Guest reviewers choice

Book review by Martin West - Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics by Ralph D. Stacey

I first encountered this book, then in only its second edition, when, as an already senior manager, I was undertaking an external MBA. I was a ‘curious practitioner’, prepared to embrace some theory to enhance my understanding of matters of which I was partially aware from my own experience.  I was, even then, suspicious of management texts suggesting  there were simple explanations for what I was experiencing in practice, or that ‘ordinary management’ alone was sufficient to facilitate learning, knowledge creation and innovation. For me, Stacey delivered precisely what the publisher’s blurb for the book, now in its sixth edition, claims it does, which is: “to assist people to make sense of their own experience of life in organisations, to explore their own thinking and to pay attention to what they do”.

The extent and scope of this book, together with the nature of the insights into the complexity sciences, might at first seem daunting, but practising managers, those involved in delivering management education, and management students, would all do well to embrace it. It will introduce them to an understanding of how the dynamics of the covert political and shadow systems of organisations work and how what goes on there, subversive though it might be, is more important than what goes on in legitimate systems. 

Without ‘frightening the horses’, Stacey describes the extent to which much is inherently unknowable and cannot be planned for, how leaders often cannot in a conventional sense be in control, or know in advance what they are creating. Managers or aspiring managers must come to terms with the reality that they often have to do something or let something happen when they can only understand what they have done, attach meaning to it and sense the purpose of what has been done, after the event. 

Alarming though some of this might seem, this book is anything but a counsel of despair. It sets out a holistic and co-operative approach to strategy that recognises its emergent nature. It explains that the real role of leaders is not to tell people what to do, but is about managing context and boundaries and creating the right environment and emotional climate for controlled self-organising behaviour. This leadership role involves creating and maintaining conditions in which people can hold paradox and ambiguity and contain anxiety in conditions far from certainty and agreement.

Since I first encountered this book, my experience in a number of organisations has only served to reinforce my belief that Stacey is right and that an overemphasis on rational decision making, planning and control, and on the exercise of authority and the imposition of strong single cultures in organisations, is counter-productive and somewhat delusional. 

Martin West - Biography

During a long police career Martin rose to the rank of Superintendent, managed operations and support functions, and was programme manager for both an experimental neighbourhood policing project and a major diversity initiative. Later, he worked (in non-police related roles) in the not-for-profit sector with the Southeast Region of The National Trust and in the private sector for the Aviation Services Division of OCS at Gatwick Airport. From 2007 to 2013 Martin was the Commissioning Editor who launched the Gower Applied Business Research Programme for the Gower imprint of Ashgate Publishing. He is now ‘retired’ and has done some writing of his own. Martin is a City University (now Cass) Business School MBA and a CMI Fellow. 

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