A Simpler Way
Margaret Wheatley & Myron Kellner-Rogers
This is a beautiful book with beautiful pictures and mental images. It is a hopeful book, and it is a profound book. Its mission is no less than to change our paradigm from competition to collaboration in how we perceive, think and act in all that we do. The authors' opening line is "We want life to be less arduous and more delightful. We want to be able to think differently about how to organize human activities."
They question the "survival of the fittest" paradigm for evolution and our mechanistic view of the world. "The mechanistic image of the world is a very deep image, planted at subterranean depths in most of us. But it doesn't help us any longer."
The authors pose the question, "How could we organizes human endeavor if we developed different understandings of how life organizes itself?" They have six beliefs about human organizations and the world in which they come into form:
"The universe is a living, creative, experimenting experience of discovering what's possible at all levels of scale from microbe to cosmos.
Life's natural tendency is to organize. Life organizes into greater levels of complexity to support more diversity and greater sustainability.
Life organizes around a self. Organizing is always an act of creating an identity.
Life self-organizes. Networks, patterns, and structures emerge without external imposition or direction. Organization wants to happen.
People are intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, and meaning seeking.
Organizations are living systems. They too are intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, meaning-seeking."
They argue that life has a natural and spontaneous tendency towards organization. "Whatever chaos is present at the start, when elements combine, systems of organization appear. Life is attracted to order - order gained through wandering explorations into new relationships and new possibilities."
The central part of the book is organized around a poem by A. R. Ammons:
"I look for the way
things will turn
out spiraling from a center,
things will take to come forth in
so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
totally its apparent self:
I look for the forms
things want to come as
from what black wells of possibility
how a thing will
not the shape on paper - though
that, too - but the
uninterfering means on paper:
not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
from the self not mine but ours."
The authors write, "Life is creative. It plays itself into existence, seeking new relationships, new capacities, new traits. Life is an experiment to discover what's possible."
They believe Darwinism has led us to believe that life wasn't supposed to happen, that it was an accident, and that life has to fight to continue to exist. In their view, "Life is about invention, not survival. We are here to create, not defend."
They point out that all of us are trying to describe our reality to others. But reality outside of us, in an absolute sense, evades us. "We peer out through our senses, describing our experiences of what we think reality to be. We choose images to convey our expereince. We create metaphors to connect what we see. We explore new ways of understanding what seems to be happening and what we think it means."
Peering out at the world, they describe seven principles of life's process of creating:
"Everything is in a constant process of discovery and creating. Everything is changing all the time: individuals, systems, environments, the rules, the processes of evolutions. Even change changes. Every organism reinterprets the rules, creates exceptions for itself, creates new rules.
Life uses messes to get well-ordered solutions. Life doesn't seem to share our desires for efficiency or neatness. It uses redundancy, fuzziness, dense webs of relationships, unending trials and errors to find what works.
Life is intent on finding what works, not what's 'right'. It is the ability to keep finding solutions that is important; any one solution is temporary. There are no permanently right answers. The capacity to keep changing, to find what works now, is what keeps any organism alive.
Life creates more possibilities as it engages with opportunities. There are no 'windows of opportunity', narrow openings in the fabric of space-time that soon disappear forever. Possibilities beget more possibilities; they are infinite.
Life is attracted to order. It experiments until it discovers how to form a system that can support diverse members. Individuals search out a wide range of possible relationships to discover whether they can organize into life-sustaining system. These explorations continue until a system is discovered. The system then provides stability for its members, so that individuals are less buffeted by change.
Life organizes around identity. Every living thing acts to develop and preserve itself. Identity is the filter that every organism or system uses to make sense of the world. New information, new relationships, changing environments - all are interpreted through a sense of self. This tendency toward self-creation is so strong that it creates a seeming paradox. An organism will change to maintain its identity.
Everything participates in the creation and evolution of its neighbors. There are no unaffected outsiders. No one system dictates conditions to another. All participate together in creating the conditions of their interdependence."
"There is no ideal design for anything, just interesting combinations that arise as a living thing explores it space of possibilities", Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers write, a combination of words that could be used to describe how an organization innovates.
Their assertion is that "life tinkers itself into existence". "It tinkers toward order - toward systems that are more complex and effective...Almost always what begins in randomness ends in stability...generates systems that sustain diverse individuals." But they conclude, "Life seeks order in a disorderly way."
"All this messy playfulness creates relationships that make more available...," they write. "Who we become together will always be different that who we were alone. Our range of creative expression increases as we join with others. New relationships create new capacities."
"Life invites us to create not only the forms but even the process of discovery," they conclude. "The environment is invented by our presence in it. We do not parachute into a sea of turbulence, to sink or swim. We and our environments become one system, each influencing the other, each co-determining the other." Living systems they believe create more possibilities and more freedom for individuals.
In this systems behaviors emerge. "Science writer Kevin Kelly describes these systems as a 'messy cascade of interdependent events ...What emerges from the collective is not a series of critical individual actions but a multitude of simultaneous actions whose collective pattern is far more important'."
One of the important features of viable living systems is simultaneity. "Simultaneity reduces the impact of any one error. More errors matter less if the actors are not linked together sequentially. The space for experimentation increases as we involve more minds in the experiment, as long as they can operate independently. What links people together is their focus on a needed solution. But in discovering what works, they are not waiting for one another to act."
