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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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3 Clarifying purposefulness

Research conducted by Ralph Stacey (1993) shows how business managers often behave in a way contrary to espoused policies and expectations. Rather than adhering to conventions of long-term planning, and accepted orthodoxies and procedures, they actually tend to make a succession of unrelated, adaptive responses to changing situations as the need arises. This is often, and rather disparagingly, labelled muddle-through or crisis management but can result in adaptive action and organisation.

In a study of nine companies, Stacey shows attempts to overcome ambiguity through planning, conflict, paradox and uncertainty failed completely except over short time periods. Yet, at least seven of the companies made significant shifts in how they operated despite the failure of their attempts to predict and plan. All change emerged unexpectedly and unintentionally. As Stacey observes, ‘The changes occurred, not because we were planning, but because we were learning in a manner provoked by the very ambiguity and conflict we were trying to remove.’ Managers have to strike an appropriate balance between too much and too little control. They have to balance two tendencies within their organisations, programmes, or projects. Too much control and blueprint-based planning leads to an inability to respond to change, or to an unexpected eventual ossification. Too little control, diversification, initiative, empowerment, client orientation, informal communication and so on, leads to fragmentation and disintegration. Success, it is argued, lies somewhere between these extremes.

Stacey's perspective is not a strategy for avoiding planning. It allows space for creative conflict, negotiation, interaction and learning wherein assumptions may be dashed but the seeds of new perspectives and formulations may be nurtured. Which seeds eventually develop and emerge depends on politics and negotiation and on the skills of those promoting, and inhibiting, the new perspectives. Systemic approaches in the hands of skilled and aware practitioners contribute to the surfacing of all of these issues.

I use these outcomes from Stacey's research to make clear that when I speak about purposeful behaviour I am not equating it with behaviour normally associated with blueprint planning or other forms of purely rational planning. Purposeful behaviour is willed behaviour and this may be triggered by actions, which on reflection, we regard as rational or emotional.

Another key point from Stacey's research is that too much control or attempts to intervene according to any pre-conceived view and necessarily partial view, or blueprint plan, stunts the process of self-organisation. Change and adaptation in human institutions occur through social interaction. Apparent fixes can inhibit the emergence of organisation and relationships that are most appropriate to any particular situation, such that solutions arrived at in this way are likely to be short-lived. It is in this sense that I see creating the space for spontaneous behaviour and emergent phenomena as a key element in managing for self-organisation.

A cartoon of a man behind a desk.He is contained in a bubble.
Figure 6Inhibiting the emergence of relationships.