Senior Executives and the Emergence of Local Responsibilities in Large Organisations: A Complexity Approach to Potentially Better Results
All executives strive for better results in their organisations. They are always dependent on others to achieve these results and this dependency is particularly evident in large organisations. This thesis is concerned with the ways in which these better results might be achieved and the role senior executives might play in this process. The traditional view is that senior executives design and control the way their organisations function and better results therefore depend upon getting the design and the controls ‘right’. My personal experience, supported by many authors, is that this view is often far from reality. In this thesis I therefore draw on an alternative view of how organisations function, namely, the theory of complex responsive processes, in order to explore how senior executives can be more effective given their very limited ability to design and control their organisations. From a complex responsive processes perspective (Stacey, Griffin and Shaw, 2000; Stacey, 2003a), an organisation is understood, by analogy with the complexity sciences, to be processes of self-organising interaction between agents. The abstract analogy from the complexity sciences is interpreted in the case of human interaction according to the thinking of the American pragmatist G. H. Mead (1934). Mead explains the simultaneous emergence of mind and society in terms of the social act in which one person gestures to another and in doing so calls forth a response from that other in ongoing conversational processes in which patterns of communication (meaning) emerge across the organisational population. Work in organisations is accomplished in these conversational processes. In their conscious, self-conscious and responsive interaction, human agents depend on each other; according to the process sociologist N. Elias (1978), this means that all human relating is simultaneously constraining and enabling. Elias defines power as these enabling constraints between people, so that power is an aspect of all human relating. According to Elias, values, norms and ideology are the basis of power. Human choice and intention influence the shifting of power balances in which conflict, as a normal aspect of human interaction, plays an important role. Power, ideology and identity are then seen as central aspects of organisations. 4 People only interact locally with a small proportion of the total population they are part of, and do so on the basis of their own local organising principles (communication, power and choice) rather than simply obeying centrally set rules. This can be understood as self-organisation. The global patterns of communicative interaction and power relations across the organisation emerge in these local interactions rather than following a specific plan, programme or blueprint. The global patterns are unpredictable and are not under the control of any member of the organisation. Global – that is, company-wide – results are thus not directly determined by global design or control, but emerge in this local interaction. This approach means re-thinking what is involved in leadership and the roles of senior executives. From this perspective, senior executives are paradoxically in control and not in control at the same time (Streatfield, 2001). In this thesis I draw on my own personal experience over the past three years as a senior executive in a large services and transport company to identify the role a senior executive can actively play in potentially achieving better results despite not being fully in control. I emphasise the active contribution of senior executives in many local interactions in which global company-wide results emerge. Through the manner in which they participate in, and inspire, the development of local conversational interaction, senior executives can actively encourage front-line staff to take local responsibility for contributing to global, company-wide improvement of results. During these local interactions a chain reaction of local responsibilities can emerge that can contribute to the improvement of global company-wide performance. It is the responsibility of senior executives to communicate clearly in the organisation about demands on performance and results by customers and stakeholders in the market, and to encourage the taking of local responsibility for them. From a complexity view, the impact of leaders on the organisation is not less but different, with potentially better results.