There Really Is a Simpler Way

a simpler way, the wonderful book co-authored by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers,  continues to guide my thinking about organizations. It asks us to no longer look at the world as a machine, and most importantly, human beings as machines. 

Rereading the book recently reminded me how this biological perspective, as opposed to the previously entrenched mechanistic viewpoint,  focuses less on control, order, and structure, and more on exploration, growth, and life.  Discarding a mechanistic perspective means embracing some alternative beliefs about people and organizations. Here are a few of them:

Living systems learn constantly.
This being the case, what is true today might not be true tomorrow. Therefore, our planning efforts must become less rigid and more like tinkering … trying lots of things and seeing what works best. The answers and plans we develop don't have to be right; they just have to work.

Living systems are self-organizing.
People in organizations, just like other biological forms of life, will self-organize into temporary working structures as needed. We can spend less time on master designs for organizational structures or hierarchies. People can organize themselves as the work requires.

Life is attracted to order, but it uses messes to get there.
We needlessly seek simple and clean solutions to complex problems. We need to become comfortable with fuzzy, ambiguous attempts to approach an issue. Further, such approaches may often be happening simultaneously at different points or places in our organization. Life isn't neat; progress isn't neat and orderly either.

Because we are living systems, most people are intelligent, creative, adaptive, and self-organizing.
"We want to learn, to do high-quality work, to contribute, to find meaning. We do not need to impose these attribute on one another. We merely need to learn how to evoke them."

From these beliefs and others, Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers suggest how we can create supportive conditions for self-organization (these are quoted verbatim):

"An organizational community that is clear about its intent knows what it wants to accomplish and knows what its purpose is." If intent and purpose are clear and individuals are self-motivated and self-organizing, they will direct their efforts to fulfilling that intent and achieving that purpose.

"Living systems are webbed with feedback, with information available from all directions." Information is what drives organizational life, and we must allow all individuals access to as much information as possible so they can make informed decisions that support the organization's purpose and intent.

"Living systems also are webbed with connections; individual members have access to the whole system." Members of organizations need to be able to reach out to others freely, to collaborate without limitations, to access talents and information whenever necessary.

Instead of spending our time as leaders focusing on designing structures, implementing mechanistic training programs, or initiating controls and checks and balances, we should choose a simpler way ... and focus our energies and talents on engaging members of our organizations in meaningful discussions about who we are, what we believe, what we do, and how we can do it better.  There is as much, if not more, power in our core purpose and principles as there is in any of our policies or plans.

By Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 1996.

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