
- Generalizing the 'ungeneralizable': Finally, following on from the previous point, the contact time that consultants have with clients is minimal compared to the total people-hours of interaction through which ‘organization’ is enacted. And, within those ongoing interactions, differential power relations mean that the words and actions of those in formal leadership roles are particularly influential in the way that meaning is co-created and in the emergent patterning of ongoing interactions. So, whilst we would both argue that it is not possible to set out generalized principles that can be universally applied in any organizational context, what we can say is that conversations matter. An informal coalitions mode of consulting therefore sets out to help those in formal leadership positions to see these conversational dynamics as the core of their work and to engage with them more insightfully.
Informal coalitions is about the dynamics of coalition building and the mobilizing of people's actions around themes that resonate strongly with people who do not necessarily agree on everything. As such, I'm more interested in the similarities than the differences between the complex responsive process and informal coalitions perspectives. And, in this regard, I'm confident that there are substantially more of the former than the latter.
Postscript - Complex responsive process theory
The core of the theory of complex responsive processes has remained consistent since its inception in the late-1990s. And, at the same time, Ralph Stacey and others (most recently Chris Mowles) have continued to articulate its links to other theories that explain particular dynamics of organization that are consistent with the complex social process perspective.
By definition, the theory draws insights from the sciences of complexity. And its emphasis on paradox, conversation and power relations is rooted in the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, George Herbert Mead, and Norbert Elias. In Stacey’s 2010 book, Complexity and Organizational Reality, Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of "habitus" and "the game", coupled with James C. Scott’s ideas on "seeing like a state", added the paradoxical notions of immersing and abstracting to the language of complex responsive processes. And this thinking was continued in Mowles’s 2011 book, Rethinking Management. Most recently, such as in Stacey’s Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management (2012), the work of Michael Foucault has featured prominently. This has focused in particular on his thoughts about the disciplinary nature of power exerted through formally imposed processes, systems and procedures. And finally (for now, no doubt!) persistent pressure to answer the "So what do I do?" question has prompted Stacey and Mowles to argue that applying practical judgement in the moment of interaction is the essence of leading/ managing from a complex responsive process perspective. There had earlier been a reluctance to offer guidance on how a complex responsive process perspective might be ‘applied’, give the point that I mentioned in the core post that it is fundamentally a way of describing what managers are actually already doing.