In working with organizations on their processes, I consistently find that most people are truly surprised to find out how their process are necessarily complicated. Turning the question around, I started wondering “Why is it that we have the feeling that processes should be simple?” This belief is at the center of a key problem people have in process management. It represents a kind of blindness that keeps some from being successful in process management. For now, let me blame it all on Issac Newton.
This is an excerpt from my article “The Quantum Organization: How Social Technology will Displace the Newtonian View” which will be published this June in “Social BPM: Work Planning, and Collaboration under the Impact of Social Technology.” I will be covering this and more in my keynote at the Social Business Forum in Milan on June 8.
Somewhere between the years 1500 and 1700, there emerged a new way of thinking: the Newtonian view of the world. This should not be credited exclusively to Sir Isaac Newton. It really is a philosophical approach to viewing the world influenced by a number of scientists and philosophers after the renaissance, starting possibly with Copernicus, Kepler, Gallileo and Bacon, with a profound embellishment by René Decartes, but in many ways crystallized and best illustrated in Newton’s “Principia.”
The key thing about the Newtonian view is that the world is a machine that is based on simple principles. Gravity became simply a force that was proportional to the product of the two masses involved divided by the square of the distance between them. A body in motion remains in motion unless acted upon by an external force. This put in place the building blocks that could describe a large variety of natural phenomena.
It is important to remember that before this shift in view, the world was imagined as being filled with spirits and inscrutable invisible actors. It seems that storms and floods were downright malevolent, caused by a failure to perform the right ritual that was invisibly connected to the occurrence of natural phenomena. The 1600’s changed this, and people began to search for very simple rules that governed the world. Such as “F = ma” This worked so well, that it seemed that everything could be predicted if you could measure the initial conditions carefully enough. There was, in principle, infinite precision possible. Using a measuring device fine enough, you could predict the future of world events.
Built into the Newtonian point of view is an aspect of “smoothness”: the idea that a rough approximation of the input conditions would give you a rough approximation of the output answer. Greater detail on the input would give you greater accuracy in the answer, but would never fundamentally change the result.
Turbulence disturbs Newtonians. When air flowed around an object, it did not snap smoothly back together on the far side, and instead it swirled around with extra motion that could not be explained by the force necessary to go around the barrier. It didn’t fit. Everything was supposed to be smooth, and there was nothing in the Newtonian view of the world that would explain the extra motion that occurred. Here was a case where as you got more detailed measurements, you got larger variations. Turbulence, and similar things that did not fit were considered places where the rules “broke down” and generally should be avoided.
The Newtonian View is based on these central concepts:
- externally observable—the essential aspects of the system are all observable and can in principle be known.
- smoothness—The large approximates the small. A rough estimate will indicate roughly the outcome. Finer detailed measurements will allow one to calculate the result to finer precision, but will never yield a different result.
- basic rules are simple—there are a fixed number of laws which are fundamentally simple, and can be applied easily given accurate initial conditions.
- predictability—based on the rules and the starting states, you are able to calculate what has to happen to any degree of precision you need. If you are able to set up the initial conditions with sufficient precision, you will get predictability and repeatability to theoretically any level.
These concepts were applied in all fields of endeavor; biology, physiology, sociology, even psychology. The successes were so dramatic that it appeared to many that the world consisted of nothing but machines.
It is with this backdrop, that the great organizational thinkers like Fredrick Winslow Taylor, attempted to isolate the basic fundamental principles that allowed an organization to work. While thinking of the organization as a machine, you identify the top level goals, then the steps to achieve that, break the steps into sub goals and sub steps. You define all the action to finer and finer detail, eventually defining to the precision of what a single person does in a single situation.
Thinking of the organization as a very elaborate mechanical device, like a clock. The clock is filled with gears that are all designed to interact perfectly. The greater precision that is used to make the part, the better it will keep time, and the longer it will run without maintenance. The goal for an organizational planner then is to construct extremely precise pieces, made out of very tough materials, with very exacting measurements, to fit exactly with the other pieces.
