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NextD Journal

Updated: Feb 1

Reflections in Conversation

Welcome NextD Journal readers to Everyday Conversations #1!

Series Purpose: Believing that enhancing clarity can inform forward motion in a changing world the purpose of this NextD Journal Everyday Conversations Series is to share diverse sensemaking dialogue related to the subject of Design for Complexity and issues of interest to the emerging practice community.

Conversation Content Overview:

Part 1 is 21 pages, approx 4997 words.

Part 2 is 26 pages, approx 6438 words.

Part 3: Epilogue in progress. Stay tuned!

(Download this conversation as a PDF below)


Imperfect, unfinished, in-progress, that is what this conversation series is intended to be. Many of us participating in LinkedIn discussions notice a few recurring dynamics, including lots of repetition and an abundance of bullet-point, fast-food content in the face of complex subjects. We see a lot of repeating starting points being positioned as forward motion. 

In addition, with journalistic awareness on our part, we realized that some of the richest content being generated takes place in informal everyday conversations between friends but never gets posted. 

Understanding that deeper reading is not for everyone, we will in this adventuresome NextD Journal Series attempt to bridge across that terrain and share some of those everyday conversations as bumpy as they may be.


There are probably 10-20 visual models that appear in constant rotation on various innovation related LinkedIn discussion groups and among them would be the Stacey Matrix.

Created by Professor Ralph D. Stacey (1948-2021), author of several books including the 1996 “Complexity and Creativity in Organizations” it is clear that others have since generated numerous versions, adaptations of the matrix for better or for worse. 

Recently Geoff Elliott, Roger James in the UK and I in New York City had a virtual conversation in this direction. 

We acknowledged that considerable material already exists online regarding the Stacey Matrix subject, however that picture seems to contain numerous confusions, convolutions, omissions and considerable wishful thinking. 

We decided to take another look at the Stacey Matrix picture and collectively share views, anticipating that they might be quite different. With busy schedules and different time zones it took a little longer than anticipated but we got there. We hope readers find this useful.

Image Credit: Internet 2023

GK VanPatter: 

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is that Stacey Matrix? Variations of this model above being described as “The Stacey Matrix” seem to appear on LinkedIn on a monthly basis. Hundreds of versions now exist. 

Image Credit: Google search generated 2023.

Attached to it are often rather wild, mashed-up, over-simplified claims regarding what it is and how it could be, should be used. Maybe we could start with when the matrix was first published and what the original version looked like, as it seems to have been morphed considerably by others over the years without Professor Stacey’s consent.  What did the Stacey Matrix first look like and what were its original intentions?

Roger James: 

So where do I start? The ‘matrix’ first appeared at the time of ‘peak’ Knowledge Management where the fashion was the 2*2 matrix. [There was a paper years ago with a title something like ‘why is all managerial reality expressed as a 2*2 matrix’]. So it was Stacey’s attempt at a 2*2 which I found much less interesting than his previous work on the dynamics of making decisions.

GK VanPatter:

Your comment regarding Stacey’s “previous work in….making decisions” is one I would like to come back to. What in your view is wrong with a 2*2?

Roger James: 

So where do I start? [redux] The original intentions of the Matrix as described by Stacey in his 1996 book; Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: “determine what mode of decision-making and control is possible for members of the organization and managers to deploy.”

Simply then - it assumes only 2 factors are significant, that the factors are COMPLETELY orthogonal and that the progression along either dimension is continuous. Each and every one of these assumptions is dubious …

  • Two factors? We know the world is more complex than that, and even if you reduce the statistical variability of the situation to a two-fold dimensionality using say PCA the resulting axes are composite qualities.

  • Orthogonality? Even here certainty and agreement are interrelated, we can both agree that the future of weather patterns is uncertain for example.

  • Continuous? Think about ‘far from certainty’ - what does it mean? I am certain about the colour of the walls in this room but know nothing about the colour next door, or the colour of a room in China. Epistemically each situation - next door or China - has the same characteristic distinct from this room where the situation is known. A continuous axis might be ‘the effort required to gain certainty’ but here the concept and the transition between states (far/close) is discrete and non-continuous

Remember there is both value and danger in pictures, according to Norretranders [The User Illusion] the bandwidth of consciousness has your brain capable of much more processing than the ‘bare facts’ presented through your senses - by 10 to the power 10. So when you see the picture, or here Stacey’s schematic, your brain goes into ‘overdrive’ building assumptions that just do not exist in the real world.

