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NextD Journal

Updated: Jan 12

Reflections in Conversation

Welcome NextD Journal readers to Part 2 of this conversation.

Conversation Content Overview:

Part 1 is 21 pages, approx 4550 words.

Part 2 is 26 pages, approx 6438 words.

Part 3: Epilogue in progress. Stay tuned!

(Download this conversation as a PDF below)

GK VanPatter: 

In this Part 2 let's take a look at the subsequent layers that have been added to the original Stacey Matrix by others during the 27+ year period from 1996 to today. Each additional layer or reconfiguration represents an adaptation, most of which significantly alter the original, rather narrow intention. Is it even possible to calculate how many layers, how many adaptations of the original Stacey Matrix have been made? 

I do wonder if there is a term for the activity of adapting an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation, when the original did not make much sense in the first place and was abandoned by its creator? :-) This seems to be a phenomenon that occurs in complex communities and across multiple communities as folks search for useful tools to grapple with the situations facing them as individuals and in organizations. 

Geoff Elliott:

I think one of the issues is that English is ambiguous. Language  is a very imprecise tool. Expressions, actions and reactions are surface structures, which are the result of an attempt to convey the meaning of a deeper structure. Different surface structures may be reflections of a common deep structure.

The transformation from deep structure into surface structure often results in information being generalized, distorted or deleted. Many examples of surface structures may be  required in order to convey an understanding of a deeper structure, e.g. the metaphor …. 'We are going to behave in a customer-focused way.’

Imagine how many meanings that may have and the scope for any argument that exists. Customer focus is a deep-structure concept that will require many surface-level examples in order to become useful in a business.


In this context, the meanings of words and phrases such as: complicated, complex, simple, messes, wicked messes; wicked problems and tame problems have all become very generalized and are used in most situations as descriptors irrespective of the context / situation. This is occurring against a background where the predominant thinking style in the West is solution focused and convergent thinking; hence the rise and use of the infamous 2x2 matrix or variations thereof.

Perhaps more importantly there seems to be little recognition and clarity between situations and “systems”.  A problematic situation can involve many systems and sub systems dependent on an observer.  Expressed differently: a “system” often contains many problematic situations. A sub-system can be part of more than one system.

Above is an example of a “systems map” illustrating fluid boundaries and one perspective. This fluidity differs from Stacey Matrix.

If you have a “Stacey Matrix” presenting one world view and a system map presenting another world view where the boundaries are fluid how are these two views reconciled?

This can be messed up further when some systems and sub-systems lie across or outside of a notional boundary. For most people systems maps are based around the use of causal loop diagrams as in systems dynamics. Stacey Matrix is just one of numerous ways of looking and seeing.

In our work more than one view is typically required. Stacey Matrix is not the single view holy grail. 

Roger James: 

Before I build on Geoff’s comments on the importance of language, I wish to present the results of some more literature archaeology. Specifically to introduce the work of Brenda Zimmerman and the ‘Layer 2’ overlay of the regions of simple, complicated, complex onto the Stacey (Agreement-Certainty) Matrix.

Apologies if this goes back over earlier discussions but given the significance of Zimmerman as the bridge between the work of Stacey in decision making and the later derivatives as a ‘mappa mundi’ for coping with complexity it is a significant addition.

Zimmerman (cited in Edgeware - Insights from Complexity Science 1998) starts with a full description of the Stacey Matrix itself taken from Stacey’s Strategic Management (1996). In this Zimmerman explains and expands on many of the concepts discussed in Part 1. I will begin by abstracting directly from her writing:-

  • On the axes: The close/far from certainty axis is introduced with reference to cause and effect linkages - ‘close’ is when the cause/effect linkage can be determined and ‘far’ when those linkages are not clear. The close/far from agreement is explained as the level of agreement within the group, team or organization.

  • On the substance: Throughout Zimmerman describes the matrix as a framework for the “issue in question” not venturing into the more general descriptors for the world or the systems as a whole

  • On the regions (simple, complex etc): During practical Action Research with a management team enthusiastic for Complexity Science they observed how they ‘seemed to complexify some very simple issues and drop some of the more challenging …’. As a result Zimmerman presented the board with the revised matrix asking the board to ‘pin’ their issues in the relevant zone.

  • On the use: Participants are asked to identify concrete examples from their workplace for each region.

Image Credit: The 1996 Zimmerman Layer 2 simplified structure.