They very carefully describe the discipline of play required for success. "Playful tinkering requires consciousness. If we are not mindful, if our attention slips, then we can't notice what's available or discover what's possible. Staying present is the discipline of play. Great concentration and focus are required." As a result, "Playful enterprises are alert. They are open to information, always seeking more, yearning for surprises."
Over and over again they stress the role that diversity plays in creation. "Parallel process requires both diversity and freedom. There is more than one workable solution, and these solutions arise from many different forms of self-expression...Life is not driving us toward one solution. The world is interested in pluralism. Only in this way can it discover more about itself...The world's desire for diversity compels us to change."
Systems offer the possibility for more stability. But in a curious paradox, that stability for the system depends upon its member's ability to change. "When individuals fail to experiment or when a system refuses their offers of new ideas, then the system becomes moribund. Without constant, interior change, it sinks into the death grip of equilibrium. It no longer participates in coevolution. The system becomes vulnerable; its destruction is self-imposed...This broad paradox of stability and freedom is the stage on which coevolution dances. Life leaps forward when it can share its learnings. The dense web of systems allow information to travel in all directions, speeding recovery and adaptation."
If systems of life are self-organizing then we don't have to design how they will organize. We live in a universe where we get order for free. "If order is for free, we don't have to be the organizers. We don't have to design the world. We don't have to structure its existence."
And, in a prescription for systems that has a lot to do with an innovation commons, "As we organize, we need to keep inquiring into the quality of our relationships. How much access do we have to one another? How much trust exists among us? Who else needs to be in the room?"
"Stability is found in freedom - not in conformity and compliance. We may have thought that our organization's survival was guaranteed by finding the right form and insisting that everyone fit into it. But sameness is not stability. It is individual freedom that creates stable systems. It is diffferentness that enables us to thrive," they propose.
In writing about self, they suggest, "Life wants to happen. It calls itself into existence. Out of all information and all possibilities, an entity comes into form. An identity emerges. A self has created itself...No externally imposed plans or designs are required. The process of invention always takes place around an identity. There is a self that seeks to organize and make its presence known. The desires of self set a self-organizing world into motion."
Research suggests that we perceive the world based on who we have decided to be, "...at any moment, what we see is most influenced by who we have decided to be...At least 80 percent of the information that the brain works with is information already in the brain." The corollary to this is that "We will change our self if we believe that the change will preserve the self."
In answering the question about what conditions will allow self-organization to flourish, they state "We need to trust that we are self organizing...We live in a world where attraction is ubiquitous. Organization wants to happen. People want their lives to mean something. We seek one another to develop new capacities. With all these wonderful and innate desires calling us to organize, we can stop worrying about designing perfect structures or rules. We need to become intrigued by how we create a clear and coherent identity, a self that we can organize around...Identity includes such dimensions as history, values, actions, core beliefs, competencies, principles, purpose, mission...Identity is the source of organizations. Every organization is an identity in motion, moving through the world, trying to make a difference."
In search of that illusive concept of emergence, they write, "Emergence is the surprising capacity we discover only when we join together. New systems have properties that appear suddenly and mysteriously. These properties cannot be predicted. They do not exist in the individuals who compose the system. What we know about the individuals, no matter how rich the details, will never give us the ability to predict how they will behave as a system. Once individuals link together they become something different.
One of the current quandaries facing free, open collaboratives is compensation. It is very clear that participants benefit in many other tangible and intangible ways from the collaboration. However, in our present form of capitalism, no standard form of monetary compensation has emerged. The authors don't provide much hope of one being developed, "Once systems are called into the world by our individual explorations, it becomes impossible to work backwards. Systems cannot be deconstructed. We can't figure out cause and effect or who contributed what. There are no heroes or permanent leaders in an emergent, systems creating world. There are too many simultaneous connection; individual contributions evolve too rapidly into group efforts."
We often talk about synergy in a group, where 1 + 1 > 2. Their paradigm revolutionizes the way to think about a system, "A system is an inseparable whole. It is not the sum of its parts. It is not greater than the sum of its parts. There is nothing to sum. There are no parts. The system is a new and different and unique contribution to its members and the world. To search backwards in time for its parts is to deny the self transforming nature of systems. A system is knowable only as itself. It is irreducible. We can't disentangle the effects of so many relationships. The connections never end. They are impossible to understand by analysis."
In amplifying their concept that self-organizing systems merge through trust, they write, "Every act of organizing is an experiment. We begin with desire, with a sense of purpose and direction. But we enter the experience vulnerable, unprotected by the illusionary cloak of prediction. We acknowledge that we don't know how this work will actually unfold. We discover what we are capable of as we go along. We engage others in the experiment. We are willing to commit to a systems whose effectiveness cannot be seen until it is in motion...in systems of trust, people are free to create the relationships they need. Trust enables the system to open. The system expands to include those it had excluded. More conversations - more diverse and diverging views - become important. People decide to work with those from whom they have been separate."
We long for meaning in our lives. "Each of us embodies the boundless energies of life. We are creating, systems-seeking, self-organizing, meaning-seeking beings. We are identities in motion, searching for the relationships that will evoke more from us."