Stacey takes you into a land of wishful suppositions! 

GK VanPatter: 

What I noticed in the Stacey Matrix materials begins before the diagram itself. The date-line signals that jump out to me can be seen in what Roger was referring to regarding context. Two things: It was “the time of ‘peak’ Knowledge Management” and Stacey’s “work on the dynamics of making decisions.” Those two notions circa 1995-98 fit together and in part explain the context of that time as well as why that matrix tends to be a mismatch for where folks are often trying to insert it today.


Long story short: We were working with Richard Wurman at that time, doing sensemaking enabling and innovation enabling projects. Working with global company clients in that Knowledge Management era we found ourselves landing in a highly transitional moment. It took us a while to understand what we were looking at. 


We worked with several global companies that had made heavy investments in Knowledge Management groups. Grappling with the limitations of “management” in a continuously changing world, those folks were seeking help to make the transition to building sensemaking and innovation capacity, changemaking capacity. 


Long before the big data era arrived, presciently identifying “the tsunami of data crashing on all our shores”, Richard had written Information Anxiety in 1989. He was also the creator of the TED conferences. (Today, Richard is author of 30+ books.)

Image Credit: Information Anxiety, 1989, Richard Saul Wurman

Richard would often get asked by senior organizational leaders to take a look at what they were and were not doing regarding making sense of the arriving future. Richard was an outsider to the Knowledge Management movement but we often worked with such groups. 


I remember one day Richard asked me to explain to a knowledge management client group, in their own language, the difference and alignments between what we were doing; enabling sensemaking, enabling innovation and where they had been focused; enabling knowledge management. To do that respectfully we had to read/understand what they were digesting and where their world view was coming from.


Image Credit: Sensemaking in Organizations, 1995, Karl E. Wieck

Of course the 1995 book Sensemaking in Organizations by Karl Weick was huge at that time, but it had serious limitations. It did not reflect practice-based awareness that Richard had already written about ten years earlier. 


At that time there were numerous other popular books including Working Knowledge, If Only We knew What We Know, Knowledge in Organizations, Wellsprings of Knowledge, etc. The one that we found most useful in terms of explaining innovation in Knowledge Management lingo was Ikujiro Nonaka’s The Knowledge Creating Company published in 1995. Nonaka was making connections that most of the other subject authors including Karl Weick were not. Not perfect, that book helped us explain to the Knowledge Management client team the shift #1 that was underway in what we were collectively doing in the project, from management of knowledge to knowledge creation as innovation.

Somewhat oddly, what we saw early on in those conversations was that the Knowledge Management folks, often coming from Business Management backgrounds, were importing various dynamics from that direction. Central to their orientation was the belief that increasing and improving decision-making (convergent thinking) was the silver bullet that could now be transferred from Knowledge Management to the context of Innovation Enabling. 


With that surfaced we were faced with explaining the need for a two part shift….1. Away from management of knowledge towards creation (two different things) and 2. away from privileging convergent thinking towards enabling innovation (two different things). Since many of those client folks had, at that time, been grad-schooled in so-called “decision advocacy/decision support”, in some cases literally defining leadership around decision-making that was not an easy-lift conversation. 


The Stacy Matrix reflects much of the same logic encountered in 1995 with convergent thinking being positioned as decision-making. With all due respect; All signs that I see indicate that Professor Stacey was primarily a decision support guy, not an innovation enabling guy. Decision support is not innovation enabling. Been there, had that conversation numerous times...:-)


Cascading forward 25+ years we still encounter similar struggles in many organizations. Let’s return to this in Part 2.


All of that is apparent to us today, those bells went off, just looking at the focus of Stacey Matrix before we even talk about what is inside the diagram itself….:-)

Roger James: 

If we start with a little of digital archeology we can find an early incarnation of the ‘Stacey Diagram’ taken from the second edition (1996) of Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics as follows:

Image Credit: Stacey RD. Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: The Challenge of Complexity. 2nd edition, Harlow: Prentice Hall, 1996.

