Authenticity is a myth, planning is abstract idealism, facilitation is a fool’s game, and don’t even mention mindfulness.
As a natural-born masochist, I enjoy having my assumptions shattered. That’s what I do in my spare time. So a few months ago I went to a two day workshop on Complexity Science. Searching for interesting approaches to dialogue and meaningful conversations, I had fallen upon Ralph Stacey’s assertion that “Organisations are ongoing patterns of relating between people,” visible as “conversational processes.” Much of his early work in the 1990s was inspired by complexity science, and Stacey was famous for his ‘complexity diagram’ distinguishing the complex from the chaotic.
In recent years the work of Stacey and his colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire have coalesced under the ugly title of Complex Responsive Processes. Professor Christopher Mowles leads a doctoral program at the University of Hertfordshire and was offering a two day workshop in Sydney, hosted by the consulting group ‘10,000 Hours’. Professor Mowles spent most of the introductory session debunking conventional management thinking, such as the following propositions:
- Management is a stable body of knowledge
- Management practice is universally applicable (you can move from biscuits to banking, without knowing anything about the specific subject matter)
- Management can bring about wholesale change, and can shape ‘culture’
- Management theory is evidence-based
- Organisations can be considered as a whole made up of parts – each of which can be broken up and analysed.
- There is an objective standpoint from which to analyse an organization – one can analyse it, as it from outside.
- Change has a linear causality – if we do this thing, then this change can be achieved.
- We are all rationalists, who leave politics at the door when we go to work
The underlying assumption is that organisations can be predicted and controlled. They can’t. The debunking was salutary, indeed bracing. As someone who feels a little sheepish teaching professionals about team dynamics, active listening, performance management, facilitation and collaboration, I notice the attraction of management fads (note the recent explosion of management books on ‘authenticity’ and ‘mindfulness’ – valuable pearls of wisdom getting turned into cookie-cutter recipes). We proffer unproven advice about social interactions, and quote famous ‘leaders’ (how is it that so many events get an appearance from Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King?). Most comments are well-intentioned, and all appeal to people’s better natures. Yet there is some dishonesty in it. Progress is not inevitable, people make poor choices, our capacity for self-delusion is surprisingly extensive, and we have a systematic bias in our judgements to be more generous to ourselves than to others. There is a lot less predictability and control possible in human interactions than we would hope.
The most disconcerting disillusionment was about culture change in organisations, for those of us who have built professional practices with an insistent focus on improving culture.
“The talk about corporate culture tends to be optimistic, even messianic, about top managers molding cultures to suit their strategic ends”
“As the idea of culture has migrated from anthropology to organizational theory, so it has become highly instrumentalized and reified. It is another example of the hubris of managerialism, which claims to be able to analyse, predict and control the intangible, and with the result that it can bring about the opposite of what it intends. In other words, with the intention of ensuring that employees are more committed to their work and are more productive, repeated culture change programmes can have the effect of inducing cynicism or resistance in staff … With an insistence that staff align their values with those of the organization, what may result is gaming strategies on the part of staff to cover over what they really think and feel.”(Managing in Uncertainty: Complexity and the paradoxes of everyday organizational life)
However, there was nothing too surprising in all of this. The academic enterprise requires debunking of other theorists. And Chris acknowledged the irony that his sharpest barbs were reserved for those critical theorists closest to his positions.
He introduced an alternative paradigm from complexity science that the Hertfordshire group have applied to social interactions. Some themes:
- order and stability arises without a single locus of control
- change does not proceed in a linear, planned and predictable way
- population-wide affects arise from local behaviors (though local behavior is constrained by global influences)
- ‘emergence’ (the birth of new patterns of behavior) is the norm, not planning. It is happening all the time.
From the perspective of a professional facilitator, there are some exciting and profound insights from this way of thinking. Chris acknowledged that this is no longer ‘science’ but thinking by analogy from complexity science. Here are a few I have gleaned from further reading:
- Change doesn’t come from abstract idealising, but in the daily exploration of similarities and differences as people cooperate and compete in the workplace.
- Conversation is the site of interactions that create and recreate meaning. “The activity of conversation itself is the key process through which forms of organizing are dynamically sustained and changed.”
- The work of organizational change consists not of designing new structures but of introducing new themes into the organizational conversation in the hope that they will amplify and disseminate.
- Leadership can be better conceived of as participation within a collaborative sense-making process rather than a separate sense-providing function.
