Chris Grieve recommended some access points to Ralph Stacey's thoughts about organisations. (Her e-mail pasted below.). Having read the two articles, I am looking for some help with unpacking them. So I thought I would publish my reply to her and see if we can get some dialogue going.

Dear Chris

Thank you for your recommendations. I have read the two articles and I would like to understand better why you rate them. I remain open to the possibility that there may be some breakthrough ideas which are not yet visible to me, however, I did find they offered some insight into why organisational change almost never happens as intended and seldom (never) endures, even in those rare cases.

He seems to set himself against systems thinking and organisational learning. ("Individuals can't learn in isolation and organisations can never learn."). This is what makes me wonder if I'm missing a paradigm shift. The ideas of complexity and chaos seem to me to illuminate and enhance systems thinking rather than undermine it's validity.

What am I missing?


Dear Folks,

In one of our conversations on Day 1, I agreed to send someone (David? Richard? the group) some references to the Ralph Stacey/Patricia Shaw take on complexity and organisations - i.e., the Complex Responsive Processes view of organisational relating, as opposed to organisations being Complex Adaptive Systems (i.e., socially constructed ideas invented and perpetuated by people rather than real, actual things).

There are two shortish readings and one book that spring to mind.

The first is from 1998 that offers three perspectives of complexity - a good primer for their later thinking:

Griffin, D., Shaw, P. and Stacey, R. (1998) Speaking of Complexity in Management Theory and Practice. Organization, 5(3): 315-339.

The second, from 2003, offers Stacey’s views about reifying and anthropomorphising organisations as if they are things or people and explores the assumptions that are made when we talk about learning in organisations:

Stacey, R. (2003) Learning as an activity of interdependent people. The Learning Organization, 10(6): 325-331.

Finally, Stacey’s text book (a heavy tome) sets out Complex Responsive Processes theory and application, including case studies as used by others in organisations, as well as dismantles (critiques) other approaches to systems (complex or otherwise) to organisations [note - there may be a newer edition that the one I cite from my own bookshelf]:

Stacey, Ralph D. (2007) Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: The Challenge of Complexity. Fifth Edition. Prentice Hall. 480pp.

Enjoy your complex responsive processes discoveries!

Chris G.

Views: 501

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Thanks to Sol Davidson for the following:

I just read your notes on Stacey and complexity etc. and coincidentally shortly after  the email below came through.
I think Stacey's  Complex Responsive Process model is rather wonderfully, if not coincidentally, outlined  in para’s 3,4 & 5 below i.e. our identities and actions are contingent  upon the responsive processes we find ourselves in  (or not as the case may be).
I think Stacey is also saying that organizations are nothing more than the sum of these responsive processes which themselves are always dynamic and in flow. I think Stacey is also saying that the learning of organizations is contingent upon the learning of individuals who learn through complex adaptive responding and that these responsive processes are likely to produce adaptive and functional learning depending upon the degree of trust and anxiety in the environment that the complex responses are taking place within.
Don’t know how to include this in the dialogue space but feel free to include it if you think I’m not completely off the wall here
Best wishes for the New Year

Welcome to Orwell’s hell Bill BonnerBy Bill Bonner, Waterford, Ireland 

This issue was originally published on 20 June 2013 

Travel is tiring. Often, it’s our laptop computer that shows the signs of fatigue first. Yesterday, it got fed up and refused to deliver the mail. We could neither send nor receive mail, from either our laptop or our iPhone, which normally accesses our email account.

We should have been delighted. We were in Ireland. Now we had an excuse not to work. We could pay attention to our surroundings, and enjoy them.

But with no means to contact the outside world, we grew anxious. Who was trying to contact us? What important messages were we missing? And who was monkeying around with our email account?

The root of the problem was that our email provider had noticed some strange behaviour. We were apparently using our account from two places at once. It looked as though we were in Ireland and in the US at the same time. The provider suspected that our account had been hacked. It simply shut down the service.

We still walked and talked, we still took up space and breathed air, but on the internet we ceased to exist. We had disappeared. No forwarding address had been left. We could not communicate with anyone. We could not go onto Amazon and buy anything. We could not make travel arrangements or reserve a table for dinner.

This, of course, raises deep and disturbing questions about the nature of existence. If you do not exist on the internet, do you really exist at all? Do you exist fully?

