What Margaret Wheatley tells us about ‘a simpler way’

As I sit here reading, ‘A Simpler Way’ by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers I feel like I am standing beneath a refreshingly cool waterfall of positivity. Only seventeen pages into the book and I am awash with words like: belief, behaviours, learn, surprise, optimistic, creative, purposeful, meaning, play, freedom, creativity, experiment, accomplish, explore, diverse and identity. I already feel inspired, eager to read on.

I usually like to pull out some key quotes from the books I read. So far, I would be reciting the whole book! To me, I feel they state the obvious. That which is inside of us all, desperate to get out – that we are here to explore, to discover and create, to belong and have meaning in our lives that supports our identity. An identity that we choose.
We are reminded of the errors of Western culture that leads us to believe that ‘the world is hostile, that we are in a constant struggle for survival, that the consequence of error is death, that the environment seeks our destruction.’ No wonder some people wander through their lives full of fear.

We are also reminded that, ‘the universe is a living, creative, experimenting experience of discovering what’s possible at all levels of scale, from microbe to cosmos.’ Life’s natural tendency is to organise, and that act is an act of creating identity. Think about that for a moment. Think about its relevance in terms of the workplaces and jobs people have now. Think about it in terms of the identity of the teams and groups you meet or are part of. How much of the ability and opportunity to be creative and to develop identity do you think members of those groups have? And I wonder what impact this has on them? Does it impact on their belief in themselves? And the group as a whole? After-all, ‘belief is the place from which true change originates’.

In our workplaces we often strive to ‘be right’ but ‘there is no one answer that is right, but many answers that might work.’ This is something that is all too often forgotten. ‘Nature encourages wild self-expression as long as it doesn’t threaten the survival of the organism.’ I wonder how much better we might feel if this approach was applied in our workplaces?

The authors introduce us to the word, bricolage – the process of creating living things, which is a big difference to the analysis we so often use today, where our ‘analytic plans drive us only towards what we think we already know’. They also remind us that ‘in human attempts to construct functioning ecosystems, scientists cannot predict what will work.’ So why do we believe that in our living work systems we can predict and heavily plan for the future? The only thing we can know is that the system will seek stability. We really have little idea what that stability might look like.

They bring to our attention the importance of relationships. The more relationships, the more ‘expressions, more variety, more stability, more support’. ‘New relationships create new capacities.’ And don’t fall into the trap of wanting to be a traditional ‘niche’. ‘Life creates niches not to dominate, but to support. Symbiosis is the most favoured path for evolution. Niches are an example of symbiosis’. Support; don’t dominate! Remember that when we are stuck in a particular worldview we may explain the world of organising in terms of competition and used this to explain the behaviours that we see. It’s time to change those mental models so that seeing support and collaboration predominates over seeing competition and heroes. Understanding our relationships and interdependencies is far more powerful.

The authors talk about the importance of experimentation. Why do we insist on relying on others to give us ‘the answer’ rather than experimenting to see what works? Words and phrases like: experimentation, inquisitive, discovering, new possibilities, expand our thinking are all words and phrases that should be on the tip of our tongues. Sadly, they are not, as we all too easily forget that someone’s experiences can never provide models that will work exactly the same for us. I particularly love the reminder that, ‘fuzzy, messy, continuously exploring systems bent on discovering what works are far more practical and successful than our attempts at efficiency.’ If only we would just believe it! Make errors, learn more, repeat……

‘When individuals fail to experiment or when the system refuses their offers of new ideas, then the system becomes moribund. Without constant, interior change, it sinks into the death grip of equilibrium. It no longer participates in co-evolution. The system becomes vulnerable; its destruction is self-imposed’. You have been warned! Adaptation is key. Moving forward means sharing your information, linking with others and communicating and enabling your ability of self-organisation.

So, what are some of the lessons this book gives us?

  •  Change beliefs – support people in believing in themselves
  • Allow people to explore, to discover, to tinker, to fail, to experiment and to learn
  • Allow people to be part of creating the identity they carry around with them. ‘Every act of organising occurs around an identity. Every change occurs only if we identify with it.’ Identity is the most compelling organising energy available. ‘A healthy system uses its freedom to explore its identity’
  • Seek coherence – we can’t resolve organisational incoherence with training programmes about values, or with beautiful reports that explain the company’s way, or by the charisma of any leader. We can resolve it only with coherence – fundamental integrity about who we are’. ‘With coherence comes the capacity to create organisations that are both free and effective. They are effective because they support people’s abilities to self-organise. They are free because they know who they are’.
  • Create order through freedom – ‘Coherent organisations experience the word with less threat and more freedom. They don’t create boundaries to defend and preserve themselves. They don’t have to keep others out. Clear at their core, they become less and less concerned about where they stop. Inner clarity gives them expansionary range. Such clarity creates order through freedom.’
  •  Understand the link between behaviours and belonging – ‘Large organisations spend a great deal of time and resources on training people in behaviours under such topics as diversity, communications, and leadership. But these behaviours are not a list of rules or techniques. They arise from agreements about how people will be together. Often these agreements are unspoken. We can’t train people to be open, or fair, or responsible if the real agreement is that we must succeed at all costs, or that we have no choice but to keep laying people off. Training programmes can never resolve deeply incoherent messages. Neither can legislation. Behaviours are rooted in our agreements. They change only when we bring to light these unspoked commitments. Our behaviours change only if we decide to belong together differently’.
  • Trust people to self-organise
  • Build connections, relationships, and networks to enable greater capacities and opportunities for sharing information. Focus on connectedness and interdependencies, not competition and heroic ‘leaders’. Remember that, ‘no self can survive behind the boundary it creates. If it does not remember its connectedness, the self will expire.’
  • Focus on adaptability and co-creation, not analysis and heavy planning. The less we rely upon rigid plans and the more we design for regeneration of our ecosystems the more viable we become. And remember, ‘invention always takes shape round an identity’.
  • Do not try and ‘direct’ the system. We can’t do this, we can only disturb it. We can never give an instruction and expect someone to follow it precisely. We can never assume that someone sees the world as we do.
  • Embrace the concept of emergence – this is the capacity we discover when we join together. New systems have properties that appear suddenly and mysteriously. These properties cannot be predicted. The implication is that we can’t visualise our future and work back from that, planning every step in detail. We must start at the beginning and be clear in our intent and willing to discover as we go along. Anticipate rather than plan and acknowledge that we don’t know exactly how the work will unfold.