I was keen to see how the CRP approach came alive. On the second day Chris offered an experiential session, and participants were invited to talk about our experiences from the previous day. Chris offered only two rules. He would announce the time that we would start, and the time we would stop. I loved that, the least guided facilitation I may have ever done. However, there were some subtle hints about more or less appropriate mindsets from our previous sessions. We should be alive to our present interactions, noticing feelings and intentions, and acknowledge that we sit within certain power relations (gender, class, social status) that influence us though do not exhaustively determine our choices. Every now and then he offered a ‘teaching reflection’.
Our conversation slowly grew more raw and more engaging as people offered more challenging reflections on each other’s views and more vulnerability about their own struggles. From one close colleague to another: “You are always hiding behind theory, stay in the now, give up your dot points”. For me, the breakthrough moment was when one participant shared some very challenging feedback with another (“Yesterday, I really didn’t want to talk with you, sitting next to me, you wittered on and on about shallow meaningless stuff at the start of the session”). The feedback was managed reasonably well, but I felt the offer allowed me to be more expressive and honest in my own comments.
So, on reflection, what did I learn from Professor Mowles?
- To give up on tired and ineffective injunctions to change in organisations, and the assumption that such changes can be readily planned and executed through deliberate means.
- Social interactions are complex, non-linear, unpredictable
- Conventional managerial thinking can be distorting, even manipulative, especially as it most often elides power relationships
- That crucial and important insights are available in day-to-day conversations. And power is revealed or just present in all social interactions.
- That in our complex lives we are confronted by multiple paradoxes, and there is some wisdom in just sitting with these uncertainties.
- That meetings without agendas might be a valuable platform for more meaningful conversations.
- That the future is one of the most challenging paradoxes. We are often too optimistic about planning and solution-finding, assuming the future can be ‘managed’. And we too readily take our idealistic abstractions about the future, as truth.
Acknowledging the irony of this last point, if there was some frustration with the workshop it was about how it is possible to apply these subtle and complex themes in our professional lives.
Mowles and Stacey are insistent with cautions against glib proferrings of practical tools, tips, methods, advice, frameworks, two dimensional diagrams, and planning schemes for managing complexity. But do we go naked into the maelstrom, or are there some useful gleanings from these critical reflections that would benefit we practical folks who engage directly and day-to-day with people and problems, in non-academic contexts? And do not require an in-depth study of Dewey, Foulkes, Elias before we make our next move?
Chris acknowledged this challenge in a later blog, responding to a colleague’s request from the Sydney workshop:
“There is an old saying that one should not only tear down, but must also know how to build up; a commonplace constantly employed by cheery and superficial people who are uncomfortably confronted with an activity which demands a decision from them. This way of thinking is in place where something is superficially settled or is denied out of stupid inclination; otherwise, though, it is unintelligible. For one is not always tearing down to build again; on the contrary, one tears things down eagerly in order to gain free space for light and air, which appear as it were, as though by themselves, wherever some obstructive object is removed. When one looks matters right in the face and treats them in an upright manner, then nothing is negative, but all is positive, to use the old saw.”
Is his refusal of this challenge itself a bit glib? My belated conclusion was to think that Chris is inviting deeper reflection upon our day to day practice. But this is generic advice. Reflective practice has many parents, not just CRP.
And CRP offers no specific paradigm or lens from which to make judgements or interpretations. Just an invitation to acknowledge complexity, and be cautious of simplifications. Mowles encourages us to return, perhaps with less illusions, to the messy, immersive, political, conflictual interactions that are everyday organisational life.
Some more quotes:
“I explored the importance of politics and power for the consultant who becomes a temporary participant in the patterning of relations and discussion in any organisation into which they are invited. I also offered a critique of the idea of a consultant or manager as someone who somehow stands outside this patterning and by being objective can offer some kind of ‘diagnosis’ of what is ‘really going on’. …As an alternative I started to argue, drawing particularly on the work of Norbert Elias, that both consultants and managers are forming and being formed by the web of relations into which they are acting, and are constrained in what they are able to understand and do.” Rethinking Management
“In all domains of life we struggle with the stable instability of the living world. The manager’s task is to make the best sense possible of the complex responsive processes of relating, making the full use of the resources available to him or her. These include the mess, the ambiguity, contradictions and paradoxes which arise from trying to get things done with other people.” Managing in Uncertainty: Complexity and the paradoxes of everyday organizational life