Muddying the waters Zimmerman also introduced a derivative, an overlay adaptation produced by one of her consulting clients (Dr Stephen Larned) with Zimmerman making the comment: “Larned’s value added is twofold. First he demonstrates the value of owning your own models. Second Larned shows specific and concrete examples of how his management and leadership style need to vary by context”.

Image Credit: Larned overlay introduced by Zimmerman in 1996

Could “Change Work Processes” occur anywhere in the Layer 2 logic of simple, complex etc? Probably yes. I view the Larned adaptation as one of many problematic adaptations and overlays to the Zimmerman Layer 2, unconnected to Stacey's original Layer 1 logic. 


Zimmerman’s stated use of simple, complex etc in her Layer 2 is clearly focused on the apparent ‘fit’ between the situation and the decision making / intervention. It is a heuristic for the mismatch in approach - between too simple an intervention for a complex situation or too complex an intervention for a simple situation. [With echoes here of Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. Her thinking recognises Complex etc is not a property of the system but a property of a personal and idiomatic reflection on the issue in question itself related to the proposed decision/intervention. 

Re-reading the original work I note the important aspects which were quickly overlooked. It begins with her clear description of the classification of multiple “issue(s) in question” and “concrete example from experience”. The method is applied to the observer’s view (abstraction) of the world and not to the world itself and this imagery is pinned by fact (the call for concrete examples). Here Zimmerman is crystal clear and maintains the distinction between the real and the abstract.

Other writers such as Harold Nelson recognise this same transition between definitions of ideal, Real and True (see diagram below). 

Image Credit: Design-Based Research Methods in CSCL: Calibrating our Epistemologies and Ontologies, 2021, DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.31503.20642

In his comments above Geoff approached the navigation of real, true and ideal from the standpoint of language. This is a fundamental observation which ties into understanding of narrative as the ‘container’ (TFH Allen writing about Hierarchy Theory / Narratives and Transdisciplines for a Post-Industrial World, 2006) for ideas which allow the communication of incomplete and inconsistent concepts. 


In that logic narratives are positioned as the fix for when the hard logic of scientific reductionism breaks down. This is intrinsic to when the booming, buzzing excitement of half-formed ideas is refined through language into concepts others can understand, can build upon and can share. 

Aside from a rather ‘pat’ observation that this ideation process is complex the Zimmerman Layer 2 classification does not help this process of creativity, as might be anticipated from what is a classification device for types of decision/intervention.

In introducing the simpler Layer 2 version of the Stacey matrix Zimmerman produced a valuable heuristic for a team setting struggling with a number of issues in question and tasked at delivering proportionate responses. 

One could make the case that it is connected to and coherent with Design Thinking and Systems Thinking. However, as is evident in the later adaptation attempts that generalize and broaden the use of the approach in ways that often undermine its essential integrity. 

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” H. L. Mencken

GK VanPatter:

In the big picture sense, I think it would help us if we can think about what we are looking at here from the perspective of different disciplines, different knowledge communities moving forward at different speeds on very different timelines. The way I make sense of such pictures is by asking: Where (in what discipline) did they start? What is their target destination? …and What is in their luggage that helps or hinders them in their new target context?

To keep it simple; In the applied creativity community Sid Parnes published Creative Behavior Guidebook in 1968. Ralph Stacey from management/decision support arrived with Complexity and Creativity in Organizations, talking up behaviors in 1996. From the design community Harold Nelson/Erik Stolkerman’s Design Way arrived in 2014. That’s a 46 year spread, with 28 years between the Parnes Guidebook and Staceys focus on creativity in organizations. 


In the description being referenced by Roger, we can see Zimmerman (writing from a business school) pointing out in the 1990s that; “Stacey calls the larger center region [of Stacey Matrix] the Zone of Complexity, others call it the Edge of Chaos. In the Zone Complexity the traditional management approaches are not very effective but it is the zone of high creativity, innovation and breaking with the past to create new modes of operating.” 

OK so according to Professor Zimmerman within “the zone of complexity” traditional management approaches (taught in graduate business schools) are not effective and thus what is being sought is high creativity, innovation, breaking with the past and creating new models. Got it!

Suffice it to say that it has been clear in the applied creativity community for many decades that “breaking and creating new modes” cannot be achieved via convergent thinking, decision support. Not a good fit to the new target destination. 

