Beabout - Book Review: Wheatley's "Leadership and the New Science"

Wheatley, M.J. (1999). Leadership and the New Science. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

This book goes through a lot of the concepts that make up the post-Newtonian worldview (quantum physics, field theory, chaos, strange attractors, fractals, etc.). While it sometimes feels like she's auditioning for a part on the Oprah show, we should appreciate heavy work she has done in applying chaos and complexity topics in the physical sciences to the social sciences, in her case organizational leadership.

I don't provide too much of my own commentary here, as I feel like this is a good entry-level source for those beginning to grapple with Chaos and Complexity. I feel it's best just to quote her liberally, so here’s a breakdown of points I thought were important:

Chpt. 1: Discovering an Orderly World

  • Chaos theory has taught us that “a system can descend into chaos and unpredictability, yet within that state of chaos the system is held within boundaries that are well-ordered and predictable… Chaos is necessary for new creative orcdering.” (p. 13)
  • autopoiesis: “the ability of life to create itself” (p.20) Living systems, animals, organizations all have this capability to re-create themselves. This reproduction often involves changes that keep the system viable in its environment (think Darwin here)
  • paradox: “a living system produces itself; it will change in order to preserve that self. Change is prompted only when an organism decides that changing is the only way to maintain itself.” (p. 20)
  • dissipative structures: Associated with chemist Ilya Prigogine. These are processes of an organism that give off a system's energy and allow it to reorganize in a new form. Example: A private school sees dwindling enrollment numbers because it is not being perceived as doing a good job educating youth. As enrollment gets REALLY low, the school has to change (layoff teachers, re-think its mission, etc.) in order to stay in existence. Thus, the reliance on student enrollment and tuition could be thought of as a dissipative structure for the school.
  • “In a dissipative structure, anything that disturbs the system plays a crucial role in helping it self-organize into a new form of order.” (p. 21) (Hurricane Katrina?!)
  • “All this time we have created trouble for ourselves in organizations by confusing control with order. This is no surprise, given that for most of its written history, leadership has been defined in terms of its control functions. Lenin spoke for many leaders when he said: ‘Freedom is good, but control is better.’ And our quest for control has been oftentimes as destructive.” (p.24)

Chpt. 2. Newtonian Organizations in a Quantum Age

  • Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: Quantum particles can be thought of as particles (points in space) or waves (dispersed energy)- and an observer can’t ever see both at the same time. Think also of the Hawthorne Effect: observers, by their mere presence, change the phenomenon under study.
  • “There is no objective reality; the environment we experience does not exist ‘out there.’ It is co-created through our acts of observation, what we choose to notice and worry about.” (p.37)
  • Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric: “predicting is less important than reacting” (p. 38)
  • “To live in a quantum world, to weave here and there with ease and grace, we need to change what we do. We need fewer descriptions of tasks and instead learn how to facilitate process. We need to become savvy about how to foster relationships, how to nurture growth and development.” (p. 39)
  • “I have learned that in this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections” (p. 45) (see "Linked" by Barabási here)

