For October’s Book Club session we read Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley. This book felt more like a metaphor than a guide. Dr. Wheatley pokes at what is wrong with the traditional 19th century leadership mindset (hierarchical in nature, where the organization runs best in an autocratic fashion–think Henry Ford and factories where every person performed a specific physical function in the line). She uses Newtonian dynamics to describe both why we are inclined to believe this is “the way”, but also what we have learned about how the world functions at the subatomic level invalidating this approach. The heart of her argument is that as descriptive and measurable as these kinds of cause and effect relationships are for describing the dynamics of large objects, it isn’t actually how humans, relationships, or organizations function.
Dr. Wheatley draws analogies between “new science” (chaos theory, quantum physics, and deeper understanding of biology) and organizational dynamics. In many ways we are chaotic, but our chaos is actually a path to self-organization, and her postulate is chaos is actually how we maximize creativity, learning, and fundamentally innovation. Chaos Theory is derived from the discoveries of “strange attractors” and fractals. “Strange attractors” prove that amidst seeming chaos and randomness, patterns evolve revealing an order that is at work in the universe. This evolution is non-linear which means that the slightest variation in the inputs can result in vastly different outputs. Applying this to organizations implies organizational behavior can be unpredictable (which anyone who has lived through change management knows).
On the other hand, fractals prove that the same simple pattern can be found repeated at many levels of observation forming an intricate object when viewed as a whole. Wheatley draws the analogy between an organization’s culture and fractals implying that “simply expressed expectations of purpose, intent, and values, and the freedom for responsible individuals to make sense of these in their own way” will enable individuals to self-organize without strict enforcement, and in fact that will be more predictable than a “structured” approach, since it is fundamentally how we all work. My engineering mind has a hard time believing values alone will enable self-organization, but I have definitely seen how clear goals with transparency around the measured results can rally people to a cause more effectively than tops-down micromanagement. Align with the team on what success looks like, and how we will measure; then see them execute.
One of my favorite sections was on Quantum Physics and its applicability to organizational dynamics. The analogy here is between humans and subatomic interactions “…no particle can be drawn independent from others (p. 34)” and “what is critical is the relationship created between two or more elements. Systems influence individuals, and individuals call forth systems (p.36).” This feels incredibly true in my observations. How someone shows up in a meeting depends on who else is present, and how that individual relates to those others. We are points on a wave, not individuals fixed in time and space. I have seen how teams can overdeliver (or under) relative to their intellectual capacity based entirely on the relationships between the individuals and their partners and customers. Our relative position is what matters most.
This book is an alternate paradigm to describe work and human relationships, and it is in no way a guidebook for managers. As such, I found myself seeing these analogies across work and life at every turn, but in no way felt clearer on how to execute effectively in that world. Sometimes uncertainty is the kind of discomfort that drives insight and breakthroughs. Nearly everyone in the book club enjoyed this book, and felt similarly around its lack of direct applicability, but beauty in terms of insight. I definitely recommend this book philosophically to question your assumptions about life and work. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotations from one of my favorite books of all time “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer,” – Rainer Maria Rilke