There are a number of significant aspects to note …

  • The focus is on the mix of decision making approaches and how they are suited to aspects of the decision making environment (agreement/certainty)

  • There is no sign of the simple, complex, chaotic zoning

  • The value of the representation is in the choice of approach (such as muddling through) not an attempt to describe the nature of the situation 

It is also worth noting that his work immediately before introducing this matrix was on decision making in ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ circumstances 

Image Credit: Stacey RD. Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: The Challenge of Complexity. 1st edition

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1996.

If we continue by suggesting what Stacey was thinking at the time he introduced his ideas it was focused on decision-making and from the inference in figure 7.1 how this was impacted by the ‘mental model’ of the decision maker. In this case the axis could be more properly re-drawn as “the degree of agreement with me” and “the degree of certainty known by me”.

This shift is significant, it changes the frame of the representation from an ontological description ‘about things’ to an epistemic viewpoint ‘what I think’. This is an old problem im philosophy - an in-depth study is best summarized by Pattee’s comment “the 

subject-object distinction separated by an epistemic cut is at the core of the general 

symbol-matter problem at all evolved levels beginning with the origin of life

Whatever its attraction, Philosophy is difficult to relate to the pragmatic challenges of dealing with the complexity of life. It is worth looking at the approaches contained in the early Stacey matrix such as Muddling Through. The concepts and their positioning shown on the 1996 incarnation are really good advice - not least because they allow for an imprecision, and designed messiness, in the measures adopted at times of uncertainty and ambiguity.

It opens up another possible avenue for discussion - the shift from robustness to resilience as the target of our design.  

Geoff Elliott:

Building on what Roger is noting we might also point out that embedded in the original Layer 1 of the Stacey Matrix was the notion of adjacencies and or phase transitions, whether real or imagined. It is unclear to me exactly where Stacey got this idea from. In physics and chemistry phase transition is well known as a result of thermodynamics or kinetic action. It has been around for several hundred years. 

In physical metallurgy a solid phase of an Fe and C alloy can simultaneously have three different properties, eg, pearlite, martensite and bainite which can be described as simple, complex and complicated. Furthermore some Fe and C alloys can undergo phase transition within a boundary as a result if kinetic action. This is all basic undergrad stuff. 


Image Credit: Internet 2023

How phase transition across and within a boundary applies to real world socio-technical purposeful human activity systems I do not know and have my doubts. Human activities are always purposeful and always in a state of flux. Boundaries are dynamic and change before any description can be completed. 


I think what we are looking at there is a considerable conceptual stretch on Stacey’s part, injecting an assumption that phase transitions are real and can be applied to human decision-making. While Stacey seemed to have abandoned the phase transition concept when he left behind his matrix, others have subsequently attempted to extend the idea in human systems. 

While this seems to correspond to rising interest in everything science-like I have my doubts that such transitions are real in human activity systems. Let’s say I have yet to be convinced. Maybe we can return to this one. 

For me what is most important about Layer 1 is that the systems concept of the observer and observed is missing as this absence also cascades forward into the shortcomings of various present day Stacey followers. What is simple, complicated etc are descriptions assigned by an observer. They are not intrinsic attributes of something. 

For example the Inuit people have about 70 words to describe sea ice. These descriptions were established after 100s of years of observation and are agreed /understood by the community. Context matters, especially in life or death survival situations. 


Also what is simple or complex are relative statements; what is simple to one person can be complicated to another. Also ignored in Stacey Matrix is the question of, the role of time. One look at the matrix is just a snapshot - Tomorrow is always different, ie a different context. Where is that acknowledged?

The Stacey Matrix sidesteps such complexities. Also what is missing from the matrix logic  is “What happens next"? Ok I have labelled something "simple" - what next? This absence also cascades forward.

GK VanPatter: 

What I see there in the Stacey explanation text regarding the purpose of the matrix is: “determine what mode of decision-making and control is possible.” That intention seems to have been altered, overwritten, superseded by the many adaptation authors arriving after Professor Stacey. 