It is likely that by 2014 when the Design Way appeared numerous disciplines were/are already at the “breaking and creating new modes” party, including the emerging practice community within design, as well as applied creativity and others. Perhaps we might get to that timeline more in a future Part 3 of this conversation. 

Geoff Elliott:

Building on Rogers comments above; while language and the use of words is important it is well known that any problematic situation involves an interplay between the approach/method taken, the analyst (never have a favorite weapon) and the context/situation. 


The shape of the Geoffrey Vickers diagrams below, indicating the interaction of the method, analyst and problem context; will vary according to whether there is an outside consultant, an internal consultant or the consultant and client are the same person. 


These can be redrawn as a model of the structural elements in situations where the role of analyst, client and problem owner are all to be considered as separate and where the analyst has an existence outside of the organization. The enduring question is always:  Who holds the dominant view and why? Can these views ever be coincidental without resulting to Group Think?

To me, both Stacey and his many subsequent adaptors ignore the interplay between the role of analyst, the problem context and method. 

Image Credit: “Human Systems are Different” by Sir Geoffrey Vickers, his last major work that was published posthumously. 

Vickers' view was that “Organizations are socio-technical systems and people behave purposefully.” 

This dimension also seems to be missing in the Stacey Matrix layer 1 and numerous subsequent iterations/adaptations. To quote Roger: “I interpret this by observing that Complex etc is not a property of the system but a property of my own reflection on the issue in question itself related to the proposed decision/intervention”.

GK VanPatter:


It does occur to me that the three of us are looking from different countries, different disciplines, different tribes at a historic picture that is still evolving. On view in this bumpy conversation is the very phenomenon that we describe, Relative Viewing (Second Order Systems Thinking). All good and useful. 


What I see is that the 1996 Layer 2, attributed to Zimmerman denoting Simple, Complex etc. became the star and a new superseding foundation. Essentially it becomes the Stacey inspired Zimmerman Matrix. Derivative versions cascaded forward into further adaptations and configurations. Professor Zimmerman’s Layer 2 model proved to be more versatile/applicable/useful to others than Professor Stacey’s original Layer 1 which was focused narrowly on categories of convergent thinking, presented as apples and oranges by its author as decision-making. In that context, at that circa 1996 time, what was important to the author and his presumed audience was consideration of “Certainty” and “Agreement”. 

As a professor of management in a business school Stacey was strategizing and writing from a specific country; management, decision theory, decision advocacy, decision support. Coming from a management background Stacey was primarily making his argument against aspects of his own tribe that he described as conventional management conformity.



Stacey Matrix Layer 1 was/is essentially a decision support framework coming from the direction of a scholar on a journey from management and decision support to the then/and now hotter topics of creativity in organizations, innovation, organizational transformation and complexity. That was the destination, the prize, not just for Stacey but with his encouragement, an entire stream of management school educated folks seeking to move beyond the orthodox logics of conventional management and into the business of creativity, innovation and organizational transformation.

Seeing the world outside changing, Stacey was in 1996, writing about the need to get there, how best to get there and what to do when you get there from his not very well acknowledged, decision-support perspective. On Stacey’s journey, in his luggage was heavy orientation to convergent thinking/decision making, including the matrix tool and more.


The complexity, the wrinkle, was/is that several giant Stacey philosophical/conceptual leaps were also on board in his luggage regarding “shadow” culture and his view on the relationship between convergent thinking and change making. 

As far as I can tell, Professor Stacey did not extend his arguments to the applied creativity communities that existed at that time, already focused in the direction of nonconformity, innovation, organizational creativity, capacity building, culture building and organizational change-making, communities that he seemed to know little about.

IF ONLY 1996

Key to making sense of this part of the picture is to appreciate that those applied creativity communities, with their deep methods knowledge tended, at that time and still today, to have a very different, more holistic view of organizational innovation/changemaking and the sub-set role of convergent thinking within. This awareness is not found in the Stacey materials. 

Difficult truth: That awareness is missing from much of conventional management literature in general as Zimmerman pointed out. It would have been great to put Sid Parnes, Ruth Nollar or another applied creativity pioneer/scholar in the room with Stacey in 1996 when he was working on his convergent thinking oriented “matrix” but alas that did not occur.


As the original Stacey Layer 1 gets jettisoned in later adaptations, it is the Zimmerman Layer 2 that has the longevity and becomes the generic foundation in numerous adaptations. A quick visual Google search for “Stacey Matrix” indicates that in a 100 diagram sample, 88 of them that pop up are actually NOT Stacey’s Layer 1 but rather the Zimmerman Layer 2.

