Tag Archives: systems theory

Complexity and evaluation

Here is the abstract of my latest article on complexity and evaluation, which you can find here:

This article offers a critical review of the way in which some scholars have taken up the complexity sciences in evaluation scholarship. I argue that there is a tendency either to over claim or under-claim their importance because scholars are not always careful about which of the manifestations of the complexity sciences they are appealing to, nor do they demonstrate how they understand them in social terms. The effect is to render ‘complexity’ just another volitional tool in the evaluator’s toolbox subsumed under the dominant understanding of evaluation, as a logical, rational activity based on systems thinking and design. As an alternative I argue for a radical interpretation of the complexity sciences, which understands human interaction as always complex and emergent. The interweaving of intentions in human activity will always bring about outcomes that no one has intended including in the activity of evaluation itself.


What is practical and useful?

I was working with a group of people the other day who were engaged in a long-term research project. We came together to share ideas, progress and developments from what each of us was doing in our area of research. One of the themes that began to emerge to shape people’s experience of their discussions together was the perceived difference between theory and practice, or theoreticians and practitioners.

Of course there can be no sharp distinction between people who consider themselves to be practitioners and those who would think of themselves as theoreticians. We all sit more or less comfortably with a different amalgam of theory and practice which is more or less explicitly acknowledged. Nonetheless, clear frustration arose between those who wanted to talk ‘practically’, sometimes about how ‘useful’ what they were doing was or was not, and those who took up these ‘practical’ expressions as a way of further theorising. To over-draw the dynamic, those who might predominantly understand themselves to be practitioners were frustrated that we could not be clearer about what we were trying to achieve and how this would be taken up in a practical way by stakeholders, and why theoreticians always seemed to answer a question with another question. While on the other hand, those who might predominantly think of themselves as theoreticians wondered out loud how it was possible to work without a theory of what one was doing, even if mostly implicit, and counselled against the drive in many contemporary organisations to ‘deliver’ things without stopping to question what things and why. 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

It’s not about the system II

The different responses the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the leader of the Opposition David Cameron to the current MPs’ expenses scandal is an interesting one. The Prime Minister keeps repeating his commitment to reforming ‘the system’ which he says is a bad one. He recongises it is a bad one, everyone recognises it’s a bad one, so we should just change the system. Cameron, meanwhile, has carpeted all his MPs and told them that if their expense claims don’t stack up then they should repay the money or cease to be a Conservative MP.


In portraying the situation as a systemic failure the Prime Minister seems to be glossing over the fact that even with the system that exists, which by no stretch of the imagination could be interpreted as supporting some of the behaviour that has been reported, some MPs have behaved very modestly and others outrageously. There is no such thing as a system that is distinct from the daily actions and  choices of human beings. Simply interacting with others in our lives we are obliged to make ethical choices, system or no system. When interpreting a set of rules which have evolved over time, some MPs have clearly understood them to mean that they claim almost what they wanted to, while others have acted more modestly.  One could take the position that MPs who have claimed minimally are only doing what they should and need not be praised. But in an environment where the majority of people are acting to interpret the rules to their maximum benefit it is hard to stand against the crowd and do what you think is right. There will have been a strong group tendency to conform.

So to judge between the two leaders and how they have responded to the situation they have found themselves in, irrespective of their motivation and their own personal integrity, it seems clear that Cameron has acted much more decisively and has put his finger on the ethical issue. Rather than blaming an abstract ‘system’ as if this absolves  personal behaviour, Cameron has called for changes in the rules and has tackled each of his colleagues on their personal spending at the same time.

Tying ourselves up in knots – performance management

This posting examines the thinking that underpins the idea of performance management

A number of not-for-profits have  adopted from the private sector the practice of setting Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs, not just for one aspect of the work they are undertaking, but as a means of assessing the activities of the entire organisation. There is a tendency also to construe these as specifiable in advance and quantifiable, reducing the work of the organisation to things that can be counted, and are therefore ‘measurable’. Although there is nothing wrong with counting things, this can sometimes be a poor and reduced substitute for assessing the quality of interventions which are aimed at bringing about social development with people. In previous posts I have been suggesting that when we work together we begin to understand what it is we are trying to achieve differently: even a few weeks into a development project we can begin to understand how limited was our original understanding of what we thought we were going to do.

Exactly the same kind of thinking underpins standard management practice across all organisational sectors in the management of individuals, a process which has come to be known as ‘performance management’. Just as the management of the work is construed as being subject to laws of predictability and control, so staff, as agents acting to further the work are appraised according to their ability to fulfil individual and group objectives which nest within organisational objectives. Most not-for-profits have established supervisory processes where managers will sit down with their line management reports and establish annual work objectives for which staff members are then ‘held accountable’. Personal objectives are thought to be logically derived from organisational objectives. As the Harvard Business Essentials guide to performance management (2006) puts it:

Every company, every operating unit, and every employee needs goals and plans for achieving them…The real power of these cascading goals is their alignment with the purposes of the organisation. Every employee in this arrangement should understand his or her goals, how assigned activities advance the goals of the unit, and how the unit’s activities contribute to the strategic objective of the enterprise. Thus, goal alignment focuses all the energy of the business on the things that matter most. (2006: 5)

This is an excellent example of systems thinking, which takes for granted organisation as whole, where individual performance management is a logical extension of setting organisational objectives. All staff members are to align themselves with the organisational mission within a linear concept of time (see the posting on different theories of time below). The suggestion is that the organisational course is pre-determined, and therefore managerial intervention should be aimed at correcting the activities of staff to keep them ‘on track’. The behaviour of individual members of staff are supposed to be visible at a distance by senior managers. Depending on the degree of sophistication of the performance management process, not-for-profits sometimes develop criteria which claim to assess competences, sometimes expressed in the term ‘behaviours’, a word derived from cognitive psychology, which lay claim to being objective measures of gauging staff performance. These behaviours and competences are in turn sub-systems of individual performance which can be gauged and measured.

I have encountered a frequent complaint from staff in organisations who feel that the annual encounter over the fulfilment of objectives is a lifeless and pointless exercise. Often the job has moved on and changed so much that the objectives are no longer relevant. Rather than focusing on what the worker is doing, the conversation hinges on the question as to why previously set objectives have not been achieved.

I have one organisation’s performance management process in front of me, which I will anonymise, and which identifies five ‘behaviours and attributes’ which are supposed to be logically derived from the organisation’s vision and mission. These are commitment, creativity, communication, collaboration and thinking. It is an interesting indication of the self-replicating and hegemonic intentions of such performance management schemes that in this particular example staff can show commitment by their acceptance of the performance management process: “Commitment: Demonstrates strong belief in the values that underpin X organisation. “Walks the talk”, prepared for performance to be measured by these values”.

To perform well means that you have to be prepared to be judged to perform well according to performance management criteria.

In an environment where there is competition between not-for-profits for funds, or where there is a greater focus on how tax revenues are being translated into public services, managers in such organisations are legitimately asking themselves how they can invite their employees to contribute to making a greater difference to the work that the organisation is attempting to do. However, the dominant way of thinking which frames this invitation is conditioned by the belief in control and alignment with pre-determined objectives. At the same time that employees are encouraged to align and conform, they are also, and perhaps ironically, invited to be creative and innovative.

I suggest this as a kind of double bind given that the idea of innovation and creativity suggests elements of surprise and the unexpected which management methods based in concepts of predictably and control seem intent on managing away. Performance management can feel like tying ourself up in knots.