If management is understood as a discipline which tries to control things, to place things under one’s hand (manus), then the concept of complexity poses something of a dilemma. The phenomenon one is trying to control is, by very definition, uncontrollable. This doesn’t prevent thinking about it, describing it, noticing its effects, positing what might or might not be helpful in dealing with it. But the question is when these attempts to identify, clarify and name tip over into hubris and begin to suggest that a complex world isn’t really so complex, or can be managed, or with particular tips and tricks, subdued to the will of the rational manager. Complexity is assimilated as another novel and/or fashionable real world phenomenon which will succumb to management science and clear thinking. Complexity is something a manager acts on rather than acts in.
The idea of acting on is the other route to taming complexity, to suggest that sometimes the world is complex and sometimes it isn’t, and it is up to the manager to decide. I will come back to this way if thinking later when I discuss some of the intellectual assumptions which are revealed in VUCA discussions about complexity.
The coining of the concept of VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) as a way of introducing complexity helps us investigate how radically the idea of a complex world challenges that notion that we can predict and control. And noticing how the concept is mobilised and described by particular traditions of thought gives us insight into how management discourses sustain and renew themselves, sometimes consuming everything in their wake. Continue reading