Image Credit: Google search generated

Of course, versions of Layer 2; Simple, Complex, etc. have long existed as a generic foundation (in numerous different visual configurations) in several other changemaking disciplines including applied creativity / CPS (Creative Problem Solving). Across the span of many decades there have been numerous complexity scales, system complexity scales, problem scales, problem ladders, complexity hierarchies, etc. created.  

Who could forget Kenneth Boulding's 1956 Nine Level Scale of System Complexity or from the Middle Ages, Aristotle's Complexity Scale, Great Chain of Being (Ladder of Being)? Many less famous “complexity scales” also exist. In other disciples the consideration across those terms Simple, Complex, etc is not focused on convergent thinking/decision making categorization. The idea of a complexity related scale or lens is not a new concept.

Setting aside the perplexing, suggested adjacencies copied from Layer 1, many would find the basic structure of the Zimmerman Layer 2 useful as a bare-bones discussion tool that allows for sensemaking dialogue around what various parties might see from their perspectives as Simple, Complex, etc. In real world sensemaking & changemaking practice that discussion may or may not have anything to do with convergent thinking categories.


As various model alteration authors moved away from the original Stacey Layer 1, the notions of “Certainty” and “Agreement” were often altered, as were the adjacency configurations/depictions as well as the focus on convergent thinking categorization.



Of course, all the dimensions; Simple, Complex, etc. are relative to viewers and thus in real world practice warrant discussion to surface commonalities, disagreements and or disconnects. That is straight forward sensemaking 101 stuff. We might point out that it is the sensemaking discussion that is emergent, not the framework itself..:-) Regarding the basic mechanics of making the complex clear in diagram form, it would have been great to put Stacey in the room with Richard Wurman in 1996 but alas that did not happen either. Had that happened the matrix would probably look quite different. 


The jump by others from Stacey’s categorizing of convergent thinking types to the broader consideration of situations, challenges, problems and systems is without doubt the biggest, foggiest, not well recognized, often not well thought-through leap of logic seen around the Stacey Matrix adaptations or derivatives if Roger prefers that term..:-). Often there is no distinction being made between looking at decision types and the slippery upward slope of looking at broader units of problems, situations, or systems. Consultants making no distinction tend to muddy the waters, adding confusion, not clarity. 


In abandoning the matrix logic Stacey himself cautioned that it tended to “sustain the dominant discourse on management while using an alternate jargon of complexity”. I do think it is important in this conversation to take note that Stacey did not just abandon his matrix diagram, but perhaps more importantly he arrived at the belief that the complicated/complex debate was rather futile in that complexity exists at many levels in organizations. Apparently he no longer used the matrix. Date unknown when that actually occurred. Clearly many of the subsequently arriving adapters did not get that memo, or had other plans for the subject of complexity. 



As if loading in extraordinary promises or functionalities into a tool, many of the alterations, added after Stacey’s departure from the matrix extend far beyond the original focus of Layer 1. There must be 30-50 or more adaptations. Some are tweaks, others are complete overhauls. (See Adaptations Inventory below.)


Opposite to emerging sensemaking, some of the layers added by others later are presented as fixed which adds yet more confusion. What and where is “Best Practice” 

would be an example of a relative consideration being presented as fixed. In addition is the question of; “Best Practice” for what: decision-making? sensemaking? complex problem finding/solving? innovation? innovation enabling? organizational transformation? These are all different things, requiring different skill-sets.. In real life, one organization’s Best Practice might be another’s Emerging Practice. One organization might contain Best Practice for decision-making and Worst Practice for culture building. As Geoff has often pointed out: all is relative in these organizational pictures. Why confuse by suggesting these are fixed? What interest does that serve?


As the adaptations become more and more loaded, it is often making sense of the consultant theoretical explanations that becomes the challenge rather than the mechanics of the original Stacey Layer 1 matrix itself. Moving away from clarity-making towards confusion-making (“jargon of complexity” as Stacey himself referred to it) seems to be a hallmark of numerous later adaptations. 



