Category Archives: organisations

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms XIV – VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous).

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. grid

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

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms XII – leverage

Give me a still point,  and I will move the world, Archimedes is reputed to have said by Plutarch. The idea is that finding a fixed place and using mathematical reasoning enables a relatively small amount of force to move a very large object.

The word leverage (sometimes known as gearing), is originally a financial term meaning to borrow money in order to finance the purchase of an asset. Borrowing to buy allows for a return to investors bigger than the sums involved in financing the debt: it also allows for counting the purchased asset to be used as collateral ileveragen other financial transactions. Anyone who supports Manchester United football team will be aware that this is the financial model that the Glazer family have used to buy the club and pay themselves and their investors large sums of money on an annual basis. But, as an example of the ways in which organisations have become permeated by financial language, it has come to be applied to all manner of management practices. As instances, managers might claim to be able to leverage talent or creativity in their organisations, or perhaps they might intend to leverage knowledge. Recently I heard a colleague say that they were leveraging their relationships with others. Continue reading

From quantity to quality

I had been invited to work with a group identified as ‘talented potential leaders’ in a large public sector organisation in a European country. Workers in the organisation were highly likely to be users of the organisation’s services, a bit like workers in the NHS in the UK because of the size and scope of the organisation. To an extent, then, there is no inside and no outside, no clear-cut distinction between the employees and the ‘customer experience’: employees had very direct access to what it meant to use the organisation’s services, which were widely available.

My role was to encourage the ‘talent’ group to think about how they are thinking, to identify some of the organisational patterns they found themselves caught up in, and to think about how the organisation did strategy. To what extent were accepted ways of undertaking strategy in the organisation helpful? How did they square with their own experience of making plans and trying to implement them?

Continue reading

Organising as conversational activity

‘Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion has already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps which have gone before. You listen for a while until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument, then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or the gratification of your opponent, depending on the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late. You must depart. And you do depart with the discussion still vigorously in progress.’

Burke, K. (1941) The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, pp110-1.

The above quotation encapsulates for me what it’s like joining an organisation, as a consultant, or as a new employee, understood from a pragmatic perspective. On entering an organisation you pitch into an argument which is already going on and in which there are several threads of heated discussion. It’s a struggle to join in, to understand what is being said and what it might mean for what you do next because you don’t yet have enough history with this particular group. You take up a role and become part of the action, influencing and being influenced. Once in the organisation, not to participate is as significant as participating, because people have already noticed you. Do you have anything to say? There’s no ‘safe space’ that people sometimes crave in team away-days, and nor is there a view from outside what is going on where you can make sense independently, somehow uninfluenced. The moment you speak your ‘truth’ you have become part of the discussion; you have taken sides in organisational politics.

For the pragmatists groups of people talking together, arguing, making alliances, trying not to make alliances, clarifying what we mean by what we say, is how knowledge if produced. It is fallible knowledge, good enough for now until circumstances, and the turn the heated debate takes obliges us to think differently. In doing so, thinking differently, we understand ourselves and the argument we are part of, anew. We have to decide how to take the next step, but having taken the next step, everything looks slightly different from the new position.

There might be some advantage for those engaged in this situation of flux if they can use their reflective intelligence. Although there is no stepping out of the discussion it may be more or less possible to participate but at the same time to notice how your participation influences things, and how you are influenced. The ability to notice the repeated patterns of this particular episode of hurly burly may offer different options for you and the other discussants. But it may also not be an advantage for long. It is hard to maintain an understanding of plural points of view, particularly if they are changing as the discussion changes. Is it possible to maintain your own argument and be radically open to other arguments both at the same time?

These, then, are some key ideas from pragmatic philosophy which are helpful for thinking about organisational life. Organising is a conversational activity which has no beginning and no end and which takes place in a group of groups. It is often heated because our valuations matter to us: we cannot stand outside our commitments, although we only fully realise what they are through articulating them and encountering others’ difference. In struggling together as a conversational community we discover how to take the next step, which may then give us a new perspective to keep going with our inquiry. Practising intelligent reflection, noticing the patterns of our habitual engagement, may offer potential for thinking and behaving differently. But there is never just one thing going on and taking in plural points of view requires work.

Complex responsive processes in Sydney Australia – December 13/14 2016

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Chris Mowles is visiting Australia the week beginning 12th December and will be running a two day intense workshop and a breakfast meeting with 10000hours .

The two day workshop is entitled:

LEADING IN UNCERTAINTY – 13/14th December

The workshop is suitable for experienced leaders, managers and consultants from all kinds of organizations. It includes a mixture of seminars, break-out discussions, and real time exploration of examples from participants’ own organizations.

Chris will draw on insights from the complexity sciences developed by Ralph Stacey in the perspective known as complex responsive processes, which informs this blog.

Participants can expect to gain basic insights into the complexity sciences understood in social terms, and to experience the importance of reflection and reflexivity in relation to their particular organizational contexts.

To find out more follow this link: http://10000hours.com/chrismowles/

Breakfast meeting Thursday 15th December

10,000 Hours will host a breakfast meeting for experienced leaders, managers and consultants wishing to hear about the what difference understanding organisational life as complex responsive processes of relating can make to the task of leading of managing.

Evening seminar UTS Thursday 15th December

Chris will give a seminar hosted by UTS to interested academic colleagues about some of the difficulties of sustaining critical management education in the UK. He will talk in particular about the  contribution of the Doctor of Management programme at the university of Hertfordshire.

