Preserving Change

Just had a major epiphany. For the longest time, I was perplexed by a quote below from Margaret J. Wheatley’s book entitled Finding Our Way. Particularly my question was “Why do we have this innate desire for relationships and to be within groups or communities?”

Life takes form as individuals that immediately reach out to create systems of relationships. These individuals and systems arise from two seemingly conflicting forces: the absolute need for individual freedom, and the unequivocal need for relationships.

I obviously intuitively knew the answer but I wanted something that I could easily articulate to others. The answer to this question, strangely enough, lay within another book by Margaret Wheatley entitled Leadership and the New Science.

What occurs in these systems is contrary to our normal way of thinking. Openness to the environment over time spawns a stronger system, one that is less susceptible to externally induced change. What comes to dominate over time is not outside influences, but the self-organizing dynamics of the system itself. Because it partners with its environment, the system develops increasing autonomy from the environment and also develops new capacities that make it increasingly resourceful.

I say this is contrary thinking because we usually act from the reverse belief. We believe that in order to maintain ourselves and protect our individual freedom, we must defend ourselves from external forces. We tend to think that isolation, secrecy, and strong boundaries are the best way to preserve individuality.

Paradoxically, it is the system’s need to maintain itself that may lead it to be come something new and different. A living system changes in order to preserve itself.

Simply put, we are constantly seeking out and forming relationships around us so as to share and obtain information which allows us to flexibly change and preserve our identity in the process. This again is the trinity of natural self-organizing systems at work: relationships, information, and identity.

A living system changes in order to preserve itself.
Margaret Wheatley

What I find remarkable about this is how it compares to my earlier research on business culture and how it often differs from the culture of the Web. For example, anyone who has read The Cluetrain Manifesto can see this defensive stance that Margaret talks about mirrored perfectly with the internal culture of most corporate businesses today. And yet for anyone who has used the Web extensively, they can see the positive, almost natural, culture of the Web itself, whereby many of us self-organize around topics of interest to share information, so as to better ourselves. So through the simple invention of the hypertext page and its associating hypertext link, the Web itself gives us the ability to naturally self-organize in ways very similar to nature itself.

The thing that scares me the most about this though is that most businesses, particularly corporate minded ones, would probably rather die than give up their command and control culture in exchange for a more natural self-organizing one. Alas, if they don’t change with the times though then they will effectively be committing suicide by cutting off the blood or air that can literally support them and allow them to change, again eloquently put by Margaret Wheatley.

In classical thermodynamics, equilibrium is the end state in the evolution of closed systems, the point at which the system has exhausted all of its capacity for change, done its work, and dissipated its productive capacity into useless entropy.

Simply put, the system reaches a state of zero activity and thus ceases to exist. Man, does that bring back memories of the Dot-com bubble days.