Taking a quick inventory of adaptations/additions looks like this: 


Layer 1: Original Stacy Matrix


Layer 2 Adaptation: Simple, Complex, etc. (attributed to Zimmerman)


Additional Adaptations By Others: (not in consecutive order)


Layer 3 Adaptation: How/What

Layer 4 Adaptation: Basic Condition/Leading Position

Layer 5 Adaptation: Waterfall/Agile/Scrum

Layer 6 Adaptation: Lean/Waterfall/Agile/DesignThinking

Layer 7 Adaptation: Requirements/Approach to Solution

Layer 8 Adaptation: Requirements/Technological Realization

Layer 9 Adaptation: KnownTechnology/StableRequirements

Layer 10 Adaptation: RationalControl/PoliticalControl 

Layer 11 Adaptation: GoodPractices/Best Practice/Emerging Practice

Layer 12 Adaptation: Procedure Scripts/Sense/Respond/Etc

Layer 13 Adaptation: Predictive/Adaptive Planning

Layer 14 Adaptation: Requirements (What)/Technology (How)

Layer 15 Adaptation: How to do/What to do

Layer 16 Adaptation: Need the What/Solution the How

Layer 17 Adaptation: Approach/Goals

Layer 18 Adaptation: Challenges/Solutions

Layer 19 Adaptation: Simple/Waterfall/Complex/Scrum

Layer 20 Adaptation: DesignThinking/ProcessImprovement

Layer 21 Adaptation: WellOrderedGoals/TracableProblems

Layer 22 Adaptation: Direct/ChangeWorkProcesses/ModifyStructure

Layer 23 Adaptation: ManagingPreformance/EnablingPreformance

Layer 24 Adaptation: TightlyConstrained/GoverningConstraints 

Layer 25 Adaptation: What’s the Problem?/Best way to Solve?

Layer 26 Adaptation: Telling/Selling/Consulting/Cocreation

Layer 27 Adaptation: Standards Rational/OdeologicalExperimental

Layer 28 Adaptation: Clear/Complicated/Complex

Layer 29 Adaptation: Known/Unknow/Clear/Unclear

Layer 30 Adaptation: Linear/Adaptive/Risky

Layer 31 Adaptation: Ordinary Management/ExtraordinaryManagement/Chaos

Layer 32+ Others TBD


On and on it goes. At this point it’s a runaway train of adaptations, alterations, additions, reconfigurations. Some consultants seem to believe that anything and everything can be grafted onto Zimmerman’s Layer 2 terminologies. Some of the adaptation models remind me of the many bad corporate PowerPoints we see with everything including the kitchen sink loaded into one screen…:-)


Stepping back to consider the activity of the matrix in practical use, outside of academia, I notice that when it comes to actual organizational intervention the Stacey Matrix approach seems to be over-simplified and lacking a few key tangible pieces in comparison to how a preliminary preconsult is undertaken via CPS. 

A CPS preconsult involves a group of stakeholders including the problem owner(s) taking an early guess (without all the facts on hand) at what the conditions and parameters of the fuzzy situation(s) might be. Much of what is being considered is not retrospective or fully formed. Key is that in CPS, the preliminary guestimate exercise is followed up with an actual determination cocreated by participants. 

In the followup Open Framing determination part a systemic picture is cocreated by participants indicating how various challenges are interconnected. The robust nature of that follow up part is very different from the initial guessing game part.

In the Stacey approach the emphasis is on the guessing part narrowed to decision considerations via the matrix but the determinative systemic picture follow up part seems to be missing. In that approach there is no systemic way to cocreate and then indicate what the challenges actually are beyond the guessing game, and beyond the matrix structure itself. It's an emphasis and absence that cascades forward into the wild west consulting arenas of today where the initial guessing exercise logic is now often being creatively positioned as robust and even scientific. I have a hunch that this in part is what Stacey grew uncomfortable with and suggested instead that the guessing exercise and the categories within be considered at best metamorphic. 


Perhaps not so clear due to the emphasis of Stacey Matrix Layer 1 is that any problématique larger than a decision is going to require more changemaking, more complex problem solving skills beyond decision making. In many cases it would be those more complex skills that organizations including leadership often do not yet have synchronized to the levels of complexities being encountered today. Those skills extend far beyond prescribing decision-making techniques so it’s not a matter of choosing if the skillsets and toolsets are not present..:-) 

Conveying the message that the heavy lift for leadership is over, that the work is done once the initial guessing game is complete is among the sketchy feel-good narratives around the matrix logic that has been cascaded forward into today. Positioning the matrix guessing game logic and or its many variations as the intervention rather than a preconsult exercise skews expectations into fantasyland. Readers can decide if that guessing exercise is complexity theater or something else. 

