Ralph Stacey's Agreement & Certainty Matrix
A method to select the appropriate management
actions in a complex adaptive system based on the degree of certainty and level
of agreement on the issue in question.
The art of management and leadership is having an array of approaches and being aware of when to use which approach. Ralph Stacey proposed a matrix to help with this art by identifying management decisions on two dimensions: the degree of certainty and the level of agreement.
1) Close To Agreement, Close To Certainty
Much of the management literature and theory addresses
the region on thematrix which is close to certainty and close to agreement. In this
region, we use techniques which gather data from the past and use that to predict the
future. We plan specific paths of action to achieve outcomes and monitor the actual
behavior by comparing it against these plans. This is sound management practice for issues
and decisions that fall in this area. The goal is to repeat what works to improve
efficiency and effectiveness.
2) Far From Agreement, Close To Certainty
Some issues have a great deal of certainty about how outcomes are created but high
levels of disagreement about which outcomes are desirable. Neither plans nor shared
mission are likely to work in this context. Instead, politics become more important.
Coalition building, negotiation, and compromise are used to create the organization's
agenda and direction.
3) Close To Agreement, Far From Certainty
Some issues have a high level of agreement but not much
certainty as to the cause and effect linkages to create the desired outcomes. In these
cases, monitoring against a preset plan will not work. A strong sense of shared mission or
vision may substitute for a plan in these cases. Comparisons are made not against plans
but against the mission and vision for the organization. In this region, the goal is to
head towards an agreed upon future state even though the specific paths cannot be
4) Anarchy: Far From Agreement, Far From Certainty
Situations where there are very high levels of
uncertainty and disagreement, often result in a breakdown or anarchy. The traditional
methods of planning, visioning, and negotiation are insufficient in these contexts. One
personal strategy to deal with such contexts is avoidance - avoiding the issues that are
highly uncertain and where there is little disagreement. While this may be a protective
strategy in the short run, it is disastrous in the long run. This is a region that
organizations should avoid as much as possible.
5) The Edge of Chaos (The Zone of Complexity)
There is a large area on this diagram which lies
between the anarchy region and regions of the traditional management approaches. Stacey
calls this large center region the zone of complexity - others call it the edge of chaos.
In the zone of complexity the traditional management approaches are not very effective but
it is the zone of high creativity, innovation, and breaking with the past to create new
modes of operating.
As a professor in a business school, I am aware that we
spend much of our time teaching how to manage in areas (1), (2) and (3). In these regions,
we can present models which extrapolate from past experience and thereby can be used to
forecast the future. This is the hallmark of good science in the traditional mode. When we
teach approaches, techniques and even merely a perspective in area (4) the models seem
'soft' and the lack of prediction seems problematic.
We need to reinforce that managers and leaders of
organizations need to have a diversity of approaches to deal with the diversity of
contexts. Stacey's matrix honors what we already have learned but also urges us to move
with more confidence into some of the areas which we understand intuitively but are
hesitant to apply because they do not appear as 'solid.'
Before using this aide: Do you have
diversity in the level of complexity (or the extent of agreement or certainty) in the
issues or problems your organization faces? Do you have sufficient diversity in the
approaches you take for these different contingencies?
After using this aide: How can you adapt this
approach to make it your own?
A co-researcher and I were studying a non-profit
organization in an action learning mode. We observed and worked along side the board
during a full year of meetings. They were very keen on complexity science and its
applications to their work.
After a while, my co-researcher and I became
increasingly concerned about the board's approach to issues. They seemed to complexify
some very simple issues and drop some of the more challenging and fundamental issues
facing the agency. Meanwhile the staff were getting increasingly frustrated with the board
and began to over-simplify issues and seemed to want to avoid any creative suggestions
from the board.
At a board-staff retreat, we presented them with a
simplified version of the Stacey matrix. We used only four categories of issues - simple,
complicated and complex issues which were all 'manageable' to some extent and anarchy
which was to be avoided. We divided the participants into five groups and gave them a
number of sheets of plastic film which they could write on and post on the walls. We asked
them to think through the issues and decisions of the past year and sort them into three
categories - simple, complicated and complex. Each issue was written on a separate page.
They were then asked to post them on a wall under the three headings - simple, complicated
What we discovered
was there was almost no disagreement about the issues and how they should be sorted. All
of the groups came to the same (or very similar) conclusions. We then asked them to think
about the management techniques or approaches they had used for each issue. After a while
we heard laughter from several of the groups. They became aware of how they had used
simple approaches for complex problems and vice versa. We added to this by reading
excerpts from the transcripts from some of the meetings we had attended.
The staff began to volunteer their insights into the
board's behavior and their reaction to it. The staff commented that they could now see why
the board was at times trying to push them into the zone of complexity. The board could
see why the staff wanted to cut off discussion and generation of new ideas on some of the
simpler issues. They also commented on how the matrix did not represent a rigid landscape
rather that issues moved from one zone to another in part due to external conditions and
in part due to the participants' perspectives on an issue.
The result was an honoring of a diversity of
approaches. They could see the value others added to the array of issues facing the
The next stage was to ask them to do the same exercise
with the coming issues or issues that they were expecting to address in the coming year.
Again the exercise showed remarkable overlap between the participants as to which category
an issue belonged. But they also began to question their own quick consensus. Should this
issue be as simple as they had suggested? Could they be missing an opportunity by not
pushing it, at least for a while, into the zone of complexity?
Their story is still unfolding, but it showed how the
matrix was a useful aide in opening up discussion and creating opportunities for them to
examine the management approaches they often took for granted.
Dr. Stephen Larned is the Vice President of
Medical Affairs for the Maine Medical Center. He has found the Stacey matrix very helpful
in his work. He began by using the matrix to make sense of past events. Then he used to
help with current events. Now he has revised the matrix to make it work best for him to
help with current and future issues.
His revision is a diagonal line through the matrix on
which he has placed seven different management interventions. Each of the seven approaches
fits with the degree of certainty and agreement present in the context. The role of the
leader shifts quite dramatically as you move along the diagonal. The matrix shown below is
Larned's adaptation. The chart after the matrix are seven actual or hypothetical cases
that Larned has used to depict each approach.
Larned's value added in this is two-fold. First he
demonstrates the value of 'owning' your own models. Second he shows specific and concrete
examples of how his management and leadership style need to vary by context.
Moving from Agreement & Certainty
Modified from Ralph D. Stacey:
"Complexity and Creativity in Organizations"
Management Approaches in
Modified from Ralph D. Stacey: "Complexity and Creativity in Organizations"
Copyright © 2001, Brenda J.
Zimmerman. Schulich School of Business,