Margaret Wheatley works in the area of leadership and organisational change from the perspective of what we can learn from living reality. She has the complex adaptive systems concept at the core of her work. I recently stumbled across her writings, particularly her four “principles of living systems”. Here they are -
- Participation is not a choice
- Life always reacts to directives, it never obeys them
- We do not see “reality”. We each create our own interpretation of what is real
- To create better health in a living system, connect it more to itself
The first principle relates to the reality that everyone, every thing, every aspect of our world, our universe, exists inextricably embedded in the contexts of its existence. A living organism is an “open system”, with information and energy constantly flowing into and out of it. A living system is dynamic and perpetually changing and “co-evolving” with the other elements of the ecosystem in which it lives. You can’t change a part of a person without producing changes in the rest of that person, and you can’t change a person without setting off a cascade of unpredictable changes in the world in which that person lives (and vice versa – you can’t change something in someone’s world without setting off changes in that person). Participation is not a choice, it’s an inevitability.
The second principle is the core of adaptation. Every individual is unique and cannot be controlled like a robot or a machine. You can force people to behave a certain way for a period of time, but ultimately all the organisations and political systems based on force collapse. You can’t force the sun to shine, the wind to blow, the rain to fall, or Life to obey your commands.
The third principle is something we often forget. Iain McGilchrist, in The Master and His Emissary, highlights how the left cerebral hemisphere is particularly well developed to “re-create” reality. It creates “re-presentations” of the raw information and energy which flows into the person. These representations allow us to make sense of the world and to literally to grasp things better. It’s a fantastic development and is probably at the core of our industrial and technological development as a species. We also know now that the part of the brain just behind the forehead, the mid-prefrontal cortex, has many, many functions, but amongst them is a map-making facility. It’s crucially involved in creating, what Dan Siegel calls, “a me map, a you map and a we map”. We never know any of this reality directly. Rather we constantly create our perceptions and our understandings, influencing those creations with our memories, our hopes, our beliefs, our values and our desires.
The final principle is Margaret Wheatley’s way of talking about integration. When a system is well integrated there are healthy, mutually beneficial relationships between all the connected parts. That produces coherence and harmony. It’s the basis of health.
When I first created this blog, I wrote a permanent page on “ACE” – “Adaptation, Creativity and Engagement“. It was really interesting for me, therefore, to discover this quote from Margaret Wheatley (which I believe, essentially highlights the same characteristics)
Over many years of work all over the world, I’ve learned that if we organize in the same way that the rest of life does, we develop the skills we need: we become resilient, adaptive, aware, and creative. We enjoy working together. And life’s processes work everywhere, no matter the culture, group, or person, because these are basic dynamics shared by all living beings