Searching for a Simpler Way
to Lead Organizations
I am not alone in wondering why organizations aren't working well. Many of
us are troubled by questions that haunt our work. Why do so many
organizations feel lifeless? Why do projects take so long, develop ever-greater
complexity, yet too often fail to achieve any truly significant results?
Why does progress, when it appears, so often come from unexpected places, or
as a result of surprises or synchronistic events that our planning had not
considered? Why does change itself, that event we're all supposed to be
"managing," keep drowning us, relentlessly making us feel less capable and
more confused? And why have our expectations for success diminished to the
point that often the best we hope for is endurance and patience to survive the
frequent disruptive forces in our organizations and lives?
These questions had been growing within me for several years, gnawing
away at my work and diminishing my sense of competency. The busier I
became with work and the more projects I took on, the greater my questions
grew. Until I began a journey.
Like most important journeys, mine began in a mundane place-a Boeing
757, flying soundlessly above America. High in the air as a weekly commuter
between Boston and Salt Lake City, with long stretches of reading time broken
only by occasional offers of soda and peanuts, I opened my first book on the
new science-Fritjof Capra's The Turning Point, which describes the new world
view emerging from quantum physics. This provided my first glimpse of a new
way of perceiving the world, one that comprehended its processes of change, its
deeply patterned nature, and its dense webs of connections.
I don't think it accidental that I was introduced to a new way of seeing at
37,000 feet. The altitude only reinforced the message that what was needed was
a larger perspective, one that took in more of the whole of things. From that
first book, I took off, reading as many new science books as I could find in
biology, evolution, chaos theory, and quantum physics. Discoveries and theories
of new science called me away from the details of my own field of management
and raised me up to a vision of the inherent orderliness of the universe, of
creative processes and dynamic, continuous change that still maintained order.
This was a world where order and change, autonomy and control were not the
great opposites that we had thought them to be. It was a world where change
and constant creation were ways of sustaining order and capacity.
I don't believe I could have grasped these ideas if I had stayed on the ground.
During the past several decades, books that relate new science findings for
lay readers have proliferated, some more reputable and scientific than others.
Of the many I read, some were too challenging, some were too bizarre, but
others contained images and information that were breathtaking. I became
aware that I was wandering in a realm that created new visions of freedom and
possibility, giving me new ways to think about my work. I couldn't always draw
immediate connections between science and my dilemmas, but I noticed myself
developing a new serenity in response to the questions that surrounded me. I
was reading of chaos that contained order; of information as an essential,
nourishing element; of systems that fell apart so they could reorganize
themselves; and of invisible influences that permeate space and affect change at
a distance. These were compelling, evocative ideas, and they gave me hope,
even if they did not reveal immediate solutions.
Somewhere-I knew then and believe even more firmly now-there is a
simpler way to lead organizations, one that requires less effort and produces
less stress than our current practices. For me, this new knowledge is now
crystallizing into applications even as I realize that this exploration will take
many years. But I no longer believe that organizations are inherently
unmanageable in this world of constant flux and unpredictability. Rather, I
believe that our present ways of organizing are outmoded, and that the longer
we remain entrenched in our old ways, the further we move from those
wonderful breakthroughs in understanding that the world of science calls
"elegant." The layers of complexity, the sense of things being beyond our
control and out of control, are but signals of our failure to understand a deeper
reality of organizational life, and of life in general.
We are all searching for this simpler way. In every academic discipline and
institution, we live today with questions for which our expertise provides no
answers. At the turn of the century, physicists faced the same unnerving confusion.
There is a frequently told story about Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg,
two founders of quantum theory. This version is from The Turning Point:
In the twentieth century, physicists faced, for the first time, a serious
challenge to their ability to understand the universe. Every time they asked
nature a question in an atomic experiment, nature answered with a
paradox, and the more they tried to clarify the situation, the sharper the
paradoxes became. In their struggle to grasp this new reality, scientists
became painfully aware that their basic concepts, their language, and their
whole way of thinking were inadequate to describe atomic phenomena.