There is so much more to be said about emerging organisation, but this blog is already very long. I’ll save the emerging organisation topic for a second, separate post as I also want to talk about it in terms of viable systems and the links to information flows. It’s a very important topic, in my opinion, and deserves the space to give it further exploration. So too is the importance of identity – another blog post coming soon!

With that in mind, I will leave you with some quotes I particularly like:

‘Our wonderful abilities to self-organise are encouraged by openness. With access to our system we, like all life, can anticipate what is required of us, connect with those we need, and respond intelligently’.

I wonder, every day, why so many people, organisations or groups of organisations cannot and do not take this on advice on board, instead insisting on trying to engineer human contribution.

‘The systems we create are chosen together. They are the result of dances, not wars.’

‘A Simpler Way’ by Margaret J Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers


Systems thinking – ‘live it – share it’ – using our collective systems thinking skills to broaden horizons, expand our communities and welcome contributions from all practitioners, not just the dominant few

In 2017 there was yet another influx of practitioners, newly qualified in systems thinking in practice from the Open University (and indeed other Universities), into our environment. A diverse and competent bunch with a wide range of perspectives and skills. They join the many who are out there already and, from my observations, a huge amount of practitioners are actively sharing and encouraging the use of systems thinking in the workplace and beyond. Some are forming their own mini communities of practice, whilst others chose to ‘go it alone’.

In my experience, the longer standing members of the systems thinking communities are vital for helping to develop and support these newer practitioners. However, there are often differences in context and opinion between the very experienced practitioners and the new adopters and also between those who have experience of practical application of systems thinking and those who are more academically orientated. Bringing those contexts and opinions together to produce a community which is useful to as many as possible can be at best real fun but at worst challenging and somewhat volatile.

As systems practitioners, we might expect intellectual challenge; we do not expect personal attacks and bad behaviours. We might expect some practitioners to be more vocal than others; we do not expect dominance by a few at the expense of others. So, what about attempting to move some of our focus towards sharing and appreciating the social capital of the wider community? How about strengthening the psychological bonds between us? How about focussing on the interdependencies we have and building upon those connections? Our social capital as a group could potentially be a key element of our ongoing survival and development as systems practitioners. This doesn’t mean that we all have to get along or agree with one another. It does mean that we should have respect for one another’s opinions. It does not mean that only the long-standing ‘experts’ should have the only voice. It does mean that all practitioners could be encouraged to seek diverse learning and develop whenever they can.

Why don’t we start trading the problems of our differences for possibilities? Consider what new conversations we want to occur? Help all practitioners to understand their own power to act and improve? Declare our possibilities? Define what future we want to “live in to”? Have inward bonding but also build bridges outwards to other complimentary communities?

But, how? And where do we start? It’s within all of us to make it happen. We can focus on the gifts and capacities we have to give to one another. We can capture and share our quality interactions. We can create possibilities for practitioners to engage more with one another. We can instigate different kinds of conversations so that we create something new together. We can make new, joint declarations of possibility by identifying what we find useful/ important for our development. We can replace stories about the past for possibilities for the future (whilst still appreciating the learning from the past, of course). We can create new ways to listen, speak and communicate meaning to one another. We can create new context, instead of trying to ‘solve our problems’. We can create opportunities to deepen accountability and commitment to development through supportive engagement. And, we can adopt and ‘all voices have value’ ethos.

We can identify what needs retaining for the future, share our stories, identify what we could create together and encourage restorative conversations about possibilities.

In my opinion, we are perfectly able to make our boundaries more porous and encourage a wider range of practitioners into the fold and build bridges with other communities.

Our future, as a systems practitioner community, may have a better chance of being regenerative if we create a wider, more diverse, culture. If we use our questions as a pathway to new wisdom, rather than as sticks to beat each other with.

But, how do we manage the high degree of competition to enable us to be more collaborative, learning and sharing? I, for one, have personally experienced the collaborative learning as a new practitioner. But, as I’ve become more experienced I’ve encountered more of a ‘push back’ from those who once used to teach and share. How do we regenerate as a whole? How do we nurture ongoing social cohesion? And how do we develop a culture of collaboration if some only allow this to happen if others ‘know their place’? How do we evolve towards increasing diversity if we don’t allow the diversity to flourish?

I wold love to see our systems thinking communities (and other complimentary communities) start to focus on the benefits of the collective whole of those communities. Maybe we should take a leaf out of our own text books and start to really understand the underlying dynamics of the different systems thinking communities and how those dynamics can be manipulated for greater benefits?

After all, ‘the world will be different only if we live differently’ Manturana & Varela, 1987. In my book that means co-creating a new and different narrative for the development and wider application of systems thinking, that isn’t constrained by egos and individual wants and needs.

I’m feeling hopeful that 2018 might push us along on our journey, in the right direction.