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Book Summary:

Managing the Unknowable:
Strategic Boundaries Between Order and Chaos in Organizations

By Ralph D. Stacey

1992, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA

ABSTRACT - Stacey maintains that the old maps are no good because we are sailing through uncharted waters. It is impossible to predict long term changes in the future for a system. Answers and direction emerge. A manager must be aware of them.

Key Point:  Contrast complexity oriented perspectives with traditional management perspectives.

Traditional

Complexity

Following Maps Discovering route and destination through the journey
Decisions made by logical, analytical process Decisions by exploratory, experimental process of intuition and reasoning by analogy
Managers drive and control strategy Managers create favorable conditions for complex learning
Building competitive advantages and intrapreneurship Innovation and accelerated organizational learning
Stick to what you know and adapt to the environment Creative interaction with other actors in the environment
Apply same general prescriptions to many situations New mental model for each situation
Future thinking Thinking in the here and now
Analysis and quantification Qualitative, irregular patterns
Separate parts Whole interconnected system
Outcomes Learning process and mental models
Minimize dysfunctional group dynamics Effects of group dynamics on thinking and learning
Individual expert or visionary Personalities, group dynamics, and learning behaviors of managers
Stable, consensus based on "rational" reasoning Creative instability of contention and dialogue. Consensus is periodic.
Condemnation of messy real-life decision making. Ignoring the process Examining, understanding, and dealing with organizational defense mechanisms and game playing
Group learning is a simple process with outcomes Continual questioning of how people are learning
Problem solving Opening up of contentious and ambiguous issues
Objectives and visions Developing agendas of issues, challenges, aspirations and intentions
Intention to secure some fixed thing Intention to discover what, why, and how to achieve
Achieve a particular future state Be creative and deal with what comes

Self Managing Teams vs. Self Organization
Key Point: Team concepts are inherently power tools of manipulation instead of relying on the inner strength that comes from self organization.

Self Organized Teams

Self Organization

Permanent and formally established parts of a reporting structure Fluid process with informal, temporary, spontaneous teams
Top management can install structure and control through rules of team government Managers can only influence boundary conditions around them
Managers decide who participates and what the boundaries are Participants decide who takes part and what the bounds of their activities are
Teams replace the hierarchy Self-organizing networks are in conflict with and are constrained by the hierarchy
Dispersed power is supposed to lead to consensus Unequal power energizes networks through conflict, but also operates as a constraint
Top management empowers people People empower themselves
Process is based on strongly shared culture Process is provoked and constrained by cultural difference

Strategic Thinking In A Dynamic Non-Linear Feedback Loop
Key Point: Strategic thinking takes on a new form as you approach non-linearity.

Linear Thinking

Dynamic Non-Linear Thinking

Same general prescription New mental model for each new situation
Thinking in the future Thinking anchored in the here and now
Analysis and quantification Reasoning by analogy and intuition about the qualitative, irregular patterns
Thinking about separate parts Thinking about whole, interconnected systems
Focusing on outcomes Focusing on the learning process and on the mental models that govern the process
Dysfunctional group dynamics Awareness of the effects of group dynamics on learning and thinking

Strategic Vision In An Unpredictable World
Key Points - If this future is unpredictable, then an organization wide "shared vision" is impossible to formulate. Such an vision is an illusion or interpretation made with hindsight.
  • Vision and long term plans are fantasy defenses against anxiety. Instead, managers should focus on ever-changing agendas of strategic issues, challenges and aspirations, unhitched to any limiting vision.

  • Cohesive teams are needed for day-to-day issues, but learning groups of managers in spontaneous, self-organizing networks that have open, public conflict and dialogue are vital to handling strategic issues. The self-organizing political network of contacts undermines the hierarchy/bureaucracy. In the absence of this tension and paradox there can be no change.

  • Normal management relies on logical analysis, but extraordinary management is exploratory, experimental and reasons by analogy.

  • Benchmarking against milestones, and taking corrective action means rules, systems and rational argument. The control and development of an open-ended, unknowable long term is a political process where constraints are provided by the need to build support; it is self-policing.

  • New strategic directions emerge from the chaos of challenge and contradiction. Top management does not drive the process, it creates favorable conditions for complex learning and effective politics. They create new models and maps by allowing people to learn.

  • Strength grows from contact with the environment, not from existing strengths.

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