Their problem was not only intellectual but involved an intense emotional
and existential experience, as vividly described by Werner Heisenberg: "I
remember discussions with Bohr which went through many hours till very
late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the
discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to
myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be so absurd as it
seemed to us in these atomic experiments?"
It took these physicists a long time to accept the fact that the paradoxes
they encountered are an essential aspect of atomic physics.... Once this
was perceived, the physicists began to learn to ask the right questions and
to avoid contradictions ... and finally they found the precise and
consistent mathematical formulation of [quantum] theory.
... Even after the mathematical formulation of quantum theory was
completed, its conceptual framework was by no means easy to accept. Its
effect on the physicists' view of reality was truly shattering. The new
physics necessitated profound changes in concepts of space, time, matter,
object, and cause and effect; and because these concepts are so fundamental
to our way of experiencing the world, their transformation came as a great
shock. To quote Heisenberg again: "The violent reaction to the recent
development of modern physics can only be understood when one realizes
that here the foundations of physics have started moving; and that this
motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science."
(Capra 1983, 76-77)
For the past several years, I have found myself often relating this story to
groups of people in organizations everywhere. The story speaks with a chilling
familiarity. Each of us recognizes the feelings this tale describes, of being mired
in the habit of solutions that once worked yet that are now totally
inappropriate, of having rug after rug pulled from beneath us, whether by a
corporate merger, reorganization, downsizing, or personal disorientation. But
the story also gives great hope as a parable teaching us to embrace our despair
as a step on the road to wisdom, encouraging us to sit in the unfamiliar seat of
not knowing and open ourselves to radically new ideas. If we bear the
confusion, then one day, the story promises, we will begin to see a whole new
land, one of bright illumination that will dispel the oppressive shadows of our
current ignorance. I still tell Heisenberg's story. It never fails to speak to me
from this deep place of reassurance.
I believe that we have only just begun the process of discovering and
inventing the new organizational forms that will inhabit the twenty-first
century. To be responsible inventors and discoverers, we need the courage to let
go of the old world, to relinquish most of what we have cherished, to abandon
our interpretations about what does and doesn't work. We must learn to see the
world anew. As Einstein is often quoted as saying: No problem can be solved
from the same consciousness that created it.
There are many places to search for new answers in a time of paradigm shifts.
For me, it was appropriate that my inquiry led back to the natural sciences, reconnecting
me to an earlier vision of myself. At fourteen, I aspired to be a space
biologist and carried heavy astronomy texts on the New York subway to weekly
classes at the Hayden Planetarium. These texts were far too dense for me to understand,
but I carried them anyway because they looked so impressive. My abilities
in biology were better founded, and I began college majoring in biology, but
my encounters with advanced chemistry ended that career, and I turned to the
greater ambiguity of the social sciences. Like many social scientists, I am at heart
a lapsed scientist, still hoping the world will yield up its secrets to me.
But my focus on science is more than a personal interest. Each of us lives
and works in organizations designed from Newtonian images of the universe.
We manage by separating things into parts, we believe that influence occurs as
a direct result of force exerted from one person to another, we engage in
complex planning for a world that we keep expecting to be predictable, and we
search continually for better methods of objectively measuring and perceiving
the world. These assumptions, as I explain in Chapter Two, come to us from
seventeenth-century physics, from Newtonian mechanics. They are the basis
from which we design and manage organizations, and from which we do
research in all of the social sciences. Intentionally or not, we work from a world
view that is strongly anchored in the natural sciences.
But the science has changed. If we are to continue to draw from science to
create and manage organizations, to design research, and to formulate ideas about
organizational design, planning, economics, human motivation, and change processes
(the list can be much longer), then we need to at least ground our work in
the science of our times. We need to stop seeking after the universe of the seventeenth
century and begin to explore what has become known to us during the
twentieth century. We need to expand our search for the principles of organization
to include what is presently known about how the universe organizes.
The search for the lessons of new science is still in progress, really in its
infancy; but what I hope to convey in these pages is the pleasure of sensing
those first glimmers of a new way of thinking about the world and its
organizations. The light may be dim, but its potency grows as the door cracks
wider and wider. Here there are scientists who write about natural phenomena
with a poetry and a clarity that speak to dilemmas we find in organizations.
