Quantam Physics in the Boardroom

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World

It’s a rare business book that quotes the poet A.R. Ammons. Rarer still is a business book with a color photo of a Belousov-Zhabotinsky Reaction (if you’ve seen the movie “Pi,” think of the cream in the coffee cup). Margaret Wheatley’s recently updated classic is such a book.

Wheatley, like a lot of business consultants, spends a great deal of time traveling. Her frequent voyages inspired her to think about ways to approaching the business world, and the realm of science seemed a good fit. For example: “Water answers to gravity, to downhill, to the call of the ocean. Structures emerge, but only as temporary solutions. . . . Organizations lack this kind of faith, faith that they can accomplish their purposes in varied ways and that they do best when they focus on intent and vision, letting forms emerge and disappear.”

This may sound a bit touchy-feely for the guys in payroll, but Wheatley has both science and a solid business background on her side. She sees the natural, complex flow of water, which changes constantly but still reaches its destination, and wants to apply this unconstrained method to the workplace. Nature continues on its unrestrained path and orders itself. So why can’t a company? It’s compelling to envision an office without rigid hierarchies, yellowing Dilberts taped to ratty cubicle. One organizational consultant points out that leadership is better characterized as a behavior, not a role.

To Wheatley, trouble occurs when control is confused with order. Strict boundaries at work typically create a non-functioning company. A business that works in a Newtonian system-all spheres rotating in clockwork perfection-leaves little room for inspiration and a refusal to accept surprise. Organizations break down the whole into a collection of parts, a method of study which eventually reduces the meaning altogether. She compares the situation to a chemical clock made of blue and red elements which turns a dull purple when equilibrium is reached. But patterns and flashes of color (like insight) occur when the clock is kept unbalanced and in a state of excitement.

Nature continues on its unrestrained path and orders itself. So why can’t a company? It’s compelling to envision an office without rigid hierarchies and yellowing Dilberts taped to ratty cubicles.

Wheatley further illustrates this through a simple explanation of quantum physics and the particle reactions and interactions that are so vital to understanding of the world. The first quantum theories sounded bizarre and freakish to scientists. But their odd teaching, and total dependence on intuition, resulted in a clarification of the unknowable and vast universe.

Margaret Wheatley.

A recent biography of the great scientist Murray Gell-Mann bears this out. