Emergence


This except from Dangerous Undertaking deals with how transformation works in large organizations, or even global social structures and institutions. It is from a letter that Frank, the wise old man, writes to Neil, the corporate executive.

You and I have been circling around a larger issue in our conversations. Organizations—our own creations—ignore important human needs. Why precisely does this happen? Bad leadership? I don’t think so. The answer lies deeper, at the level of organizational ‘DNA.’ [1] Of course leaders influence this DNA, but there are other more potent forces at work too.

Organizational behavior at the deepest ‘molecular level’ isn’t easy to understand because we are used to thinking about organizations in very simple terms like teams or process flows, not as complex living things. Such simple models may work in some cases, like Newton’s Laws work for simpler problems in physics, but we live in the age of quantum physics where nothing is as it appears on the surface. Why should living organizations be any different?

To understand their DNA you need to start by assuming that organizations are not very much like anything you are familiar with. Scientists call them complex, adaptive ecosystems and not one person in a thousand knows what that means. Most of us aren’t scientists so it’s difficult to understand organizations in such terms. If you will be patient I’ll give you the ten‑minute tour of organizations as complex ecosystems.

First, you need to understand that the mere fact that ecosystems are complex causes many things to happen. There are so many interactions and relationships among the parts of an ecosystem—whether a jungle or an organization—that everything seems to connect to and influence everything else. Scientists say highly connected ecosystems emerge. They evolve and change in hidden ways that gradually become evident over time. Jungles gradually evolve because jungles are highly interconnected. Organizations also change and emerge due to their complexity and the hidden interactions deep within their DNA.

A good way to picture emergence in an ecosystem is to think of a kaleidoscope. When you slowly turn it tiny pieces of colored glass continually rearrange themselves to make new patterns, helped by mirrors inside the tube to repeat themselves. The combinations that emerge constantly surprise you with their novelty and beauty. Organizational ecosystems are like kaleidoscopes, continually shifting in their depths to form new emerging situations and behaviors.

Second, because they are complex organizational ecosystems cannot be simply controlled like using a switch to control a light bulb. Very small changes in their depths can cause huge uncontrollable effects in ecosystems. The movie Jurassic Park dramatized the uncontrollable effects that took place across an entire island resulting from an error in one scientist’s judgment. Similarly, because organizations are complex management cannot completely predict how to control them. Many interactions in their depths have unanticipated side‑effects. Because of this people like Diane [One of Neil's employees who is trying to change things in his company] have the power to trigger major changes in organizations. The small actions they take—however naïve and foolish they may appear to people in the power structure—can cause major effects.

Neil, I can hear you saying, Isn’t it better not to have Diane disrupting things? The answer is no because Diane is a key part of the long‑term survival and health of your organization! Her small actions can help your organizational ecosystem to self‑organize to a new and healthier state that you probably can’t create. How does this happen?

Many—but not all—ecosystems recover their health because they are able to learn and adapt. You can see this in rivers. They are able to revive and cleanse themselves despite being polluted for hundreds of years. Through relatively small changes in industrial waste disposal the entire Thames ecosystem recovered much of its original health. How? Each small local part of the Thames—small regions of river water, individual plants, and bacteria—sensed and responded to small changes in its local area. When any small part of the Thames became clean it influenced the parts nearest to it to also adapt and become clean. The sum of all these local small changes combined and the whole river adapted and cleansed itself. Scientists say the Thames ‘learned’ how to become clean again. Diane and her team may be making their small part of your company healthier, which can spread to your whole organization, like the Thames healing itself.

Neil, you’re objecting, “Surely I have the power to control what happens in my company.” Yes you do, but so does Diane and her team. Why? Because they like you are connected and can influence other parts of the organization. Innocent fools can trigger an avalanche of learning, which leads to bottom‑up healing. That, very basically, is another way of describing the gentle revolution.

