Tag Archives: grand challenges

Changes We Missed

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.