On the idea of ‘mainstreaming’ insights from the complexity sciences

I experience a number of reactions when I talk to groups of managers about what I take to be some of the more radical insights from the complexity sciences, based on the work of the Complexity and Management Group, University of Hertfordshire. For some in the groups of managers I am working with, the analogies that I draw from the sciences of uncertainty pose a direct threat to the paradigm of predictability and control that they have accepted and are trying to practice. What I am saying can then cause severe irritation, sometimes anger, and there may be an attempt to trivialise what I am saying. This trivialisation may take the form of argument that if what I am claiming is true this would mean that anything goes in organisations, that management is not needed, or that we should just sit back and ‘let things emerge’. If the future is uncertain, then what’s the point of planning anything?

At the very least, what I draw from this is that there must be something in my exposition that they recognise, and which they find negating. Their anger or sense of having been provoked, is a way of re-establishing their particular relation to themselves and their place in the world which has been called into question. It also calls into question power relationships, which I will discuss further below.

Some others may have something akin to a conversion experience arguing that radical insights from the complexity sciences are the new truth, which must be ‘embraced’. Embracing the new truth will for some imply ‘mainstreaming’ it, which is a way of claiming that it should become the newly dominant way of talking about and framing the world. This then leads to proposals for creating tools or techniques for ‘introducing emergence’ into organisations, for modelling complexity, and for identifying and ‘seizing tipping points’. In these sorts of proposals, emergence is usually equated with something good, and ‘embracing complexity’ is a kind of shorthand for encouraging staff to be creative or innovative, where innovation again is code for ‘positive change’ or change that we think we want.

Enthusiasts for complexity can quickly fall back into the paradigm of predictability and control, where the body of ideas is understood as a way of behaving or understanding the world that is more likely to bring us what we think we know in advance will be good. Alternatively there may be disappointment that when they bring this new ‘truth’ to bear on work situations or with colleagues, somehow and inevitably the status quo reasserts itself. They may feel disappointment that this particular radically contingent way of understanding the world has encountered no traction and little recognition. In turn this may lead to questioning whether this perspective is in any way helpful or practical.

I want to reintroduce two ideas from previous posts as a way of addressing what I consider to be two types of disillusionment generated by discussions of the implications the complexity sciences for theories of organising.

The first idea was extensively covered in the last post, is that of the stable instability of social life. Collective intentions to change the way things are, which take the form of plans and strategies, are an important aspect of being human and give life meaning. However, when we act with intention into the world we encounter the intentions and plans of other groups of people and longer term social trends which can have unforeseen consequences for the plans we are trying to implement. It is highly likely that life will trip us up again and again. These irruptions will present us with multiple opportunities for calling into question the plans that we have made and the assumptions they are based on. We might conclude that despite encountering the unexpected we should proceed as before, because one of the factors constraining us is the promises we have made to others about what we intend and what they can expect. Alternatively we might change our minds about what we are doing, echoing Keynes: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?’

Exactly what we do will depend upon a whole range of factors including the constitution of the groups of people of whom we are part. It will involve argument, judgement and discussions about what we take to be the good. In the end then, it is not that plans do or don’t work, but that they are made to work one way or another in complex responsive processes of relating.

There is no argument, then, against making plans or in favour of managers and leaders sitting around and doing nothing, and waiting for things to ‘emerge’. What emerges does so precisely as a result of our planning and the way we take up our plans with others, and how others’ plans have an impact on us. Perspectives from the complexity sciences are not a denial of planning or managing, but point instead to the contingent nature of both of those activities and a world of stable instability.

The second idea, taken from Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault, is that knowledge and what we take to be truth is created in relationships of power, what Foucault termed ‘regimes of truth’. According to Foucault historically specific processes produce discourses which function as true at particular times. Not only do regimes of truth produce bodies of knowledge, but they also call out resistance and opposition. What we might think of as the dominant discourse in organizational theory, that we can produce ideas about leadership or management which can be ‘applied’ in different contexts to have similar results has partly become dominant by calling into question the legitimacy of other forms of knowledge and ways of theorizing the social. It is sustained by particular groups of people, both managers and management academics producing books, articles and theses reproducing this way of thinking.

But it in turn it calls out alternative accounts in the form of critical management studies or processual accounts of organizing such as complex responsive processes of relating. These bodies of knowledge are in dialectical relationship, although this is not to imply any form of symmetry or equivalence. One might understand a critical position always to be mounted from the periphery and in opposition to the mainstream and majority view. It calls into question what we take to be true, but it also reveals a particular configuration of power, and in doing so risks possible exclusion from what the more powerful would consider to be the more legitimate community.

It is important to remember, then, that in comparing ideas from the complexity sciences with the dominant, more-linear understanding of cause and effect, one is not just dispassionately comparing the respective merits of one theory of organizing over another, one is also calling into question particular power relationships. In becoming oppositional one is calling into question not just truth claims, but the status, power and sense of belonging of those who hold particular views about the way the world works. This is why it is likely to provoke strong feelings. We might expect a dominant view to try and reassert itself otherwise it won’t long be a dominant view – this shouldn’t in any way be taken as token of ineffectiveness lack of practicality of the ideas under discussion.

Equally, if we were to pursue the idea that regimes of truth inevitably call out opposition, perhaps even deviance, even in the unlikely event of ideas from the complexity sciences becoming in any way ‘mainstream’, they in their turn would call out opposition and dissent from the periphery. To echo the words of Richard Rorty, there can never be a final vocabulary, a situation where the search for truth has reached an end point.

Both critics and enthusiasts of insights from the complexity sciences may be prone to disillusionment either from the position of having their body of ideas called into question, or from the unrealistic expectation that a new set of insights can be turned to instrumental use, or will suddenly and unproblematically carry all before it.

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