The Value of Non-Equilibrium

I’ve been thinking about the ideas of the chemist Ilya Prigogine. Many may remember him as a one of the three main threads in Margaret J. Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organization from an Orderly Universe (1992, Berrett-Koehler). Wheatley learned from Prigogine that while it makes sense to stabilize machines and structures as a way to prevent deterioration, living systems (organizations) need non-equilibrium to change and grow because they exchange energy with their environments. Prigogine said living systems are “dissipative structures.” As Wheatley,  explains it, they “dissipate their energy in order to recreate themselves into new forms of organizations” (88).

In ecosystems, for example, external fluctuations in the environment exert great pressure on the system and the system uses its energy very inefficiently, but “as the ecosystem matures, it develops an internal stability, a resiliency to the environment that, in turn, creates conditions that support more efficient use of energy and protection from environmental demands”(92).

Wheatley applies these ideas to organizations. In the factory model, she says, “managers watched for departures from the norm so they could “make corrections and preserve the system at its current levels of activity”(78). Systems that are organized around core competencies but open to information from outside are less vulnerable to environmental disturbances. Their more fluid structure ultimately leads to an internal stability. As expressed by one scientist she quotes (Jantsch), “the more freedom in self-organization, the more order.”

On other words, there is much more happening  than a change in tools. Trying to impose the old factory model using new tools will not work. We need new structures that encourage openness, creativity and freedom to innovate.

Are You Alive at Work?

Have you ever been so engaged in a project that the hours you spent working on it seemed like minutes and you almost hated to finish it?

A key mechanism in reaching that state is your brain’s”seeking system,” says Daniel M. Cable, a social psychologist and professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, “When our seeking system is activated,” he says,”we feel more motivated, purposeful, and zestful. We feel more alive.”

In his book Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do, Cable says that employees’ seeking systems play an important role in fostering creativity and innovation. However, many organizations are “deactivating” the seeking systems of their employees by limiting their roles, stressing efficiency, and enforcing precise metrics.

Three triggers that activate the seeking system–self-expression, experimentation, and purpose–are disregarded or discouraged in many organizations. People who can respond to these triggers at work actually produce more dopamine–the same neurotransmitter that is increased by physical exercise. Absence of those triggers leads to fear and apathy. The effect of a work environment that discourages employees from offering ideas or taking time to try new approaches is similar to that of an opiate.

Think ponds are a way to preserve your seeking system–whether you work somewhere that encourages self-expression, experimentation, and purpose or the opposite. Your think pond celebrates ideas and provides a space for experimentation. Finding meaning and purpose in the work is intrinsic to the process.

If you already love your work, maybe a think pond will help you improve and advance the ideas and solutions your employer seeks and go after opportunities that make you feel even more alive.

If not, maybe your think pond will give you a diversion that compensates for your stultifying workplace. Maybe it will help you change it. Maybe it will bring you the clarity and courage you need to leave it for the situation that gives you life.

Mentoring for a New World

Mentoring relationships can change lives. But does mentoring always have to follow the same pattern? What we need to learn and how we can best learn it changes throughout our lives, and often we find ourselves challenged in very different ways at the same time.

Although there is much to be said for the lifelong bonds that can form when a seasoned professional takes a young person under his or her wing, the younger generations also can mentor their elders. I believe everyone has something to offer and something to learn. Moreover, some people might benefit more from a series of mentors. At one age, we might need a mentor to build our confidence and help with how we present ourselves while later it might be a good thinker who can help us consider all the angles as we make big decisions. At various times, we may need one mentor to help us master a discipline or profession, another who has connections that will help us identify and get selected for opportunities, and another who helps us see the big picture. Some of us may need mentors to help us with relatively small and peripheral but still important area of our careers.

Imagine an engineer, She works in casual clothes every day but may need someone with good fashion sense to help her look good for a professional presentation and someone else to give her tips for presenting. She may also need a mentor who helps her step out of her comfort zone in an area like writing for publication. She may need a mentor who helps her make her way when she is the only young person or the only female on a project team and another who helps her when the time comes to become a team leader—or to make the transition into upper management. She may need a mentor when she has her first child—someone who is an expert at balancing work and mothering or someone who is the kind of mother she wants to be.

No single individual could provide all those mentoring relationships.

What Does It Mean to Thrive at Work?

So many of us these days are just glad to have a job. It’s still important to reflect on the question: “What does thriving at work mean to me?”

To thrive at work is to provide for my family while doing work that aligns with my vision of life and of a better world. The work is meaningful to me and I am fully exercising the abilities I value. Thriving means I have an appropriate balance between stability and flexibility so that I am always able to foresee and adapt to changes in my field. It means I am able to contribute to the work of others and call upon a network of collaborators when an exciting opportunity opens. It means having the freedom to try new things and explore new ideas.