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Notes on meeting with Prof Ralph Stacey, Professor of Management and Director of the Complexity and Management Centre at the University of Hertfordshire.

Thursday 19 February 2009, Radisson Hotel, Tottenham Court Road, London

Ralph is author of a series of books about complexity and management, notable Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations: Learning and Knowledge Creation (Routledge 2001, http://tinyurl.com/cy8uyo). I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a well-argued positioning of complexity and it's consequences in opposition to 'mainstream' approaches – both classical cognitive and social constructionist.

Ralph had not come across SF before and asked me to enlighten him. I did so briefly, and he saw quite quickly the possible connections with his own work. As a former group therapist himself he was very quick to pick up on the differences between the language used during the group therapy session (often everyday) with the theoretical and interpretive language used by the therapists afterwards to attempt to understand what was going on.

His own writings promote the idea of a Transformative Teleology (human action is towards an unknown future which is under perpetual construction by human action itself). He contrasts this with the mainstream thinking of Rationalist Teleology (movement towards goals set by autonomous reasoning humans) and Formative Teleology (the process of unfolding a whole already enfolded in the nature, principles and rules of interaction). Note that neither of the second two allows for the full experience of novelty and surprise that we find in the world, both being a process of either people being in control or people being controlled by an (existing) structure.

This view is not (unsurprisingly) widely accepted in the world of organisations. (I can relate to that...) Ralph thinks it is SO different to the accepted paradigms and working assumptions of managers and academics that it's way beyond the scope of what is normally considered as 'up for discussion'. However, he is not to be put off, and continues to write and speak with managers about this view. He is not particularly seeking practical outcomes (for which SF might be useful) but to get people thinking afresh about their experience of the world and how it fits or not with the assumptions they make or are compelled to use. He observes that when he speaks to groups of managers within organization, about one third of the participants get very angry, one third are politely interested and one third find it very stimulating and thought-provoking.

Ralph finds it difficult to get published in the regular management journals for this reason, and has found it more fruitful to do his own series of books with Routledge (Complexity and Emergence in Organisations series http://www.routledge.com/books/series/Complexity+and+Emergence+in+O...). He says he can do and publish a whole book in less time that it takes to argue with peer reviewers!

We pondered about universities wanting to be 'business facing' and (therefore?) getting caught up in a whirlpool of targets, productivity, trying to produce students who met certain standards...when the very premise of his work is that this is not possible. The act of managers 'setting targets' is a subjugating gesture (he writes about gestures being part of the continuing emergence of gesture-response through which the world is continually remade). It's part of reducing the possibilities – people will then meet the targets, while letting things go in other areas with corresponding unintended consequences. Eg investment banks have targets for 'number of deals' without any stipulation of what the deals should be, which may be a part of the mess we are currently in.

The opposite of a 'subjugating' gesture? A 'liberating' gesture in the extreme, or perhaps a facilitative or invitational gesture. This has connections with my own current work on the leader as host, where invitations are seen as powerful and important.

Ralph commented that the impression of SF he had formed during our discussion was different from the one he had from a quick glance at The Solutions Focus book. I am not surprised about that, it's something I have noticed too. The book doesn't quite do it, at least in connection with this rather subtle angle. But our presentations and training do better.

A second edition of the book Complex Responsive Processes is under way, featuring extracts fo some of Ralph's other books and new material. I'll be looking out for it. Ralph invited me to join with an occasional discussion conference which is organised once a year - this year in Dublin (not a bad place to go!).

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Thank you so much, Mark, for this posting!

This for me is a great eye-opener: "human action is towards an unknown future which is under perpetual construction by human action itself".
This - in my understanding - is the background of the "empirical process control model": The empirical model of process control provides and exercises control through frequent inspection and adaptation for processes that are imperfectly defined and generate unpredictable and unrepeatable outputs. This "empirical process control" is used in the area of "agile project management", especially for software projects. Ken Schwaber created "Scrum", one of the widely known frameworks for agile project management, and he explicitly references to this "empirical process control".

And of course - the "reaction" of managers confronted in presentations with this sort of "agility" is similar to that what Ralph Stacey says: "about one third of the participants get very angry, one third are politely interested and one third find it very stimulating and thought-provoking".
I understand this: Accepting that in a complex world processes are imperfectly defined and generate unpredictable and unrepeatable outputs means to rethink the "art of management" fundamentally.

At the same time NOW we witness one big "whole world life experiment" how complexity looks like... starting with some troubles with sub prime loans... leading to "burn down" billions of billions of dollars... How far are we able to learn from this?

Well, some weeks ago I found an outcome of a neuroscience study (sorry - I cannot find it again...) saying, that missing orientation, missing structure and missing feeling to be able to "steer" leads to depression. If the human neurobiology works in such a way IMHO the question arises, how far humans are able to deal with complexity...

Ralph Stacey's idea: "human action is towards an unknown future which is under perpetual construction by human action itself" for me also fits to the "Social Construction of Reality" by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann: "Persons and groups interacting together in a social system form, over time, concepts or mental representations of each other's actions, and these concepts eventually become habituated into reciprocal roles played by the actors in relation to each other."

Thanks again for your inspiring posting!
Hans-Peter
Hi Hans-Peter

Thanks - great response. Do please keep looking for the neuroscience study. Stacey is quite critical of a lot of the literature on social construction, which he has read (refreshingly) carefully - it's well worth reading his book as mentioned above. He goes back a lot to the classic work of GH Mead and Norbert Elias.

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