Chpt. 3: Space is not Empty: Invisible Fields that Shape Behavior

  • Think of magnetic fields and gravitational fields- “fields are unseen forces, invisible influences in space that become apparent through their effects.” (p.51) This idea is based largely on the work of physicists Farraday and Maxwell.
  • ”If we were to observe fish, unaware of the medium of water in which they swim, we would probably look for explanations of their movements in terms of one fish influencing another. If one fish swam by and we observed the second fish swerving a little, we might think that the first fish was exerting a force on the second. But if we observed all the fish deflecting in a regular pattern, we might begin to suspect that some other medium was influencing their movements. We could test for this medium, even if it were still invisible to us, by creating disturbances in it and noting the reactions of the fish.“ (p. 51)
  • “In biology, Sheldrake has created a controversial concept of fields. He has postulated the existence of morphic fields that influence the behavior of species. This type of field possesses very little energy of its own, but it is able to shape energy that comes from another sources. Morphic fields are built up through the skills that accumulate as members of the same species learn something new (Sheldrake, 1985, p.82). After some number (not specified) of a species have learned a behavior, such as bicycle riding, others of that same species will be able to learn that skill more easily. The behavior collects in the morphic field, and when an individual’s energy combines with it , the field patterns the behavior of that individual. They don’t have to actually learn the skill; they pull it from the field. They learn it through “morphic resonance,” a process Sheldrake describes as individuals being influenced by others like them.” (p. 51)
  • This brings up the idea of organizational fields: forces that fill up the shared space in organizations. Culture, vision, values, and ethics come into play here. In a retail environment, she talks about various values that might exist: “customer service comes first”, “everyone needs to make their quota this month”, “the boss must look good at all times.” Congruence, is the extent to which the messages out there in the organizational field, work together to create a strong and easily understood field. For example, some of the messages in the retail example would lead to low congruence because they work against each other. (p. 54)

chpt. 4: The Participative Nature of the Universe

  • the story of Shroedinger’s cat: “A live cat is placed in a box. The box has solid walls, so no one outside the box can see into it. Inside the box, a device will triggerthe relsease of either poison or food; the probability of either occurrence is 50/50. Time passes. The trigger goes off, unobserved. The cat meets its fate…Schroedinger argues that the cat is both alive and dead until the moment we observe it. Inside the box, when no one is watching, the cat exists only as a probability… but it is impossible to say that the cat is living or dead until we observe it. (p.61)
  • Science writer Fred Allen Wolf: “If the world exists and is not objectively solid and preexisting before I come on the scene, then what is it? The best answer seems to be that the world is only a potential and not present without me or you to observe it. It is, in essence, a ghost world that pops into solid existence each time one of us observes it. All of the world’s events are potentially present, able to be but actually not seen or felt until one of us sees or feels.” (p. 63) [Anybody hear a tree falling in the woods about now?]
  • The double slit experiments. Elementary particles are passed through openings in a surface. If one slit is open, the particle acts like a particle. If both slits are open. It acts like a wave. Somehow, it knows whether or not the second hole is open. Additionally, when the electron is being recorded, it acts differently than when the recording apparatus is turned on.
  • ”Every act of measurement loses more information than it gains, closing the box irretrievably and forever on other potentials.” (p.66)
  • ”participation, seriously done, is a way out from the uncertainties and ghostly qualities of this nonobjective world we live in. We need a constantly expanding array of data views, and interpretations if we are to make wise sense of the world. We need to include more and more eyes. We need to be constantly asking: ‘Who else should be here? Who else should be looking at this?’” (p. 66)

Chpt. 5: Change, Stability, and Renewal: The Paradoxes of Self-Organizing Systems

  • From American Heritage: Equilibrium: 1. a condition in which all acting influences are cancelled by others resulting in a stable, balanced, or unchanging system. 2. Physics. The condition of a system in which the resultant of all acting forces is zero… 4. Mental or emotional balance; poise (p. 76)

“In my own life, I don’t experience equilibrium as an always desirable state… I’ve observed the search for organizational equilibrium as a sure path to institutional death, a road to zero trafficked by fearful people.”(p. 76)

  • “entropy is an inverse measure of a system’s capacity for change. The more entropy there is, the less the system is capable of changing.” (p. 76)
  • The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that all systems eventually wind-down and exhaust all their capacity for change. This law only applies to closed systems- not living systems. “everything alive is an open system that engages with its environment and continues to grow and evolve.” (p. 76)
  • System Feedback
  • Negative feedback (regulatory feedback)- Keeps a system on track, tells us when a system is not meeting its goals (think about a thermostat)
  • Positive feedback (amplifying feedback)- When something new enters the system and it is repeated throughout the system as a need to change

As systems partner or align with their environment, they don’t become slaves to the environment, but become sensitive to what changes in the environment should be considered carefully and which can be ignored. (p. 84)

