Reflecting on Reflecting

Complex Responsive Processes of Relating

I spent a day recently at a workshop entitled “Introduction to Complex Responsive Processes of Relating”, run by Chris Mowles, Professor of Complexity and Management at Hertfordshire Uni’s Business School.  Run by him, but giving a lot of time in the day for discussion with the 30 or so other attendees, a mixture of academics and practitioners, with far more of the latter.

CRPR is the result of an intellectual journey travelled by Ralph Stacey, (together with a number of fellow travellers including Chris Mowles) who began as economist, acquired an interest in complexity sciences from a quantitative modelling perspective and then became attracted to additional insights that can be derived from social sciences, pragmatic philosophy, and ultimately in group analytic psychotherapy.

As a discipline I find it curiously belligerent and defensive simultaneously.  It draws attention to the limitations in orthodox management but is very limited in what it offers to replace it.  Based on attending a whole one-day workshop and, I admit, doing a bit of reading around over the last few years, I think it does itself a disservice as a result.  


In its more extreme forms it appears to suggest that orthodox management, the notions of plans, hierarchy, structure, targets, control is useless.  I don’t think I know a manager who thinks that any of the conventional “levers” of management is faultless, and many of my favourite writers about the practice of management eg Kotter and Hunt, are very clear about the day to day realities of “what general managers really do”.  

I suspect that it is railing against the syllabus of some of the more limited MBA courses, and in fairness I do come across people – especially in the private sector – who appear to give more credence to the methods than those methods deserve.  I think that anyone who has done any mathematical modelling and who is excruciatingly aware of the limitations imposed by the assumptions, or anyone who has done a good MBA (I consider myself fortunate in that respect) with lecturers who are practitioners and who bring in real world messiness through good use of case studies, would not find anything exceptional in the criticisms.  They would however point out that however flawed some of these tools may be in theory, they actually turn out to have some use in practice, even if only in the sense that “plans are useless, but planning is essential”.  


CRPR replaces, or I would prefer to say augments, such thinking with a set of insights from sociology and philosophy to which I am much less close than I am to the quantitative part of Stacey’s journey.  There are ideas about the role of the individual versus society and the notion that the “versus” I just wrote is a false dichotomy.  Individuals form and are formed by society, whether that “society” is a project team or a company, or indeed a society.  Change arises as a result of conversations – and negotiations – between people.

In flipping from a mode of thought in which reality is knowable to one in which reality is emphatically not knowable, the discipline appears to lose confidence in its relevance.  It rejects the notion that it has tools and approaches to offer in practice – it is just a different way of thinking about “what’s really going on”. 

Exploring this in discussion it seems that this is the discipline “getting its retaliation in first” – it doesn’t offer the confident 2 x 2s or alliterative checklists of orthodox management theory.  It offers some reading that people have found useful and the opportunity to talk about it, to give insight.

I’ve always been fond of the principle that “fortune favours the prepared mind” and that “there is nothing as practical as a good theory” so I find this defensiveness inappropriate.


Particularly in the public sector I find that people recognise the reality of the conversational nature of change.  We talk about narrative, meaning the story of the organisation or the place.  The idea of narrative embodies within it the notion of the importance of history, and shaping a future direction, in conversation.  The role of the leader is as storyteller, continually changing the story as new information, or new needs, or crises, come along.  As Charles Handy puts it the “role of the leader is to shape and share a vision that gives point to the work of others”.  I know many local authority chief executives who would identify that notion of their role as much more relevant than the person in a box in the sky pulling levers and adjusting dials. 

I think this also fits very well the evolving ideas around the notion of the 21st century public servant, not as someone who administers a service-giving process but who facilitates, cajoles, and marshals leaders, people, and resources from the community and from the state to the good of those they serve.


I find that this also resonates very well with the journey I have travelled over the last 20 years or so from instinctively accepting the logic of a centralised approach to experiencing the reality of the need for localism.  Complexity is substantially reduced when you’re not trying to solve every problem simultaneously.  When you are just dealing with the issues as they manifest themselves precisely here, or for him or her, it becomes a lot more simple.  The only radical practice I saw when I was a member of the service transformation challenge panel was local and based on colocation, collaboration and human relationships.  The Buurtzorg model of care appears to be further evidence of this.

It’s spectacularly obvious that the Covid-19 response was faster and more relevant the more local it was, and is.

CRPR talks about large scale modelling as “averaging away individuality” and I think this is a good description of the effect of policy prescription at too large a scale.

PRINCE versus Agile

This resonates also with the increasing recognition that with the possible exception of well-defined construction projects, the notion of PRINCE – and in particular the C and the E of “Controlled Environment” are pretty flawed.  We collude in the idea of the predictability and knowability of the process even when repeated examples show that it simply fails to work – that underlying all of the gantt charts and RAG reports people are kind of “making it up as they go along”.  Processes “of the internet-era” such as agile are becoming more prevalent as a much more intentional and explicit process of making it up as we go along.

As an additional point on this, the importance of personal and group reflexivity which emerges from the CRPR journey is to a certain extent codified within the retrospective part of the agile methodology.

The Role of the Practitioner

All of this has some implications for the practitioner, whether that’s an adviser/consultant or someone within the organisation.

It calls on the practitioner to be aware of their position in the interconnected network of power relationships.  I don’t think this will be a staggering insight for many practitioners, though it may have something to offer in terms of how one does this.

I also quite liked the notion of acknowledging that what one does is more of “craft” than a practice.  That notion is much better at describing what I find to be tacit rather than explicit knowledge in how I do what I do.  And I think this is true for others – when I am advising people about organisational change I find it helpful to recognise that senior leaders weren’t exposed to ideas such as agile while they were “learning their craft” – that phrase seems to land better than “learning how to be a manager”.

Another quote from the day which I liked was “you are a researcher in the organisation in which you are working”.  This resonated.  I often like to say to the folk in FutureGov that every project we do is, or could be, an Organisational Discovery.

Reflecting on Reflecting

Yet another quote from the day is “we are only aware of our prejudices in the encounter with difference”.  As I write this shortly after the wilful and unnecessary death of George Floyd at the knee of a US police officer it is hard not to read that in the context of racial or class prejudice, and its relevance there would be a blog that others would be able to write better than I.

In the context I mean it here I am reflecting that testing, thinking and learning comes from the consideration of difference.

The personal insight I gained from this is the explicit realisation that one of the major learning opportunities for me in the work I do now is reflecting on the very different roles and contexts that I occupy in my portfolio – from formal leadership roles to advisory ones; from ones that are within the line management of an organisation to those that are in board governance.  I should be able to learn from those differences. It occurs to me that more conscious reflection on that may also help me with context switching, which is much harder when all interactions take place, as now, in lockdown, through exactly the same screen in exactly the same room.

The other thing that I reflect on was the importance of the Group as a place to practice reflexivity – and the realisation that as a one-person organisation I need to seek this out more explicitly.  I would not have had these thoughts or been able to write them down without the breakout group and whole group discussions I enjoyed at the workshop, and that’s quite a useful insight, even if it doesn’t come with a 2×2 attached.

One Comment Add yours

  1. antlerboy - Benjamin P Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on Systems Community of Inquiry.


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