Leadership and the New Science

I’ve just finished reading Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley and I have to say I've found it very engaging and inspiring.

The central premise of the book is that the understanding of organisations has largely reflected Newtonian physics in it’s mechanistic analysis. In the Newtonian view, the universe is composed of the tiniest particles and forces all interacting to create the larger whole that we see. And each particle and interaction follows immutable laws of cause and effect leading us to conclude that what we perceive as chaos simply represents an area of understanding that we have not yet reached. To understand the whole, we must delve ever deeper into the smallest parts until eventually we discover and understand the most basic and irreducible particle and force at the root of the universe.

Reductionist thinking seduced us into believing that, eventually, we would figure everything out. We would control it all, even life and death. Science displaced God. “Chaos was merely complexity so great that in practice scientists couldn’t track it, but they were sure that in principle they might one day be able to do so. When that day came there would be no chaos, so to speak, only Newton’s laws. [Briggs & Peat]"

Inspired by this view, organisations can be understood to be like machines where a vast range of individual components function together more or less effectively to achieve an end. If there is something about the organisation that’s not working well, the answer is to analyse it to discover the root cause and then repair or replace the errant component, whether that’s a person or a department or a process.

By contrast quantum physics seeks to understand the behaviour of systems where there are a range of probable outcomes that depend on the interaction of the particles and forces present. In particular it recognises that there are few truly objective observations because to observe is to be involved in the processes and system under investigation. The ‘double slit’ experiment is a classic example of the weirdness of quantum physics and this video does a great job of explaining (!) it.

In quantum physics it is the relationships that govern the outcome, and this is clearly significant in organisations.

What is critical is the relationship created between two or more elements. Systems influence individuals, and individuals call forth systems. It is the relationship that evokes the present reality. Which potential becomes real depends on the people, the events, and the moment. Prediction and replication [applying a solution gained from analysis of one situation to an apparently similar situation] are therefore impossible.

There is so much more in the book and I can’t do it justice here. Wheatley inspires a real confidence in allowing an organisation to adapt, grow and change not as a result of deterministic forces but through responding to the organic change response that comes from new opportunities, new input or even new threats. Rather than creating walls against such influences, adaptive organisations recognise that they are part of a quantum world where order emerges from apparent complexity.

This book has had a profound effect on my thinking, resonating as it does not only with my real but underdeveloped scientific interest but especially my desire to be part of an adaptive, flexible responsive organisation that remains open to the possibilities and probabilities that lie ahead, governed, we believe, by a God who is no blind watchmaker but whose presence permeates the whole universe.

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