Bottom line is that in the real world the guessing exercise is not the intervention. The exercise game skills are not the intervention skills. One might ponder: By accident or by design did the 1996 Stacey Matrix, its guessing orientation and its convergent thinking orientation play a role in igniting over-simplified expectations around what it takes to undertake intervention in the context of complex organizational systems? Stacey seemed to want to put some of that over-simplification genie stuff back in the bottle but it was too late. 

How did expectations regarding tackling organizational and societal innovation/changemaking get so out of whack at a time when many organizations, communities and the planet are in need of serious heavy-lift attention? That could be an interesting future survey…:-) 

Whether various adaptations can realistically be loaded onto the matrix or not, at the end of the day the adaptations become a commentary on what it is that folks are trying to make sense of, with complexity being only one of those factors.


If there is good news there it is that the common sense foundational words seen in the Zimmerman Layer 2; Simplicity, Complexity, etc. were not then, and are not now owned by any firm or anyone so ongoing experiments by others making use of those terms are certainly possible and no doubt needed.


The narrative suggesting that the framework with the same dimensions as Layer 2 is now somehow magically not categorization but emergent seems to epitomize the degree to which some of the adaptation explanations have veered far from the land of common-sense sensemaking. I would love to see the look on Richard Wurman’s face hearing that “emergent framework” explanation..:-) Good luck with that one. 


As Roger pointed out earlier, more good news is that looking closely, it’s not difficult to see that underneath the heat of arguing against management conformity and apart from the misfire on shadow culture, Professor Stacy acknowledged the importance of “ordinary management” and “extraordinary management” co-existing with the goal of building adaptive organizations. That maps more-or-less to the organizational/ behavioral ambidexterity logic of today. (Ambidexterity also has a long history.)


It did strike me as peculiar that although Stacey made reference to organizations needing to do and be both extraordinary and ordinary, his Layer 1 matrix structure is not well synced to that duality consideration. As far as I can tell, in the Stacey toolbox there is no Stacey created visual mechanism/tool to aid such conversations. There is such an avalanche of adaptations by others online that the question of who created what in the time line gets a little murky. In this model below described as Adaptation #31 in the Inventory above, the overlay of ordinary management and extraordinary management can be seen without any connection being made to ambidexterity. Organizations doing both at the same time is not really the focus of this adaptation nor is building the actual capacity to be able to do so the focus. 

Image Credit: Ralph Stacey and Decision Making, Steven Zuieback,  2023.

Suffice it to say such Ambidex conversational frameworks do exist and have existed for some time, coming from the direction of the organizational ambidexterity community. 

We use such a tool in Humantific practice which we refer to as Ambidexterity Continuum. It presents a different set of considerations from those of the matrix, not focused on decisions, or conventional management, not focused on positioning convergent thinking mastery as leadership.

I have to wonder; would it be more important to organizational leaders on a typical day, to discuss how much of what they are doing, would like to be doing and should be doing maps to extraordinary (exploration), or ordinary (exploitation) or would they prefer to debate what is complicated and what is complex, what the phase transitions are in the guessing game? Which would be more meaningful, actionable to real world organizational leaders? Which is most connected to becoming a more adaptive organization? Perhaps we could do a follow-up survey on that one too…:-)


Let’s talk shadows and paradoxes for a few minutes. Any scholar or practitioner from the long standing behavior-oriented applied creativity community would look at the Stacey journey from management to creativity and say it was wonderful that he discovered the role of behaviors in the 1990s. Did Stacey found or create some kind of new innovation behaviors movement? Don’t think so. Stacey was a late arrival at the innovation behaviors party and due to his luggage, missed a few key aspects that were already known.

Professor Stacey was correct that it is not the written plan that determines the day-to-day organizational culture or its capacity to change, to innovate, to create anew but rather the behaviors and power dynamics, acknowledged or unacknowledged, transparent or hidden that do so. 

Paradoxically Professor Stacey believed that others, not himself, are operating a shadow culture dynamic, hidden in plain sight that runs counter to and undermines stated organizational intentions. Oddly he failed to recognize that the hidden in plain sight preference toward the privileging of convergent thinking that he himself championed, embedded in the matrix, is the primary, often unacknowledged shadow in most organizations struggling with innovation and changemaking today. 


This odd twist represents one of the most complex aspects of the Stacey “paradox” picture, a perplexing mindbender to be sure. In some texts and videos Professor Stacey can be seen advocating for behavioral awareness and inclusion while simultaneously holding onto the convergent thinking shadow as part of his carry-over luggage. 


