A decade after Margaret Wheatley’s landmark book, what have we learned from biology, chemistry and physics about purpose and strategy
By Kathleen Hosfeld
As we approached the year 2000, Margaret Wheatley published an updated and revised edition of “Leadership and the New Science,” in which she explored themes from contemporary science and their implications for organizational life.
She wrote in a time when economic volatility seemed to be accelerating, and organizational life felt more and more chaotic and uncontrollable. How can we achieve a new sense of order in organizational life, she asked, without actual control over the infinite variables that threaten to upset the status quo every day?
Wheatley’s book never strayed into advice about management practice; but she suggested two things were essential for organizations to adapt to changing conditions and to thrive over time: a “clear center” and freely flowing communication. My interpretation of her “clear center” is a clear and compelling purpose that draws and holds the parts of the organization together.
A decade later, our experience of economic reality continues to be volatile. Yet, the dynamics of the ordered universe continue to suggest forms and patterns that help organizations hold together in times of difficulty and thrive in times of abundance.
Purpose Has Changed
The idea of the clear center – a purpose – has continued to evolve. In 1999, if you’d asked about a company’s purpose the response would have been “to make a profit.” While that’s still often the case, an increasing number of firms see their purpose as a statement of how they would like to make the world a better place. They see their purpose as something that gives meaning to their work, and can actually drive better financial performance.
Purpose is also the foundation of strategy. Purpose and strategy working together are less a static plan than a framework of identity that allows a company to renew itself over time. Strategy adapts to changing conditions; purpose is what gives a firm internal continuity over time. This is like what biologists called autopoiesis – the ability of a system to renew or regenerate over time.
Business Relationships Have Changed
While this sounds like a lot of self-focused organizational naval gazing, Wheatley also points out that organisms (and organizations) “survive only as we learn how to participate in a web of relationships.” This points to two other patterns in the ordered universe, that of differentiation and of interconnection, visible in flora, fauna, and star systems. We understand ourselves in comparison with others, those we serve, those with whom we partner and those with whom we compete. This too, is an area where perceptions have changed. It is much more common today to hear executives speak about stakeholders and community partners as integral to their enterprise and its success.
Communication Has Changed
One of the things that has changed significantly since 1999 is the proliferation of different tools for two-way communication that foster evolution, adaptation and renewal. Social media, crowd-sourcing, and other collaborative innovation technology platforms all have the potential to feed adaptive change. These interactive communication tools create the potential for significantly more communication inside the organization, as well as between the organization and its external partners.
Change Has Changed
Wheatley’s new science view focuses on organizational change resulting from external stimulus. Yet, another impetus of change comes from within. It is not the sun, rain and soil that force an acorn to become a tree. The acorn is a system whose purpose is to become a tree. It works together with the sun, rain and soil to become a tree. So, too, in organizations, purpose serves as the platform for strategy to respond to and work with external stimulus to unleash organizational potential. Strategy design is like mapping the organizational genome, discovering what the organization is designed to become.
Strategy Has Changed
Strategy has moved from a fixed set of decisions about specific responses to the market, to a self-organizing capacity to respond relatively quickly to market opportunities in service of purpose. One of the fallacies of early thinking about so-called “self-organizing” in organizations was that it just happened. Like anything else in organizational life, we’ve learned that it takes intention and attention. In the case of strategy design this can be a fairly robust exercise in both right brain contemplation and left-brain analysis. The point is it’s not all SWOT Analyses and Action Steps.
Businesses and other organizations who are embracing these great patterns and lessons from the created world, are finding that they just simply work better. Not only do they represent a more sustainable model of enterprise, they offer more meaning and a greater sense of legacy as well.