  • Self reference: when a system changes in response to the environment, it will always change in “a way that it remains consistent with itself.” (p. 85)
  • self-organizing systems are stable over time, but this is possible only to the small changes within the system that keep it viable in the environment. (p. 86)
  • “it is not the law of large numbers or critical mass that creates change, but the presence of a small disturbance that gets into the system and aare mplified through the networks.” (p.87)
  • “If the amplifications increase to the level where they destabilize the system, the system can no longer remain as it is. It this moment, the system is at a crossroads, standing poised between death and transformation. In science, this is known technically as a bifurcation point.” (p. 88)
  • Co-evolution- through time the system changes its environment and the environment changes the system. (p. 87)

Chpt. 6: The Creative Energy of the Universe- Information

  • “In new theories of evolution and order, information is a dynamic, changing element, taking center stage. Without information, life cannot give birth to anything new; information is absolutely essential for the emergence of new order… A living being is not a stable structure, but a continuous process of organizing information.” (p.95)
  • “The greatest generator of information is the freedom of chaos, where every moment is new. With so much spawning going on, scientists feel obliged to watch carefully a chaotic system’s activity lest they miss something.” (p. 97) [This feels very close to the purpose of our new Orleans study presented to the SIG in Chicago]
  • “We can begin to see that organizational intelligence is not something that resides in a few experts, specialists, or leaders. Instead, it is a system-wide capacity directly related to how open the organization is to new and disconfirming information, and how effectively that information can be interpreted by anyone in the organization.” (p. 99)
  • “If we are seeking resilient organizations, a prized property of living systems, information is a key ally.” (p. 99)
  • ”When information is identified as meaningful, it is a force for change. In the system’s networks and feedback loops, such information circulates and grows and mutates in the conversations and interactions that occur. This process seems to be the way nature creates the well-ordered universe and diverse beauty that delights us:: Information is generated freely by the system and fed back on itself so that it continues to grow and change.” (p. 105)

Chpt. 7: chaos and the strange attractor of meaning

  • When the chaotic movements of a system form themselves into a shape, we call it a strange attractor (p. 116) Strange attractors: self portraits drawn by a chaotic system… Estimates are that there are only about two dozen different strange attractors.” (p. 123)
  • “Chaos is the last state before a system plunges into random behavior where no order exists. Not all systems move into chaos, but if a system becomes unstable, it will move first into a period of oscillation, swinging back and forth between two different states. After this oscillating stage, the next state is chaos, where everything should fall apart, the strange attractor emerges, and we observe order, not chaos.” (p.117)
  • “… scientists have developed new ways of observing the system’s wild and rich behavior. Its behavior is displayed in an abstract mathematical space called phase space. In phase space, scientists can track a system’s movement in many more dimensions than was previously possible. Shapes that could not be seen in only two dimensions now appear, dancing on the screen, luminous and enticing.” (p.188)
  • “Chaos theory studies a particular variety of chaos, known as deterministic chaos… Is this a deterministic world where our lives are predetermined? But if this is true, what about free will?” (p. 120) Wheatley argues that the general shape of system is bounded, but the individual movements are unpredictable.
  • “Fractals describe any object or form created rom repeating patterns evident at many levels of scale. There are an infinite number of fractals, both natural and man-made.” (p. 123)
  • Fractal questions:
  • How complex is the system? What are its distinguishing shapes? How do its patterns differ from other systems?
  • By p. 129-130, she gets into applying fractals to social systems and organizations. This feels overly deterministic to my and I don’t buy it.

Chpt. 8: Change- The Capacity of Life

  • “A system is composed of parts, but we cannot understand a system by looking only at its parts. We need to work with the whole of a system.” (p.139)
  • “the organization of a living system bears no resemblance to organization charts. Life uses networks: we still rely on boxes. But even as we are drawing our boxes, people are ignoring them and organizing as life does, through networks of reltationships.” (p.144)
  • “Although we see change at the material level, it is caused by process that are immaterial. We must look for these invisible processes rather than the things they engender.” (p. 153)

© 2007 B. Beabout

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