Swimming in his own shadow what is unacknowledged by Professor Stacey is that creating cognitive ambidexterity in real world organizational contexts, combining extraordinary “explorative” orientation with ordinary “exploitation” orientation (sometimes also referred to today as creating Psychological Safety or as creating Inclusive Culture) cannot be reached by privileging convergent thinking. Outside of the graduate business schools and decision-support, this has been known for several decades. 

With all due respect, much of what Professor Stacey had in mind for culture building falls away once we acknowledge that he missed his own shadow. 


One might wonder; How aware was Professor Stacey of the question of power in organizations? It appears that he was VERY aware. 

“If you don’t think about what you are doing you are trapped in the way you have always thought and therefore always done…Taking experience seriously: Rather than thinking about an organization as some thing that is being moved around, the focus of attention is on what we are actually doing at work everyday in relation to each other…how we are cocreating what happens to us….Central to our understanding of what goes on in organizations is the question of power relations. We understand power to be an aspect of every human relation which constrains us and enables us at the same time. Power is an enabling and constraining, or, constraining and enabling….We are not free to do just what we want because we depend on other people, we need to sustain relationships…therefore we have to take into account their needs, otherwise we would be excluding. We know this from early in childhood.” 


A difficult truth is that none of those stated intentions and behaviors described by Stacey in that 2015 video align with the existence of the convergent thinking shadow dynamic.  What is visible there is an unintended paradox. Indeed two opposing ideas existing at the same time are present, but unfortunately only one is being acknowledged.

Trickle-down inclusion is when the talk of inclusion is on the table but the power is being held by traditional, often deeply rooted, not well acknowledged dynamics. 

Many in the boomer generation became trained to accept trickle-down inclusion but it seems clear that the arriving generation has different ideas in mind regarding organizational dynamics, power, fairness, demasking and authenticity.  

Knowing what is known now, the cascading forward of the Stacey convergent privileging shadow is perhaps the most counter-productive, out-of-place, out-of-time aspect of that manifesto when the mission is, not routine orthodox management, but rather proactive transformation, creative changemaking, adaptive capacity building. That shadow flies in the face of, runs contrary to, is in direct contradiction to stated intentions regarding the objective of building adaptive capacity. In real life, enormous generative thinking must be present for that to occur. Convergent thinking will not deliver that capacity. 

One might wonder what was that; Stacey talking up the significance of shadow culture while not acknowledging his own shadow? Was that a three dimensional chess move?, a significant blind-spot? an oversight? a Jedi mind-trick? We might have different opinions on that, especially in terms of how that shadow has cascaded forward.


The narrowly focused original Stacey matrix itself is rather harmless in comparison to that rather lingering privileging shadow that can be seen embedded in several Stacey Matrix/Zimmerman adaptations/evolutions and among his present day adapters, followers, antagonists. It is true that often the Layer 1 Stacey Matrix was abandoned, however let’s be aware that for some, the deeply rooted, unacknowledged shadow dynamic was not left behind.


Not just an artifact of the past, that shadow is a legacy being ambitiously transported forward into the realm of complexity, as if it is a recognized pillar that has some special significance there when it does not. 

In human terms privileging that shadow is the equivalent to leaving half the team behind. Who wants to stand up and explain why the organization is insisting on leaving half the team, half the brainpower behind due to the not strategically aligned philosophical orientations of a few loud voices with a particular set of luggage? :-)

It’s no secret that continuing that privileging shadow is a feel-good siren-song that is easy for consultants to sell into many organizations but there is now clearly more involved in collaborative changemaking leadership, innovation leadership, psychological safety and innovation culture building than that siren.

In addition, there are many financial implications for building a cognitively imbalanced culture. Today, unhappy employees in work environments tend to vote with their feet which can be disruptive and expensive for employers. Cognitive inclusion has become strategic. 

To be fair to a new generation arriving with very different tolerances and work expectations from the boomers, importing that unacknowledged privileging shadow is not how we want to be building organizational cultures today and tomorrow. 

It’s a choice that we all get to make.

I’m glad we had this chat on this important topic. For now this will constitute my final observations/comments on the Stacey Matrix. Let’s take a break after this Part 2. Perhaps we can do an Epilogue round up Part 3 later. Good night from NYC!

