Category Archives: strategy

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: and as usual there is a discount for early-bird bookings.

Look forward to seeing you there.

Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics

New edition published this month: the revised, refreshed and updated version of Ralph’s textbook including sections on process organisation studies, new organisational examples, a bit more theory and more up-to-date references.stacey-and-mowles

The Archbishop and the CEO: reflecting on strategy and the courage to change

Having written about the experience of attending a hollow strategy event in the last post, I was interested hear criticism levelled at Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella for the address on strategy he gave staff recently. It is entitled ‘Bold ambition and our core’ and seems to be a terrific example of managerialist thinking (or perhaps lack of thinking).

After setting out an understanding of what the core of the company is, which seems to revolve around technology and the ‘customer experience’ Nadella then continues in the following way about the company culture:

Our ambitions are bold and so must be our desire to change and evolve our culture.

I truly believe that we spend far too much time at work for it not to drive personal meaning and satisfaction. Together we have the opportunity to create technology that impacts the planet.

Nothing is off the table in how we think about shifting our culture to deliver on this core strategy. Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evolve. New partnerships will be formed. Tired traditions will be questioned. Our priorities will be adjusted. New skills will be built. New ideas will be heard. New hires will be made. Processes will be simplified. And if you want to thrive at Microsoft and make a world impact, you and your team must add numerous more changes to this list that you will be enthusiastic about driving. Continue reading

The experience of strategy

I found myself sitting among a large group of experienced managers who were being updated on the strategy process by the deputy CEO of their particular organisation. He proceeded to explain how he had gone about developing the next corporate strategy in terms which I have critiqued extensively on this site. In critiquing systemic managerialism previously I have always been anxious not to caricature, not to set up an easy straw man opponent in order to knock it down. I have been concerned that if no-one these days really proceeds to explain strategy as vision-mission-values, sets up working groups to develop organisational values to underpin the vision, and then suggests that members of staff who don’t follow the values may have to go and work elsewhere, then there is nothing really to critique.

But what I found on this occasion was a text book example, perhaps a text book still in its first edition, of what I engage with elsewhere as idealised design. Originating in cybernetic systems theory and developed in the thinking of Russell Ackoff, idealised design assumes that fomenting excitement in staff who work in an organisation towards an idealised end point, increases motivation, commitment and performance. There is very little evidence for this claim, and given how long these methods have been used in organisations with change-weary staff, it would be just as easy to make the opposite claim that such abstract idealisations are just as likely to call out cynicism, negativity and disbelief particularly in the UK. Judging from the conversation which took place later at coffee, I think the group in which I was sitting may have been strung out along the spectrum from enthusiasm at one end, to bafflement and frustration at the other. Continue reading

Visioning backwards

On Wednesday 16th October Mary Ward and Jo Collins, the founders of the Chickenshed Theatre, were interviewed by BBC Radio 4 presenter Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour. They were invited onto the programme to celebrate the forthcoming 40th anniversary of a theatre which was set up to involve young people in theatre, irrespective of their abilities. Both founders had a shared belief that they could produce excellent theatre with young people if they could encourage everyone to accept what young people bring, rather than what they don’t bring. They argued, for example, that young people are often much less judgemental about other young people with disabilities than adults are: they simply accept the disability as a given and proceed from there, without fuss. They argued that discrimination is a learned, social behaviour. That commitment, and the continuous improvisational ability to involve other people in the undertaking, has created an institution which has lasted 40 years although it has never received Arts Council funding.

‘What was your vision for Chickenshed?’ Jenni Murray asked. ‘We didn’t have a vision as such, we didn’t sit down and say “this is our vision”’, Mary Ward answered arguing that they had both felt impelled to include as many young people as possible, ‘but we just did it, and as we did it we became more and more committed to this idea that everyone can contribute to the production, the final end.’ Continue reading

Five types of uncertainty

In his most recent novel The Fear Index the novelist Robert Harris tells the story of a mathematical genius Alex Hoffman, who, frustrated by his job at the Cern laboratories, leaves to set up his own business, a hedge fund. Hoffman’s innovation in complex computer modelling of financial trading is not just that he can model many variables in the constant fluctuations in international markets, but that he can model human emotions which contribute to these fluctuations. The novel speaks to the critique offered by ex-quants like the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan, that the mathematical models developed in the financial sector are highly idealised abstractions and do not do justice to the complexity and unpredictability of human life. The conceit of the novel is that there is an algorithm for human emotion, although in this case the only emotion which seems to count is fear, hence the title of the novel.

Although it is unclear from the book at what level of aggregation Hoffman’s computer simulation is operating, wittingly or unwittingly, it addresses a number of concerns of social theory. That is to say Harris sets out a theory of social action, ie financial traders are as much driven by fear as they are rational calculation, as a well as a theory of stability and change:  global social phenomena arise from the complex interweaving of the daily activities of multiple numbers of traders with amalgams of calculation and fear. As with agent-based models of complex social processes, agents are forming and being formed by the population of which they are part, both at the same time.  Fearful micro-decisions can stampede markets, which drive fearful micro-decisions. In this way Harris undercuts some of the principle assumptions of classical economics, that actors in an economy are rational atoms acting to maximise their own utility according to clearly articulated preferences. Nonetheless the novel still sustains the fantasy that the non-rational, even the irrational, can be modelled with efficient causality.

Of course there are currently many researchers working with agent-based non-linear models of complex social phenomena, but I know of none who would claim that their models are particularly helpful at predictions, rather than offering retrospective insights into the ways in which particular global social patterns have arisen. They have much stronger explanatory rather than predictive power. They may show trends and describe probabilities, but there will always be a margin of error.  Small changes in the model can amplify into dramatic and large, population-wide changes in patterns, just as seemingly large interventions may result in not much change at all. Everything will depend on the history of interactions, the context and the way the agents self-organise.

In much organisational theory, however, and with the proliferation of tools and technique, the emphasis is still on developing methods which are assumed to be able to predict and control human behaviour. They aspire to Robert Harris’ dream. Continue reading

Rethinking management – radical insights from the complexity sciences

Anyone who has enjoyed this blog may be interested in reading this book, which has just been published.

To order the book and obtain a 40% author’s discount click on this link, and follow these instructions:

Add the book to your basket by pressing the Add to Basket button.

        * Once you enter the checkout stage you need to enter the discount code: G11FCJ40 in the box marked promotional code in the first step of the Basket

      * Press the Update Basket button and you will see the discount applied to this title in your basket.

        * Proceed through steps 2-4 to confirm your order.