Journeying to a New World

by Aerin Dunford March 29, 2006

by Margaret Wheatley, 2006

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Twelve years after preparing the Second Edition of Leadership in the New Science, I’m still trying to come to terms with the experience of seeing, feeling, tasting and working earnestly from a new paradigm while living in the old one. And I’m more concerned than ever that we understand how crucial it is that we stay together and support one another.

I was in this work a few years before I was able to identify its real nature. I realized that I and others weren’t asking people simply to adopt some new approaches to leadership or to think about organizations in a few new ways. What we were really asking, and what was also being asked of us, was that we change our thinking at the most fundamental level, that of our world view. The dominant world view of Western culture–the world as machine–doesn’t help us to live well in this world any longer. We have to see the world differently if we are to live in it more harmoniously.

Once I understood the nature of the work, it helped me relax and be more generous. I learned that people get frightened if asked to change their world view. And why wouldn’t they? Of course people will get defensive; of course they might be intrigued by a new idea, but then turn away in fear. They are smart enough to realize how much they would have to change if they accepted that idea. I no longer worry that if I could just find the right words or techniques, or describe multiple case studies, I could convince people. I no longer expect a new world view to be embraced quickly; I don’t know if I’ll see it take root in my lifetime. I also know that people are being influenced from sources far beyond anyone’s control. I know many people who’ve been changed by events in their lives, not by words they read in a book.

These people have been changed by life’s great creative force, chaos. One of the gifts offered by this new world view is a clearer description of life’s cyclical nature. The mechanistic world view promised us lives of continual progress. Since we were in control and engineering it all, we could pull ourselves straight uphill, scarcely faltering. But life doesn’t work that way, and this new world view confirms what most of us knew–no rebirth is possible without moving through a dark passage. Dark times are normal to life; there’s nothing wrong with us when we periodically plunge into the abyss.

Over the past years, nudged by the science, I have come to know personally that the journey of newness is filled with the black potholes of chaos. The science has restrained me from trying to negotiate my way out of dark times with a quick fix. But even though I know the role of chaos, I still don’t like it. It’s terrifying when the world I so carefully held together dissolves. I don’t like feeling lost and emptied of meaning. I would prefer an easier path to transformation. But even as I experience their demands as unreasonable, I know I am in partnership with great creative forces. I know that chaos is a necessary place for me to dwell occasionally. So I have learned to sit with these dark moments–confused, overwhelmed, only faintly trusting that new insights will appear. I know that this is my only route to new ways of being.

The more I contemplate these times, when we truly are giving birth to a new world view, the more I realize that our culture has to take this journey through chaos. The old ways are dissolving, and the new is only beginning to show itself. To journey through chaos, we must engage with one another differently, as explorers and discoverers. I believe the passage is possible only if we claim these roles. We need to realize that no single person or school of thought has the answer, because what’s required is far beyond isolated answers. We need to realize that we must inquire together to find the new. We need to turn to one another as our best hope for inventing and discovering the worlds we are seeking.

The Irresistible Future of Organizing

by Aerin Dunford August 1, 1996

by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, 1996

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Why do so many people in organizations feel discouraged and fearful about the future? Why does despair only increase as the fads fly by, shorter in duration, more costly in each attempt to improve? Why have the best efforts to create significant and enduring organizational change resulted in so many failures? We, and our organizations, exist in a world of constant evolutionary activity. Why has change become so unnatural in human organizations?

We believe that the accumulating failures at organizational change can be traced to a fundamental but mistaken assumption that organizations are machines. Organizations-as-machines is a 17th century notion, from a time when scientists began to describe the universe as a great clock. Our modern belief in prediction and control originated in these clockwork images. Cause and effect were simple relationships; everything could be known; organizations and people could be engineered into efficient solutions. Three hundred years later, we still search for “tools and techniques” and “change levers”; we attempt to “drive” change through our organizations; we want to “build” solutions and “reengineer” for peak efficiencies.

But why would we want an organization to behave like a machine? Machines have no intelligence; they follow the instructions given to them. They only work in the specific conditions predicted by their engineers. Changes in their environment wreak havoc because they have no capacity to adapt.

These days, a different ideal for organizations is surfacing. We want organizations to be adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning, intelligent–attributes found only in living systems. The tension of our times is that we want our organizations to behave as living systems, but we only know how to treat them as machines.

It is time to change the way we think about organizations. Organizations are living systems. All living systems have the capacity to self-organize, to sustain themselves and move toward greater complexity and order as needed. They can respond intelligently to the need for change. They organize (and then reorganize) themselves into adaptive patterns and structures without any externally imposed plan or direction.

Self-organizing systems have what all leaders crave: the capacity to respond continuously to change. In these systems, change is the organizing force, not a problematic intrusion. Structures and solutions are temporary. Resources and people come together to create new initiatives, to respond to new regulations, to shift the organization’s processes. Leaders emerge from the needs of the moment. There are far fewer levels of management. Experimentation is the norm. Local solutions predominate but are kept local, not elevated to models for the whole organization. Involvement and participation constantly deepen. These organizations are experts at the process of change. They understand their organization as a process of continuous organizing.