Ralph Stacey 10/9/1942 – 4/9/2021

September 26, 2021

IMG 0967I can’t imagine that anyone interested in complexity in organisations will not know the work of Ralph Stacy, or not be saddened to learn of his death earlier this month.  The Complexity & Management Centre, which he founded, at the University of Hertford, published this brief obituary earlier this month and his early history is laid out in his Wikipedia article; which deserves some attention given his overall status within what has become a movement.  If you want a personal tribute then it can be found in the picture I snapped from my bookshelf earlier today which show not only Stacy’s work but the wider publications of the Complex Responsive Process of Relating group that he established,  Just for the record, I think the best of those is the one on leadership by Doug Griffin, but all are dwarfed by Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics which has classic status as a textbook, and an eminently readable one at that.  I also feel a little lonely, of the three of us who popularised the complex-complicated distinction I am the only one still alive; Brenda Zimmerman having died tragically in a car accident some seven years ago.  I’ve previously written about similarities and differences in a blog post some two years ago entitled Separated by a common language.

Ralph is probably best known for the Stacy Matrix, something he himself regretted creating but it had a major impact.  It was at the heart of Scrum which was, in the main, responsible for the rapid growth of Agile.  It’s important to understand that Ralph was a prize-winning economist with a successful period in strategic management in the British Steel Corporation and had a brief flirtation with consultancy before he returned to an academic career at Hatfield Polytechnic that morphed over time into the Hertfordshire Business School which continues his work to this day.  His work really falls into two periods with 2000 as the pivot point.  He had qualified as a psychotherapist a couple of years early and you can see how that produced a radical transformation in his work. It’s no coincidence that groups such as the Tavistock Institute reference him above all others in the field.

I once said that I thought in that latter period that he was more interested in the work of Mead and Elias than complexity per se.  Complexity seemed to provide a convenient set of metaphors and language for what was now a different project.   In that context, you can see why he regretted creating the Stacy Matrix seeing it as being used by management (which in general he actively disliked) to sustain the removal of paradox and in effect wrap old practice with the language of complexity. Therein I agree with him, the structure of the matrix was too easily taken up and used in that way.   It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Ralph hadn’t taken the psychoanalytical turn.  His work as an economist and his understanding of models could have resulted in something closer to the work of people like Peter Allen had he continued.  To be honest, I find the earlier Stacy more interesting, but my disagreements with the like of the Tavistock are fairly well known – my previous blog post partially had them in mind – so that should not come as a surprise.  His concerns about the use of the Stacy Matrix I took on board with some of the subsequent iterations of Cynefin, in particular the emphasis on phase shifts and aporia.

He was a forceful personality and from the outside, it did seem a little as if anyone who disagreed with him was immediately lumped into the category of systems thinker.  Now I have been critical of that field, but for Ralph it was anathema.  He was fairly indiscriminate in the way he used the term – myself and Max Boisot along with others were cast into that particular perdition by him from time to time.  Anyone at the Liverpool Complexity Conference (and other events) can testify to his passion and he had many of the characteristics of an old testament prophet!  I first spent some time with him at one of the series of events organised by the University of Lecce around the subject of Complexity in Organisations.   Max, Peter Allen, myself and others were regulars,  Ralph appeared only once but his presence was, shall we say, felt.  I still have fond memories of an animated conversation with him while striding through Milan Airport.   I never agreed with his rejection of natural science, but I did agree that you can’t apply the tools of natural science to human systems as a whole.  We started from that point, but I took the path of seeing natural science as an enabling constraint and increasingly took a realist and materialist position within the field Ralph and his team took a different path.

I picked the banner image in memory of Lecce which is where the picture was taken.  In the latter period, Ralph saw complexity more as a metaphor so I thought I would use the image to create one in memory of him.  Ralph was a very large personality in a very small car, he deserved to be more widely read and engaged when he was alive, and as much if not more so now he has passed away.  I am sure Chris,  his successor at Hertford will ensure that but I would put in a plea for more engagement with other schools of thought and of practice within the field as a whole.  We don’t want his ideas and thinking to say confined

Update – a longer obituary has been published and its an interesting read.

The banner picture is cropped from an original by Simon (musical photo man) downloaded from Flickr and is used under the terms of a creative commons license

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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