Considering it's longevity, I am surprised by how bad this original Stacey Matrix diagram is. It's not something that we would ever use in sensemaking practice. Looking inside I see a jumble of apples, oranges, helicopters, rabbits, and pumpkins presented with a straight face as if they all hang together, when they clearly do not. In what context, in what discipline would those discombobulated descriptors be accepted as all apples? Puzzling to say the least.

Since all decision-making is judgmental, what is that “judgemental decision-making” doing there? What is “brainstorming” doing there in a diagram with the intention stated above? What is "dialectic enquiry" doing there? Those are not "modes of decision-making". No wonder there is so much confusion around this matrix model. 

Before I say more about the discombobulated language depictions inside this diagram let’s table when the notions of Simple, Complex etc. were added and by whom?

Roger James:

I cannot be definitive here [on the use of the Simple, Complex zones etc]. One of the complicating factors was that in the peak ‘Knowledge Management’ era there were so many conferences at which the ‘usual suspects’ turned up. As such any idea was transmitted like a virus between the attendees, often miscredited or not properly credited

At this juncture lets take a look at the work of Professor Brenda Zimmerman (1941-2014). But quoting Zimmerman's own writing from 1999 regarding work carried out in the late 1990’s …

Image Credit: Layer 2, excerpted from Brenda Zimmerman 1999.

Aside from the reference itself the important insight comes from the significant remark “In his [Stacey’s] diagram, each area is not labeled per se but rather filled with examples of appropriate management approaches. In our modification, we labeled the areas to help explain to the Board and staff at NSSO what we saw happening (See Figure 1)”. 

The comment fundamentally moves the Stacey representation of an array of approaches to a classification heuristic.

GK raises another issue - of discombobulated language - which perhaps we should discuss next? As the consultant’s advice goes - do you write to impress or to express? -  are we seeing an exercise in bravado as a game of ‘idea top trumps’ or authors who are actually trying to explain something?

GK VanPatter: 

If we say Layer 1 is the 1996 original from Stacey and Layer 2 is the addition of the “Simple, Complicated, Complex, etc. overlay added later (1999) by Zimmerman, it helps us and readers make sense of what we are looking at. 

In Layer 1, the original Stacey model before numerous additions were piled on by others I see Stacey's raw expertise, without any help or input from anyone in the the applied creativity community or the information design/visual sensemaking community. :-) Sometimes experts are so close to their material that they cannot see it. The initial model looks like a not very well thought-thru raw sketch. A frank discussion regarding Stacey’s organizing principle ideas for the matrix would have run into the pointing out of blatant contradictions, had he drawn upon some other resources in the broader community. It does not surprise me that Stacey walked away from the original. 


Categorization is not a sin in the understanding business, information design/visual sensemaking. That in itself is not the problem with Layer 1. Such models or diagrams typically have several components. In this instance there are the words, being depicted as categories of “decision-making”, not categories of problems or systems, or intervention methods and then there are the visual depictions of adjacencies. Neither holds water in the real world. “Judgemental decision-making” is the give-away red flag. That notion would have encountered a big HUH? in the behavior oriented applied creativity community.

When the categories make no sense, the suggested adjacencies visualized do nothing to repair that picture. It’s truly remarkable that such an apples and oranges diagram has cascaded forward for decades. 

Roger James: 

The interesting aspect of the shift we see from Stacey to Zimmerman is captured by the Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and his ‘Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness’.

A bit of a mouthful but what he is saying is that in our thinking and pursuit of simplicity we ignore the details - the representation of the map (can) exclude critical detail. Stacey’s use of the diagram is specific to decision making, Zimmerman’s uses it as a simple heuristic. 

In the subsequent use of the Zimmerman simplification the context of the situation has been dropped - both the shared tacit knowledge of the board at NSSO and in the detail of the approaches suggested by Stacey - such as muddling through.

In short - this illustrates George Box’s famous dictum - “all models are wrong, but some are useful. However the approximate nature of the model must always be borne in mind”.

Various authors have commented on how Stacey depreciated his use of the matrix later in his career. One report by Kernick writes “Despite the attractions and use through this book Stacey has rather distanced himself from this model. It is seen as too reductionist and diverting the central role of human relating at a local level, from which outcomes emerge.