We pass over those questions and go on to more practical, but no less worrying matters.

We thought, briefly, about putting in a call to the National Security Agency (NSA).

“Hello, I’m hoping you can help us. Our email account stopped working. I’m afraid I may have missed something. And I know you fellas make a habit of recording every communication, whether it is any of your business or not. So, would you mind sending my email from yesterday to another address?”

Upon further reflection, we decided not to make the call. They might have thought we were joking. They don’t appreciate jokes. At least, not jokes at their expense.

Thank you, Sol.  It's a helpful illustration.  I'm still a bit uncomfortable with this though: "I think Stacey is also saying that organizations are nothing more than the sum of these responsive processes"  

I don't disagree.  It's just the 'nothing more' bit.  Complex reflexive processes built pyramids, empires, supersonic aircraft, etc.  Or am I guilty here of 'reifying' organisations, of which Stacey seems to disapprove?  


Hi David,

Thanks for the conversation starter. I'd like to try to say something useful in regard to the first question you posed and in so doing, offer some thoughts about your response to Sol's contribution. Disclaimer alert - offering my limited understanding of Stacey's ideas... not necessarily making an argument that they are 'true'!

In the Introduction to the textbook I cited in my email, Stacey makes some statements he believes to be self-evident about human beings: we live in communities and what human beings do is 'joint activity accomplished through communicative interaction' - i.e., 'joint activity is carried out in ongoing conversation between people in which they negotiate what they are doing and how they are making sense of what they are doing'. He is interested in these dynamics and his theories offer a way of thinking about human dynamics, including how identities are constructed, power is enacted, ideologies and dominant discourses are supported or critiqued. The joint activity of human beings does indeed produce pyramids, empires, etc., but I would argue that Stacey's interests and writings focus on what is going on between human beings while they come together to perform joint activity, not the artefacts or outputs themselves.

He does not reject ideas about complexity or chaos as ways of thinking about human interaction - indeed he draws insights directly from the sciences exploring theses concepts, while at the same time suggesting that even the dominant discourse about complexity needs to be challenged - I.e., the idea that a complex system is somehow external (real?) to the individual actors within it (I include us 'external' consultants as actors within it) and that the whole may be influenced from an external position by individuals.

His interpretation of and insights from complexity sciences suggest that we step away from the idea that an organisation is a system and stop focusing on the individual and instead try the notion that people are 'thoroughly social selves that arise in human interaction', that human interdependence and interaction shape us in the living present - the complex responsive processes of human relating. Out of all these interactions and continual iterations, which happen at a local level (person to person/people), population-wide patterns emerge. This is what he calls organisations - the continual iteration of patterns of discourse and behaviour described as the things people do - e.g., committee meetings, training courses, making and creating stuff, etc. Nobody can step outside of these interactions, nor influence the emerging patterns from an external position (by definition, entering the discourse in any way means you're a part of the patterning of complex responsive processes, regardless of your 'role').

The bottom line, as I interpret what he's saying, is that if you think of organisational life and dynamics in this way (responsive processes at local levels vs systems that can be acted on from a rational, external position), your focus of attention changes, as do your thoughts about what actions to take when trying to make change happen.

Thank you, Chris

Very happy with this ...

a way of thinking about human dynamics, including how identities are constructed, power is enacted, ideologies and dominant discourses are supported or critiqued

and with this ...

Stacey's interests and writings focus on what is going on between human beings while they come together to perform joint activity

Still puzzled by this ...

the dominant discourse about complexity needs to be challenged - I.e., the idea that a complex system is somehow external (real?) to the individual actors within it

External, no, certainly not.  But real, surely.  I found it a thrilling insight, during a group development workshop years ago, to perceive myself as a component of the larger entity, the group, in an organic way and not just as a member of it. Stacey seems to be asking me to surrender that.  

His ... insights ... suggest that we step away from the idea that an organisation is a system and stop focusing on the individual

"stop focusing on the individual"  Absolutely.  

"step away from the idea that an organisation is a system"  Why?  

My understanding of why we should stop focusing on the individual arises from my appreciation that the individual doesn't make sense without the context of the system.  Have you seen Owen Bader's presentation in which he discusses Thomas Thwaites's project?  Thwaites spends months and thousands of pounds trying unsuccessfully to create a 5 Euro toaster from raw materials.  I believe he is saying that the toaster is an emergent property of a complex system (like pyramids and supersonic aircraft).  