Geoff Elliott

In summary, I think the Stacey matrix  and variations of, serve primarily as “language games”. The Inuit people, for example, have about 64 agreed words based on a collective definition and use  (experiential knowledge) of “observers” to describe sea ice. Context matters, especially if it is a question of life or death.

We, however,  tend to use the words simple, complicated, complex etc in a context free sense irrespective of the axes in Stacey Matrix. We believe we know what they mean but clearly a wide variation of interpretations are typically present. 

To quote Roger: “Complex etc is not a property of the system but a property of my own reflection on the issue in question itself related to the proposed decision/intervention”. To me the role of observer and the observed is important. In this context, Stacey and some of the later arriving adapters seem to ignore the role of the observer and the interplay between the role of analyst, the problem context and method. 

In other words, the importance of sources of knowledge (experiential), power and motivation. The motivation behind the Stacey Matrix to me is unclear (decision making / academic modeling?), whereas the Zimmerman diagram leads to further inquiry (divergent and convergent thinking) irrespective of the exact meaning of the axes.

Roger James:

To conclude I would like to discuss the issue of usefulness, as exemplified by the George Box dictum:-)

The ‘small print’ from Box’s writings include: “however the approximate nature of the model must always be borne in mind” and so “the question  you need to ask is not ‘Is the model true?’ (it never is) but ‘Is the model good enough for this particular application?’”

This is the big leap and danger in the derivative use of the Stacey/Zimmerman models where the apparently small details are overlooked and the model is used well beyond its limit of applicability. 

The ‘rot’, if it can be described this way, started with the Larned derivative. Obviously useful to the originator it was then adopted by Zimmerman and described formally as the work of Stacey (although there was no evidence in the literature for this). Jumping from a specific application of the Stacey /Zimmerman models to a generalized application is a misstep worthy or note seen in many of the adaptations. Beware of the terminology “modified from Ralph Stacey” or “modified from Stacey Matrix.” You may be looking at a modification based on a modification of a modification. 

Here in this conversation we analyzed the work of Stacey and Zimmerman literally, but what if it was intended as a Metaphor which by definition should not be taken literally?

Nelson and Stolterman in The Design Way describe design as an emergent process composed of iteration between aspects of the real, the ideal and the true. Like the children’s game paper-rock-scissors no single aspect has superiority over the others but, contextually, the observer has to shift position between the limitation of the situation (real), the expectations for change (the ideal) and the imaginative predictions we can make (the true). 

Image Credit: Roger James based on the work of Nelson & Stolterman, in The Design Way, 2014

The process for navigating this sensemaking space is one of hallucination where we temporarily lose touch with reality when we construct abstract models of behavior and selective metaphors.

GK talked about the shadow system and Geoff described various language games. There is nothing untoward with this, we all dream and navigate a world of the artificial (paraphrasing Herb Simon). It is when we confuse the different worlds that problems begin.

I started with George Box and it is appropriate to end with another quotation from his work, in our sensemaking we ‘yin and yang’ between fact and opinion and, critically, we need to know where we sit on that spectrum. Otherwise we are led by delusion. It is only in recognising and protecting the place in which our thinking originates that we produce something other than wishful supposition.

It is widely recognized that the advancement of learning does not proceed by conjecture alone, nor by observation alone, but by an iteration involving both. Certainly, scientific investigation proceeds by such iteration. Examination of empirical data inspires a tentative explanation which, when further exposed to reality, may lead to its modification. . . .

Now, since scientific advance, to which all statisticians must accommodate, takes place by the alternation of two different kinds of reasoning, we would expect also that two different kinds of inferential process would be required to put it into effect.

The first, used in estimating parameters from data conditional on the truth of some tentative model, is appropriately called Estimation. The second, used in checking whether, in the light of the data, any model of the kind proposed is plausible, has been aptly named by Cuthbert Daniel Criticism.

Without recognising the difference between any model and all reality we succumb to a rachet of delusion - in Daniel/Box’s thinking Criticism is the wake-up call. 

From that perspective; The absence of Criticism starts as a minor aid to thinking but becomes a major liability to seeing clearly. 

Metaphors such as “cliffs of complexity”, “phase transitions of chaos” etc. can be taken too far, serving not as sensemaking but rather a hallucinatory hindrance to real world understanding.

This is the effect of the wilder interpretations/adaptations of Stacey’s principles and Zimmerman’s interpretations in the context of today.


To go back to Part 1 of this conversation click here.

Epilogue coming soon!

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