The mechanism that carries this avalanche of learning across your organization involves what biologists call ‘tags.’ [2] How does this work? As an example, viruses like colds or flu use tags to move from person to person, persuading them to be a host, changing the host’s health to allow the virus to grow. Cells in the victim’s nose or throat attract the tag of a virus and the virus sticks to the cell once inhaled. This enables a virus to multiply and survive for a very long time, moving from victim to victim. Tags in organizations are anything attached to important ideas that make them attractive and enable such ideas to move from one person’s mind to the next, like a virus. Innocent fools create powerful new tags, which act like healthy viruses to create an avalanche of change that can heal wounded organizations. That’s why you don’t have as much power to control things in your company as you think, Neil. Unless you can create tags that can compete in the ‘meaning sweepstakes’ with tags from other sources, you lose your ability to influence the hearts and minds of the people in your company!

Now we come to the important question I raised at the beginning of this letter. Why do organizations—human creations—ignore important human needs? This arises because of some very powerful tags in our Western culture that influence all of us to ignore many human needs inside organizations. These cultural tags continually bombard us with the following common idea: Economic success is essential for everyone to live what we call ‘the good life.’ Many tags in organizations carry this idea and make it very meaningful to us: higher salaries for people higher in the power structure, corner offices, and other perks. These obvious signs constantly reinforce the common cultural rules for success based on economic achievement. The end result is that we are all infested by this economic virus and play our roles, conforming to a basic rule that leaders use to control people in organizations: Don’t do anything that interferes with economic success, including bringing your humanly sensitive In‑self inside our organization!

Nonetheless, our In‑self [the deep sense of personal integrity and wholeness that we all have] is always present in organizations because we can never leave it behind (although, as you and I both know, we can ignore it). Innocent fools like Diane bring their In‑self and its human concerns into otherwise purely business and economic conversations. In some local part of your company Diane’s people are talking about their feelings and human dignity. These topics are probably becoming important tags to them because they are meaningful and relevant. Such awareness helps them begin to see gaps between their actions in organizational roles and their inner values. New tags begin to compete with the economic success tags. In this way, they are beginning to change organizational DNA in their group.

Building on this awareness, Diane and her team begin to take simple steps to act differently, more meaningfully and consistently with their unique In‑self values. Using their new tags, they tell stories that are deeply meaningful to them, like treating working mothers in your company better. These personal stories—carried across your company—may ultimately have far more meaning than the ‘organizational vision and purpose’ tags created by leaders or culture. When that happens innocent fools begin to win the meaning sweepstakes in their organization—and the gentle revolution is underway! The avalanche begins. A new, more humanly sensitive organization begins to emerge deep within its DNA.

Actually, Neil, the gentle revolution is already present—everywhere. It’s just generally overlooked. The next time someone smiles at you, is concerned about you, helps you when they needn’t, think to yourself, Why did they do that? The answer is they were just being good. Such actions hint that in every human situation, in every organization, deep down there are tiny forces of goodness transforming it.

There is of course a key difference between a natural ecosystem and an organization. Natural ecosystems simply evolve and change in response to their environment. There is an automatic, built‑in rhythm to nature, a succession of species and ecosystems driven by fluctuations in the environment. That isn’t how human ecosystems evolve. We can see and understand what we are doing. Unlike nature, we are morally responsible for altering the evolution of our organization and our planet—and ourselves in the process!

Because we have this moral sense that nature does not have, we have a moral obligation to choose what kind of future we wish to create. This, stated perhaps too simply, is the ‘Green’ message. We have a moral obligation to learn how to control our connectedness with sensitive parts of the ecosystems in which we live so as not to cause catastrophes such as global warming, the destruction of rainforests or the injustices of inhumane organizations. Why? Because in the end morally evil choices may destroy us! I’ll discuss that very unpopular and counter‑cultural word ‘evil’ with you when we next meet.



[1] Peter Vaill used this idea in his preface to Maslow on Management: “It is not espousing values, a mission statement, and a corporate mantra while pushing motivational techniques that do little more than manipulate employees. [It] calls for fundamentally altering the system, revamping the organizational DNA in order for the human side to flourish.”

[2] In biology a tag is a ‘sticky’ part of something living that makes it attractive, which attaches to another living entity.