Understanding policy implementation processes as self-organizing systems

Michael J.R. Butler, Peter M. Allen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Implementation studies and related research in organizational theory can be enhanced by drawing on the field of complex systems to understand better and, as a consequence, more successfully manage change. This article reinterprets data previously published in the British Journal of Management to reveal a new contribution, that policy implementation processes should be understood as a self-organizing system in which adaptive abilities are extremely important for stakeholders. In other words, national policy is reinterpreted at the local level, with each local organization uniquely mixing elements of national policy with their own requirements making policy implementation unpredictable and more sketchy. The original article explained different paces and directions of change in terms of traditional management processes: leadership, politics, implementation and vision. By reinterpreting the data, it is possible to reveal that deeper level processes, which are more emergent, are also at work influencing change, which the authors label possibility space. Implications for theory, policy and practice are identified.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)421-440
Number of pages20
JournalPublic Management Review
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • complexity
  • change management
  • policy implementation
  • receptivity
  • self-organizing systems


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