Winston Parva: an English village riven with division, the Establishment and the Great Unwashed forced to abide with each other in a valley of despair.

In the article, I’ll share what the tale of this village’s evolution can teach about complexity and managing organisations.

Winston Parva is actually the pseudonym of a village examined by two academics in the sixties. Complexity thinker Ralph Stacey relays their findings in his 2009 book Complexity and Organisational Reality.

An industrialist first set up a factory in Winston Parva in the early 1900s and by the 1960s it had grown into two villages in one location. Those in the ‘first village’ lived in accommodation that was built along with the original factory. In 1949, the UK government expanded the factory in support of the war effort. They imported new workers from East London and housed them in “The Estate” – a collection of slightly larger, new houses alongside the original villagers. Thus the ‘two villages’ were born.

The men from both populations mixed in the factory each day. However, outside of school and work, the families of The Estate and the original village communicated very little.

The researchers found this lack of integration odd. As Stacey relays “the only difference was that [] the newcomers [] had been there for [] quarter of a century, whereas the [others] had been there for over a century.” Gossip turned out to be a key factor. The original villagers described the Estate dwellers as poorly educated, bad parents. They viewed them as “dirty” and held that they “did not maintain their houses and gardens”. Interestingly, those on The Estate internalised this view, reluctantly agreeing with their neighbours.

Gossip as ideology

In Stacey’s analysis, the gossip became an ideology “mutually reproduced in ongoing communication” within and between the two sets of villagers. This was without any “fundamental hidden cause”.

As Stacey remarks, we can see how:

gossip sustains ideology, which generates processes of inclusion and exclusion.

This in turn,

sustain identities, all of which sustain patterns of power relations.

The power difference was illustrated by the fact that only the original villagers held official positions in the local administration, even after 25 years of those in The Estate living there.

What can we learn?

As Stacey observes, we see unconscious patterns of inclusion, exclusion and identity play out in the organisations we work in. Think of the front office and back office in banks. Sales and engineering in tech companies. Management and manufacturing in Industry.

Where in your company are quirks of boundaries, myth and history giving rise to unconscious patterns of identity reinforcement and behaviour?

When Glenda Eoyang describes human systems dynamics, she refers to containers, differences and exchanges as being the key vectors of influence in complex situations. In this story, we see how the containers of the two housing areas and the differences of history being important influences on local interaction and emergent outcomes – such as the lack of representation of those from the “Estate” on the village council.



How could you use an understanding of containers, differences and exchanges to make a change in your organisation?

If you’re interested in going deeper on the topic of complexity check our interviews with leading thinkers in this area Dave Snowden and Chris Mowles.

** For your free copy of our complexity primer, click here **