In conclusion when Stacey first developed his diagramme as a categorisation framework for assorted decision making approaches it adequately captured the bounded conditions of his decision making routines. 

However when it was employed, by Zimmerman and others, as a framework for describing the range of situations observed in the world it was limited and unrepresentative. It was good as a map of techniques but poor as a map of the world.

GK VanPatter: 

The notion of models having their intention and meaning changed by others is one that we have ourselves experienced at Humantific via the tabling of NextD Geographies Framework some years ago. In a changing and competitive marketplace new folks come along and seek to make use of a model for their own consulting, in the process completely changing the model’s original purpose and meaning. For model creators this grows tiresome. No one wants to police models. Seeing the many variations of the Stacey Matrix I have no doubt Professor Stacey experienced this himself. (I did hear the story that as an inside joke, he once received a scrap book from his colleagues with hundreds of variations of Stacey Matrix in it.)


There are other simpler versions of the Layer 2 Simple, Complicated, etc around in various communities that have existed for some time and are not tied to decision-making. In our practice these are known simply as discussion models as the zones of simplicity, complexity, etc. are relative to the viewer. When what is being viewed is bigger than decision categories as in problems and systems the considerations change.


I do think it’s important to touch on/acknowledge one other lingering aspect of Stacey and his fixation on decision-making before we depart his original Layer 1. That is his misfiring around the notion of shadow culture that often appears alongside Stacey matrix in his various writings, in particular in his 1996 book; Complexity and Creativity in Organizations. I hope to return to this before the end of this conversation. 

Roger James: 

Stacey had 2 main streams of publishing - his research work and his teaching work. The former was with a variety of collaborators and his teaching work was as a single author or in later editions with Chris Mowles. 

The teaching material contained the Stacey Matrix (Agreement/Certainty Matrix) in the early editions. I can illustrate the pedigree with the following snippets from Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics…

The Editions

  • "First published under the Pitman Publishing imprint 1993 (print)

  • Second Edition published 1996 (print)

  • Third Edition published 2000 (print)

  • Fourth Edition published 2003 (print)

  • Fifth Edition published 2007 (print)

  • Sixth Edition published 2011 (print and electronic)

  • Seventh Edition published 2016 (print and electronic)

  • (c) Ralph D. Stacey 1993, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2007 (print)

  • (c) Ralph D. Stacey 1993, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2007 (print and electronic)"

Let's note how the content shifted from 1996 to 2007.

Second Edition (1996)

"Part One


Change, decision-making and control

The nature of change and its implications for decision-making and control

Different change situations require processes.


Change Situations

Behavior and Change Situations

The relationship between change situations and decision-making modes

Models of decision-making in conditions close to certainty

Models of decision-making in conditions far to certainty


Fifth Edition (2007)

"Part 1

Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organizational dynamics

The origins of systems thinking


The Scientific Revolution

Kant: natural systems and autonomous individuals

Systems timing in the twentieth century

Thinking about organizations and their management How systems thinking deals with the four questions


I might speculate that Stacey in producing so many, and so different, editions of the same volume was just involved in making money (after all as author you want to inhibit any second hand market for the core texts!). Nevertheless the shift in focus is dramatic. Of course it tracks the parallel developments in ‘Knowledge Management’ from the early phases of Nonaka with the socialisation of knowledge and emphasis on group processes to share knowledge to the later phases of inquiry into what knowledge is - the philosophy of ontological and epistemological thought.

You are right that the distinction between the espoused system and the real system - Stacey’s shadow concept - remains a theme in all editions of the book. He remains throughout, interested in decision making and applies the shadow concepts to decision making in practice. 

Your observations regarding decision making as convergent thinking clearly runs contrary to what Stacey was selling and how he was positioning decision making, indeed how it was for numerous decades being positioned in many graduate business schools. To some of those folks, perhaps some of our readers here, your observations would be rather startling. 

Many are taught that decisions are always necessary particularly in investigative/research activities if only because of resource allocation - if you follow the Einstein adage that ‘it is only research if you don’t know what you are doing’ - then all research requires a decision on whether to invest resources in a specific speculative activity. Following that logic, decisions are necessary for directions as well as outcomes. This inherently implies importance that is not often questioned in several disciplines.


