Margaret J. Wheatley is a consultant, speaker, and best-selling author. She is president of the Berkana Institute, a non-profit educational and scientific research foundation supporting the discovery of new organizational forms. She is also a principal of Kellner-Rogers & Wheatley, Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on applying natural science principles in self-organization that engage the intelligence of the entire organization to respond to change continuously.
Berrett-Koehler, 1999.: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. M. Wheatley.
Read other materials from Meg Wheatley.
M. Wheatley and M. Kellner-Rogers
M. Wheatley in Leader to Leader, No. 11, Winter 1999
M. Wheatly in Leader to Leader, No. 5 Summer 1997
Can Knowledge Management Succeed Where Other Efforts Have Failed? M. Wheatley in Advances in Knowledge Management, MIT Press.
Bringing Schools Back to Life: Schools as Living System. M. Wheatley. September 1999
Servant-Leadership and Community Leadership in the 21st Century M. Wheatley. June 1999
Visit the Berkana Institute
Hear an audio interview
Review by Beth Garlington Scofield
When Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science was originally published in 1992, critics hailed it as a groundbreaking work. It provided a unique interpretation of the emerging “new science” and how its concepts apply to organizations, leadership, and change. But the book sustained one criticism: for some, the scientific concepts were difficult to understand, and difficult to translate into a business context.
Now, in a completely revised and updated edition, Wheatley adds deeper meaning to her ideas, evoking lessons learned since the original publication, and drawing clearer connections between the new science concepts and organizations. Wheatley restructures some of the more challenging concepts with anecdotes and insights from the past seven years and adds more explanatory material, including an entirely new chapter on change, making the book more understandable and accessible to the layperson.
The result? A book even more revolutionary than the original. This book is awe-inspiring! Wheatley, an organizational theorist and veteran consultant, challenges some of our most fundamental beliefs about the way the world works, and opens extraordinarily significant frontiers of knowledge. You might never look at the world in the same way after digesting these ideas.
While I, and many others, found this book remarkable, this might not be the best business book for everyone. If you prefer business books that prescribe methodologies and toolkits for action, this is not for you. This is a manifesto of sorts, the ‘spaceship view’ of an emerging framework, not a how-to for quick results. This book provokes rather than prescribes.
For Wheatley, “new science” means exciting breakthroughs in biology, chemistry, chaos theory and especially quantum physics that are overturning centuries-old models of science. The older science, reflected in the physics of Isaac Newton and in industrial-revolution era scientific principles, conceives of the universe as a machine, or a collection of various working parts, animated by different sources of energy.
Wheatley says that we live and work in organizations designed from Newtonian images of the universe. We manage by separating things into parts, we believe that influence occurs as a direct result of force exerted from one person to another, we engage in complex planning for a world that we keep expecting to be predictable, and we search for better methods of objectively perceiving the world.
Wheatley boldly seeks to disprove these old concepts. She demonstrates that the Newtonian efforts to explain the universe were doomed to failure. Quantum physics is revealing the universe to be far more complex than a simple collection of physical parts that interact according to predictable laws. Constant fluidity of motion (changing forms, fields of gravity and magnetism creating constant interplay) make attempts at identifying fixed structure completely unrealistic, and much too simple. In organizations, we all see increasing evidence that the Newtonian interpreted organization-as-machine style of management doesn’t work (i.e., simply altering the physical structure of the organization will not solve problems or make organizations more adaptable).
Using explanations and examples derived from quantum physics and chaos theory, Wheatley asserts that organizations are not machines that can be regulated through planning, procedures, power, or control. Rather they are living organisms that, when given plenty of trust and freedom and inspiring leadership, can creatively adapt to changing times. Information flowing freely throughout the system is the energy sourcethe catalyst for intelligent change. In self-renewing cycles, energies and eddies feed back upon themselves into new structures and solutions. The more open a system is to new information, both from within and out, the more creative its adaptations.
The patterns of relationships, and the capabilities available to form them in these living systems, become criticalnot its hierarchies, tasks, and functions.
Lest my words sound too abstract, Wheatley’s message remains resolutely humane and simple: We must make a radical shift in all organizations. We must move from the command and control models, to a living system perspective. Wheatley says, “I realized that I and others weren’t asking people simply to adopt some new approaches to leadership, or to think about organizations in a few new ways. What we were really asking, and what was also being asked of us, was that we change our thinking at the most fundamental level, that of our world view. The dominant worldview of Western culturethe world as machinedoesn’t help us to live well in this world any longer. We have to see the world differently if we are to live in it more harmoniously.”
The important challenge that faces all of us today is identifying and adapting to the organizational framework that should replace the old model. Wheatley maps out a foundation, but does not presume to pour the concrete in the form. She instead puts out the challenge to all of us to work together to adapt and define the unknown. She says, “When we are truly giving birth to a new world view, the more I realize that our culture is presently journeying through chaos. The old ways are dissolving, and the new has not yet shown itself. We must engage with each other differentlyas explorers and discoverers….Every moment requires we be comfortable with uncertainty and appreciative of chaos’ role. Every moment requires that we stay together.”
Though the way is not yet mapped, the seven years between the publication of the original version and this revised book have shown that Wheatley is on the right track. Some of her original positions have become part of our modern consciousness. The emergence of the Internet and its impact on business and organizations is a living example of the fundamental tenet of the new science-the systemic nature of life and the vast webs of interconnections. Increasingly we hear of businesses giving up reliance on ‘permanent’ structures and practices. Says Wheatley, “They have eliminated rigidity, both physical and psychological, in order to support more fluid processes whereby temporary teams are created to deal with specific and ever-changing needs. They have simplified roles into minimal categories; they have knocked down walls and created workplaces where people, ideas, and information circulate freely.”
The profoundly complex ideas emerging from the new science are difficult to reproduce in summary format, though Wheatley does an admirable job in only 178 pages. As a science-averse reader, my mind would typically have given up at the mere mention of quantum physics. But Wheatley writes so simply, even beautifully, in poetic and elegant prose, that this book is a true pleasure to read. Wheatley endearingly admits that she is “not a math person,” and she translates these complex theories so simply and clearly that even the most avowed non-scientist can understand and play with the concepts.
Enjoy this book. Savor its insights. Give it the attention and thought it deserves. It will push your thinking about business and organizations to a new level. Profound “a-ha!” moments abound, and you might even find your own world view transformed.
Beth Garlington Scofield is managing editor of LiNE Zine, reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her reading list is getting long, but she’d welcome your suggestions.