Here there are new images and metaphors for thinking about our own
organizational experiences. This is a world of wonder and not knowing, where
many scientists are as awestruck by what they see as were the early explorers
who marveled at new continents. In this realm, there is a new kind of freedom,
where it is more rewarding to explore than to reach conclusions, more
satisfying to wonder than to know, and more exciting to search than to stay put.
Curiosity, not certainty, becomes the saving grace.
This is not a book filled with conclusions, cases, or exemplary practices. It
is deliberately not that kind of book, for two reasons. First, I don't believe that
organizations are ever changed by imposing a model developed elsewhere. So
little transfers to, or inspires, those trying to work at change in their own
organizations. In every organization, we need to look internally, to see one
another as the critical resources on this voyage of discovery. We need to learn
how to engage the creativity that exists everywhere in our organizations.
Second, the new physics cogently explains that there is no objective reality out
there waiting to reveal its secrets. There are no recipes or formulas, no
checklists or expert advice that describe "reality." If context is as crucial as the
science explains, then nothing really transfers; everything is always new and
different and unique to each of us. We must engage with each other,
experiment to find what works for us, and support one another as the true
inventors that we are.
This book attempts to be true to that new vision of reality, where ideas and
information are but half of what is required to evoke reality. The creative
possibilities of the ideas represented here depend on your engagement with
them. I assigned myself the task of presenting material to provoke and engage
you, knowing that your experience with these pages will produce different
ideas, different hopes, and different experiments than mine. It is not important
that we agree on one expert interpretation or one best practice. That is not the
nature of the universe in which we live. We inhabit a world that co-evolves as
we interact with it. This world is impossible to pin down, constantly changing,
and infinitely more interesting than anything we ever imagined.
Though the outcomes to be gained from reading this book are unique to
each of you, the ideas I have chosen to think about focus on the meta-issues
that concern those of us who work in organizations: Where is order to be
found? How do complex systems change? How do we create structures that are
flexible and adaptive, that enable rather than constrain? How do we simplify
things without losing what we value about complexity? How do we resolve
personal needs for autonomy and growth with organizational needs for
prediction and accountability?
The new science research referred to in this book comes from the disciplines
of physics, biology, and chemistry, and from theories of evolution and
chaos that span several disciplines. Each chapter inquires into metaphorical
links between certain scientific perspectives and organizational phenomena, but
it may be useful first to say something about the direction of new science.
Scientists in many different disciplines are questioning whether we can adequately
explain how the world works by using the machine imagery emphasized
in the seventeenth century by such great geniuses as Sir Isaac Newton and
Rene Descartes. This machine imagery leads to the belief that studying the parts
is the key to understanding the whole. Things are taken apart, dissected literally
or figuratively (as we have done with business functions, academic disciplines,
areas of specialization, human body parts), and then put back together
without any significant loss. The assumption is that the more we know about
the workings of each piece, the more we will learn about the whole.
Newtonian science is also materialistic-it seeks to comprehend the world
by focusing on what can be known through our physical senses. Anything real
has visible and tangible physical form. In the history of physics and even to this
day, many scientists keep searching for the basic "building blocks" of matter,
the physical forms from which everything originates.
One of the first differences between new science and Newtonianism is a
focus on holism rather than parts. Systems are understood as whole systems,
and attention is given to relationships within those networks. Donella Meadows,
an ecologist and author, quotes an ancient Sufi teaching that captures this shift
in focus: "You think because you understand one you must understand two,
because one and one makes two. But you must also understand and" (1982,
23). When we view systems from this perspective, we enter an entirely new
landscape of connections, of phenomena that cannot be reduced to simple
cause and effect, or explained by studying the parts as isolated contributors. We
move into a land where it becomes critical to sense the constant workings of
dynamic processes, and then to notice how these processes materialize as
visible behaviors and forms.
Excerpted from "Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World" by Margaret J. Wheatley. Copyright © 2006 by Margaret J. Wheatley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.