If we focus on the Second Edition, 1996, in the Stacey Matrix Layer 1 we see that the axis for agreement represents a group process (of more or less people). Sadly this concrete representation is often overlooked, as described by the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness, indeed I have been involved in the challenges of extending a similar known/unknown axis.

These representations quickly dissolve when the true nature of the conceptual picture and the context is revealed. As we can hopefully get to; Zimmerman’s use of the Stacey matrix, the use of Simple, Complicated and Complex illustrates this inconsistency of the axis - apparently simple is known, complicated is known by some and complex is known in retrospect. Hardly the grounds for a consistent basis for a 2-D model. 

In closing, Stacey never used his Layer 1 (agreement/certainty) Matrix in his research work, rather it appears in his teaching publication as a summary of a chapter detailing models from his research. It is worth recognising the context in which Stacey introduces the matrix, from Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics Second Edition where he talks about the context of decision making in organizations:

“… anxiety can be reduced if they can act jointly in agreement with each other about objectives and actions. However, often they find that they must somehow find way to act jointly even when they are far from agreement with each other, and this state of disagreement is also more likely to pertain the further they are from certainty. Conflict and anxiety are consequently likely to be important factors in influencing behavior and thus decision-making and control processes when people operate far from agreement and certainty. In fact, if group of people find themselves further from agreement and certainty than they can bear, then they may either avoid such anxiety-provoking situations altogether and thus be at the mercy of change, or they may disintegrate into full-scale anarchy. We then went on to see how these factors, degrees of closeness to certainty and agreement, create the context that determines what mode of decision-making and control it is possible for members and managers of organizations to deploy. This is summarised in Figure 2.10 [the agreement/certainty matrix]”

And to close on the dangers described above:

This last point summarizes our (UK/USA) approach to Covid and Climate: we all agree something should be done and employ an ideological totalitarian approach hiding behind the tagline “follow the science” as a fig leaf to our true intentions. :-)

GK VanPatter: 

All good and big thanks for sharing Roger. In this brief time we have for this conversation let’s not drive by the central issue raised so far. No one we know in the innovation enabling communities, the CPS community, the Applied Creativity community is suggesting that decision-making, convergent thinking is not important, so no need to make that argument.


Like-wise no one we know in the innovation enabling business is debating whether decision thinking is judgment thinking. That has been common knowledge for many decades. Is the narrowing of judgment thinking part of innovation? Yes, of course, but no more important than the widening generative thinking part. Let’s not miss that. If we are in the convergent thinking/decision-support business (as Stacey was) that is one thing but quite another if we are in the enabling innovation business. Let’s not conflate one with the other. 


The truth is when we fail to recognize that (convergent thinking) decision focus, privileging, and decision support is only half the innovation equation we fail to fairly represent not only the thinking preferences present but the activity of generative thinking itself. 

Where is the generative thinking support in that Stacey equation? Where in the Stacey material is generative thinking being positioned as equal in value? Today that unacknowledged imbalance is a No-Go 101 in the inclusive innovation enabling community. 

We have written and posted previously on the deep history of this thinking integration knowledge in the applied creativity community. It’s not a new consideration. 


I would agree that context is important. Let’s take Stacey’s notion of 

‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ circumstances that you mentioned earlier as context. Not unique to Stacey, those two dimensions have long been known in the innovation-enabling community as programmed situations and unprogrammed situations.


Programmed meaning the situation is familiar and unprogrammed meaning the situation has never-before been encountered. Many years of practice tells us that today organizational leaders are often facing unprogrammed situations. 


In that context of continuously facing never-before-seen situations does it make sense for an organization’s primary response to be to focus on increasing, improving, continuing to privilege convergent thinking? Clearly not. It does not require a rocket designer to see that misfire. 


Happy to come back to this as we are well aware of more implications related to "ordinary" and "extraordinary". Let’s move on to take a closer look at Layer 2, and beyond added by others in Part 2 of this conversation. 

To be continued In Part 2 & 3.

Stay Tuned!

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