Lunchtime seminar RMIT Melbourne 16th December

Chris will give a similar seminar to interested academic colleagues in Melbourne at lunchtime in RMIT.

 

Complexity and Management Conference 10-12th June 2016 – booking now open

‘What Mead is proposing is a different way of thinking about everyday social interaction, not as observers of experience but rather as participants in experience, the nature of which is self-organising sense-making. He is drawing attention to what we are doing every day in all our actions and arguing that we have developed the habit of ignoring it. How could this be possible? How could we become so blind to something so obvious? Mead’s argument is quite simply that we have developed the habit of regarding the present as something apart from the future and the past. It has become a habit of thought for us to think ourselves as also being apart from our experience as the present movement of time.’ (Griffin, 2002: 179).

The quotation above is taken from Doug Griffin’s book The Emergence of Leadership: Linking Self-Organization and Ethics which was published in 2002, and it points to the focus of this year’s Complexity and Management Conference 2016. As many of you will know, sadly Doug died on 17th December 2015 and we will be celebrating his contribution to the development of the perspective of complex responsive processes and the vibrant life of the Doctor of Management programme at this year’s conference. It was exactly to this area of inquiry, taking everyday complex experience seriously, that Doug was most committed, and the conference is another way of marking and honouring his work.

In this year’s event guest speakers will set out how paying attention to the everyday complexity of experience has made a difference to the work of their particular institution or area of research. The speakers are:

Henry Larsen, Professor of Participatory Innovation at Southern Denmark University, graduate of the DMan programme, ex- member of the Da Capo theatre company. His research interest is in exploring spontaneity and improvisation in the everyday processes of relating.

Professor Karen Norman of Kingston University and doctoral supervisor on the Doctor of Management programme. Karen was formally Chief Nursing Officer in Gibraltar and Director of Nursing for Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust (BSUH).

Mark Renshaw Deputy Chief of Patient Safety at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, Mark facilitated a range of quality improvement and patient safety initiatives and co – led the BSUH falls reduction programme – an initiative that started after a patient died after falling in hospital. This work has reduced the incidence of patient falls by 48%  over five years.

Pernille Thorup – Pernille is on the senior management team of COK (Center for Offentlig Kompetenceudvikling), which is the strategic partner in public sector development for KL (Kommunernes Landsforening), the organization of Danish Municipalities. She has recently undertaken a three year strategy process within the company, drawing on insights from the complexity sciences, which has now involved COK’s clients.

We expect the usual richness and diversity of discussion at the conference.

The conference booking page is now live and can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/hougy85 and as usual there is a discount for early-bird bookings.

Look forward to seeing you there.

Complexity and Management Conference 2016 – 10-12th June: Hertfordshire Business School

Taking complexity seriously – what difference does it make in organisations? 

Venue: Roffey Park Management Centre

A familiar question from many managers who respond to our presentations on the relevance of insights from the complexity sciences to people organizing, is to ask what their practical application could possibly be. If they consider step-wise prescriptions for success to be ‘concrete’, or are looking for tools and techniques, then the injunction to take every day experience seriously may sound quite ephemeral. If the focus in strategic management is on the ‘big picture’ and wholesale change, then the recommendation to pay attention to how the ‘whole’ emerges in everyday interaction sounds very surprising. However, with some managers what we describe strikes a chord.

Additionally, the overwhelming majority of 60-plus graduates of the Doctor of Management programme have found the experience of paying attention to their practice with others transformative, both for themselves and for the organisations in which they work. Every year participants in annual Complexity and Management conference, who come from a variety of organisational backgrounds, bring many examples of how taking the everyday complexity of organizational life seriously makes a difference to expanding possibilities for action. This experience is matched by an increased focus in the scholarly literature on everyday processes of organizing.

In this year’s conference we will discuss the complexity of practice and the difference it makes to pay attention to what we are all doing together to get things done.

Our key note speakers are:

Session 1

Henry Larsen, Professor of Participatory Innovation at Southern Denmark University, graduate of the DMan programme, ex- member of the Da Capo theatre company. His research interest is in exploring spontaneity and improvisation in the everyday processes of relating.

Professor Karen Norman of Kingston University and doctoral supervisor on the Doctor of Management programme. Karen was formally Chief Nursing Officer in Gibraltar and Director of Nursing for Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust (BSUH). She is also a graduate of the DMan programme and continues to take an interest in drawing on insights from complexity theory to inform clinical practice aimed at improving the experience of health care for patients.

Mark Renshaw Deputy Chief of Patient Safety at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, Mark facilitated a range of quality improvement and patient safety initiatives and co – led the BSUH falls reduction programme – an initiative that started after a patient died after falling in hospital. This work has reduced the incidence of patient falls by 48%  over five years.  His role has allowed him to explore his interest in complex systems and how behavioural change in clinical practice emerges out of group dynamics and professional ‘habitus.’

Henry, Karen and Mark will talk about their collaborative research project on reducing patient falls.

Session 2

Pernille Thorup – Pernille is on the senior management team of COK (Center for Offentlig Kompetenceudvikling), which is the strategic partner in public sector development for KL (Kommunernes Landsforening), the organization of Danish Municipalities. She has recently undertaken a three year strategy process within the company, drawing on insights from the complexity sciences, which has now involved COK’s clients. The changes in her own organisation and the discussion this has provoked in Denmark more widely, will form the subject of her talk.

A booking page on the university website will be uploaded in the New Year.