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Finding Our Way
Saturday, September 03, 2005

Finding Our Way: Leadership in an Uncertain Time by Margaret Wheatley

A number of years ago, having failed to conform to my employer’s standards of behavior, I attended the Center for Creative Leadership to be re-programmed. Toward the conclusion of the workshop, our instructor put some rocks on the floor and began to jabber about relativity, aura, vibrations, and other magic, attributing it to recent findings in physics. I interrupted, earning the enmity of half my peers when I said, “That is the biggest heap of bullshit I have heard in years.”

“No,” he said. “Margaret Wheatley said this. It’s true.” Not knowing who Margaret Wheatley was at the time, I said I didn’t care. It seemed like bad science to me. The instructor stood by his guns. And then came one of life’s marvelous moments. A fellow two seats to my right said, “I have a doctorate in theoretical physics, and Jay is absolutely right. What you’re telling us is nonsense.” Hoo-hah! It was like Woody Allen pulling Marshal McLuhan from out of nowhere to put down a pompous Columbia instructor standing in line for the movies. Take THAT!

Irony of ironies, I just finished reading Meg Wheatley’s Finding Our Way and am enthralled. There’s no mention of making incantations over pebbles. Rather, she points out where Western culture went off the rails by mistaking men for machines and picking up on other industrial-age chimera.

When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure. Rudolf Bahro

Our dilemma began three hundred years ago. We thought we’d figured out how the universe worked (like a giant clock) and we could bring it under our control. Better to look at the world through the lens of nature: it’s alive. Organizations as organisms.

Maturana and Varela tell us that only 20% of what we see of the world originates outside of ourselves. Most of what we visualize comes from us, not from what we’re looking at. They also write that you can never control a living system; the best you can do is to disturb it. Organizational smarts comes from people’s ability to enter a world in whose significance they share.

Life lives on the edge that separates stability from chaos. It needs enough stability to maintain its identity and meaning, balanced by enough chaos to let change get in.

The capacity for self-organization exists within organizations. Leaders must foster an environment to let it thrive. Such leaders start with intentions, not plans. “The road is your footsteps, nothing else,” wrote the South American poet Machados.

Decades of being bounced around by downsizing, re-engineering, picky rules, controlling bosses, and being put in boxes have made workers cynical and suspicious.

“Once we stop treating organizations and people as machines and more to the paradigm of living systems, organizational change is not a problem.”

“Western culture developed a strangely negative and unfamiliar view of humans as machines. This resulted in a collective view of us as passive, unemotional, fragmented, incapable of self-motivation, disinterested in meaningful questions or good work.”

“We’re under so much stress that all we do is look around the organization to find somebody we can shoot.” (And the executive quoted is a nun!)

People cannot help but be creatively involved in how their work is done. They only support what they create. Life insists on its freedom to participate. This reminds me of my old concept of giving a person freedom as long as they remain in the sandbox that is created for them.

We do not see reality. What you choose becomes your life.

More and better inner connections make for a healthier living system. Standards and measures are imposed on machines from outside. Organizations figure them out as they go along, as people deal with situations.

Good experimentation is a process. This is similar to my process view that nothing ever ends. Four questions lead to the 1-2-3 model….

  1. Who else needs to be here? (Relationships are considered)

  2. What just happened? (Learn from it, don’t blame)

  3. Can we talk? (Others have different perceptions)

  4. Who have we become? (Actions. We are what we do.)

Nothing living lives alone. Life always and only organizes as systems of interdependency.

On process: “It hasn’t been easy to give up the role of master creator and move into the dance of life. As our dance partner, life insists that we put ourselves in motion, that we learn to live with instability, chaos, change, and surprise.”

Like Meg, I recollect joining this dance. My systems mantras that everything’s connected, nothing ever ends, you can never do just one thing, life is unpredictable, logic is not king, everything flows. Uncertainty? Not a problem. It beats kidding yourself.

I’m looking over my own shoulder now, contemplating how I learn. This is important stuff in my study of informal learning, but as Meg says, I long to put my stamp on it, to claim it as mine. Part of this, I accomplish with selectivity. I claim a paragraph or two per chapter. They’re items I highlighted in neon yellow while reading. If an important passage doesn’t get highlighted, I’m probably going to forget it before I wake up tomorrow.

Meg has a wonderful list of obsolete, harmful beliefs.
  1. Organizations are machines (nothing new there)

  2. Only material things are real. (it’s amazing how many people think intangibles do not exist)

  3. Only numbers are real. (As if….)

  4. You can only manage what you can measure.

  5. Tech is always the best solution.

KM is “thing” thinking. Capture, inventory, etc.

In survey after survey, workers report that most of what they learn about their job, they learn from informal conversations.

F2F meetings are important for knowledge sharing.

Feedback is self-generated. An individual and a system notice whatever they determine is important for them. They ignore everything else.

There is no such thing as cause and effect.

When we listen with less judgment, we always develop better relationships with each other.

We create ourselves by what we choose to notice. Once this work of self-authorship has begun, we inhabit the world we’ve created. We self-seal.

Re-mix Writing
Direct quotations from Meg are brown. My thoughts are in black. The more intertwined, the more effective the learning for me. I'm going to continue this experiment, using color to identify sources and weaving the text together naturally.


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