So I entirely agree that the interesting bit is not the output but the internal processes and I think I am just struggling to grasp why I need to let go of the idea of a system being real.  

I am sure there is something very important here because I know we have to understand how power works.  


I haven't seen Owen Bader's presentation. I shall take a look.

In the meantime, my take on Stacey's stance against thinking of organisations as systems is he seems to be implying that to think of them as systems is to think of them as things that may be acted upon from outside. He continually uses the words 'pattern' and 'patterning' as alternatives. Perhaps it is a semantic distinction, and the important concept is this notion of local interaction producing emergent patterns at the population (e.g., organisation) level?  You've got me thinking now. I shall scurry back to my references and see if I can dig up anything that might illuminate whether we might take his thoughts about systems with the proverbial pinch of salt!


Right. I'm taking a deep breath and diving into the semantic depths of Stacey....

He asserts that there is no need for concepts such as 'system', indeed the idea of a system outside of individuals 'dissolves' because he shifts away from the idea that people are independent and autonomous towards the idea that people are 'fundamentally and inescapably' interdependent: 'individual selves are formed by social interaction as they form such social interaction at the same time.' 

For him the idea that an organisation is a system is to suggest that 'it' has properties of its own, at a higher or different level than an individual, that can act back on individuals as the cause of their actions. Taking the 'interdependent' route, he dissolves the distinction between individuals and organisations (i.e., in his terms the dominant discourse's 'system') by suggesting that population-wide patterns emerge in local interaction (relating & joint activity) - or the macro emerges in the micro - and that there is no distinction between 'levels'. This requires a different understanding - there are no distinctions between intention and emergence, unpredictability and order, individual or organisation - they are simultaneous, coexistent, not distinct or separate. Organisations are not systems but processes - processes of human interaction that produce patterns of interaction that produce further patterns of interaction.

What we are left with is focusing directly upon the responsive manner in which human persons interact with each other, the interplay of multiple intentions in many local interactions, and that organisational change can only really be understood as an 'articulated desire for the whole population' [e.g., organisation], and this can be understood as one of many gestures within the ongoing conversation and patterning of interactions. So all any one person can do, no matter how powerful a person is (or thinks they are), is engage intentionally and skilfully as they can in local interactions and continue to engage with ongoing consequences as they emerge.

What you describe, David, as your insight and experience of being a part of something larger than yourself, might actually be what Stacey is talking about - boundaries between yourself and the group seemed to dissolve in an organic way, perhaps you were getting a sense of your collective interdependence and the emergent property you were experiencing was not a 'level' per se, but a new 'whole' - even just for a moment/hour/day.

As for power - well, Stacey has much to say about this too as a cornerstone of human relating and dynamics - concepts about power are fundamental to his ideas about communicative interaction. Power is dynamic, relational and an emergent property of our interdependence as people - we are continually enabled and constrained by our expectations and demands of ourselves and others, thus communicative interaction becomes 'power relating as the patterning of enabling and conflicting restraints'. Stacey links ideas about power, ideology and the dynamics of inclusion-exclusion and discusses how these might impact local interaction and population-wide patterns (e.g., strategies) they produce.

First, thanks to all for such thoughtful reflections and erudite content. I'll try to do as well.

I've recently needed to go back to work I haven't looked at in a while, as part of a chapter on gestalt in coaching (psychology). The work is that of some notable biologists and physicists who found themselves interested in human 'systems'. The names of these folk are Maturana and Varela (biology), and Bohm and Capra (physics). I should probably also add Bateson (Gregory, anthropologist I think) and Lewin (Kurt), who was writing in the 40s and was allocated 'sociologist' and 'social psychologist'.

And, as you know (questionnaires will follow one day soon!) I am looking at metacognition in adult learners. The work above links to Stacey because it was important to many conversations when I was working with complexity ideas at the London School of Economics - I think they are foundational works.

So, of all the above extensive bodies of work I'd like to start with an observation that caught my attention the other day, and I found salutory, from Maturana and Varela. It is in a 1998 version of work that dates from 1987 (TheTree of Knowledge - the biological roots of human understanding), where they simply observe, 'Everything said is said by someone'. They also state, 'every reflection, including one on the foundation of human knowledge, invariably takes place in language. . . language is also our starting point, our cognitive instrument, and our sticking point.' And they are very keen on the reciprocal and ongoing process between action and experience: 'the knower and known are nutually specified.' From their work in the 1970s comes the term autopoesis (self-producing), which signifies a view of humans as living systems that constantly and proactively create themselves – so they are both the ‘product’ and the means of production.

I won't add the physicists and Lewin for the time being but happy to do so in due course if there is interest. They do all speak of systems (living systems, for example) and inter-relatedness between parts. And in various ways they also explain how it is that we perceive systems and parts. And they also highlight that the systems that we perceive are much less an objective reality than they are an ongoing processes. . . so, roughly speaking, they would be verbs and not nouns. Organisings, for example, not organisations. This conundrum doesn't arise so much for a non-living organisation that also has interconnected parts, such as a chair.

I suppose things are both particle and wave! Personally I find myself talking about systems although I mean it in a verby, interactional and co-creating way. Systeming, perhaps. Being embodied, as we are (I seem to think!), has all sorts of curiosities about it.

Warm regards,


I very much appreciate this dialogue.  It does take time though, doesn't it?  How do you organise yourselves?  

I thought I knew what erudite means but felt it worth checking.  Seems it comes from 'not rude'.  

I'm reasonably happy to substitute 'pattern' or 'process' for 'system', although push back strongly on the assertion that systems aren't real or don't have properties of their own.  

I think there may still be an important gap in my understanding though as I'm mystified by the 'dominant discourse'.  In my mind, the dominant discourse is the one that holds that a hierarchical pyramid is an effective ( the best?  the only?) structure for an organisation and that voting is a satisfactory decision-making process.  

Insight into inter-dependency and the unpredictability of outcomes has separated the systems thinkers into a 'minority discourse'.  Ideas of complexity and chaos further illuminate the worldview of the systems thinker without making them 'wrong'.  

"So all any one person can do, no matter how powerful a person is (or thinks they are), is engage intentionally and skilfully as they can in local interactions and continue to engage with ongoing consequences as they emerge."  

I wholly agree with this but cling to the notion of a system as an extremely useful idea:

  • the interpersonal dynamics of groups and systems (Schutz)
  • one of the four pillars of 'Profound Knowledge' (Deming)
  • the Theory of Constraints (Goldratt)
  • the 'Fifth Discipline' of the learning organisation (Senge)

Seems to me that all these are challenging the dominant discourse.  I don't think Einstein came along and said Newton was wrong, did he?  Do I misread Stacey when I hear him saying this?  I believe this is why I feel rubbed up the wrong way.  (Very interesting sensation, by the way, as I know my own challenges to others can sound like this.)  

I read Julie as weaving a bridge over this gulf.  Is that right?  



An interesting example of the complex responsive process of human interaction, methinks!

As a related aside, my review of Stacey's 2010 book, Complexity and Organizational Reality, appeared in the Spring 2010 edition of e-O&P. However, there doesn't appear to be a link to it on the AMED site. As I mentioned in the article, my own views differ from Stacey's only 'at the edges', despite their different origins.

It's important to recognize that, as Chris G says, Stacey is describing what he sees as the (complex social) dynamics of human interaction. He is not prescribing a particular way of leading/ managing, or arguing that the adoption of a particular approach, model, process, or whatever will ensure success. 

By the way, the Sixth Edition of his textbook was published in November 2010. As always, it includes significant changes from the earlier editions. This latest edition contains a fulsome endorsement on the back cover - from me. What more proof do you need?!

Cheers, Chris

Reply to Discussion



Latest Activity

Bob MacKenzie updated an event
Anna Johnson posted a blog post
Sep 12
Abdul Jabbar updated their profile
Sep 11
ken Nishikawa is now a member of The AMED Network
Sep 11

O&P back issues

O&P back issues now for sale. 

We have a rich library of O&P issues and individual articles in electronic format going back to 1994, just waiting for you. Copy of order form for back issues of e-O&P in MS Word format.


Make sure you can reach the Full AMED Members' page or the O&P Subscribers' page to download the latest edition.

Not yet a member or subscriber?
Click here for synopses of recent editions.

© 2020   Created by AMED Admin.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service