Tag Archives: control

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. Continue reading


How the ‘ought’ obscures the ‘is’

Over the last few years I have come across a number of examples of the way in which the current managerial preoccupation with abstractions, often expressed as policies, procedures or putatively comprehensive ‘systems‘, severely inhibits managers from discussing and dealing with important organisational events which occur right under their noses. This is not to mount a case against having policies and procedures, but is a warning about the false sense of security and comfort that can arise from talking about things in the abstract rather than paying attention to organisational experience. Continue reading

Are we all complexity theorists now? Part II

I began to argue in the last but one post that the complexity sciences are adduced by a wide variety of scholars and commentators who are writing or talking about organisational change, and that this phenomenon may be indicative of the pressure that more linear ways of understanding change are under. Many people realise instinctively, and from their own experience, that  the taken for granted ways of thinking about change, input-process-output, are inadequate for describing what actually takes place when they are caught up in organisational life. However, I also went on to argue that there is still a very strong tendency to try and instrumentalise the complexity sciences. If you like, these commentators are having their cake and eating it at the same time: on the one hand they say that organisations are very complex places, on the other hand they argue that complexity can still somehow be harnessed by some managerial approach or other.  This manifests itself in a variety of different forms, from those people who claim that they can help your organisation model the complexity you are experiencing, perhaps with a computer model or a systems diagram, through to those who claim they have a unique method, which  you can buy off them or be trained in, which will help you manage the complexity in your organisation. In a blog I came across the other day the author was arguing that managers can ‘manage the evolutionary possibilities of the present’  in their organisations.

Previously I have argued that during the last two decades or so strong ideological claims have been made for the unique abilities of managers both to identify, shape and manage change. A cursory glance at the recruitment pages of the daily newspapers will produce a number of different advertisements where managers are sought who can  ‘drive change’ in an organisation.  Clearly there is no job too big for the claims of management as a discipline:   it can manage change, complexity and evolution. Continue reading