One problem with viewing the organization as a machine: machines wear out. These machines perform only the function designed, and are very hard to adapt to another purpose. Organizations built on these principles are brittle. What to do?
New Science for Organizations
I ran across a marvelous book called “Leadership and the New Science” by Margaret Wheatley, as well as another book she co-wrote with Myron Kellner-Rogers called “A Simpler Way.” She was intrigued by the parallels between Modern Physics (Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, and all those non-Newtonian ideas) and the ideas that form the basis of mature functioning organizations.
Instead of thinking of a “clock” as the metaphor for an organization, try thinking of an “ecosystem.” In an ecosystem you have a multiplicity of different flora and fauna. Plants will be all sorts of sizes and shapes, and mixed together with others. Yet there is a particular character to each kind of ecosystem. Conditions will change: there will be hot, dry years, there will be cold, wet years, and yet the ecosystem can be very stable. This is a far better view of an organization. A leader is seen as a kind of gardener who neither designs the plants, nor makes them grow, but simply nurtures and trims in order to achieve harmony.
The desire to isolate the rules of an organization to a small set of simple equations, a completely Newtonian idea, leads you down a dead end in terms of planning and running a real organization.
Why would we stay locked in our belief that there is one right way to do something, or one correct interpretation to a situation, when the universe demands diversity and thrives on a plurality of meaning? – Margaret Wheatley
The Quantum Viewpoint
The most disturbing affront to the Newtonian view came from the development of modern physics and quantum mechanics. The idea of the uncertainty principle run diametrically opposed to the idea that precision outcomes are obtained from precision parts. Consider the electron: it is literally impossible to say exactly where it is at any given point in time. Atoms are constantly moving about. The idea that stretches our intuition the most is that even with all that commotion at the microscopic level, there are very stable structures at the macro scale. Consider the desk or table in front of you: all of the atoms are constantly in motion and constantly interacting with each other, but the furniture itself is quite stable for a long time. It is quite a bit like the ecosystem which has plants growing, dying, seeding, and regrowing again.
Note how the quantum view strikingly contrasts to the Newtonian view:
- uncertainty principle limits what can be observed—things can only theoretically be externally known to a certain level of precision.
- turbulence—there is a steady continual flow of interaction, a fundamental graininess to the universe
- relationship is the fundamental unit—everything is related to everything else, and the interactions are complex and can’t be abstracted away from each other into simplified rules.
- unpredictability—sensitive dependence on initial conditions means that small errors in measurement will build up to the point that after a certain period it is impossible, even theoretically, to predict the final state.
The quantum view opens the way to chaos theory where we look at large systems not as isolated actions that obey simple rules, but instead as rich, infinitely complex interactions that can not be reduced to a handful of simple rules. All of this makes the Newtonian view seem antiquated.
Thinking about these possibilities makes my head hurt! Planning a system on these principles would have been impossible until recent years. The advent of social technology has opened the door to system that could be designed along these principles. I hope I can post some more in the coming days on how key thinkers see social technology effecting organizations, and particularly how organizations can best leverage this capability, but I have used up all the space today.
In summary: We need to be mindful of how Newtonian ideas have lead us to search for simple, mechanistic models for our organizations. A better model, however uncomfortable, might be to consider the organization less as a machine, and more as an ecosystem that is constantly in flux, constantly changing, and yet stable in the face of changes in the marketplace. In a sense, a quantum organization.
At present, our most sophisticated way of acknowledging the world’s complexity is to build elaborate system maps, which are most often influenced by a quest for predictability. When we create a map—displaying what we think are all the relevant elements and interactions—we hope to be able to manipulate the system for the outcomes we desire. We are thinking like good Newtonians. But what we hope for is not possible. There are no routes back to the safe harbor of prediction—no skilled mariners able to determine a precise course across the quantum ocean. The challenge for us is to see past the innumerable fragments to the whole, stepping back far enough to appreciate how things move and change as a coherent entity. – Margaret Wheatley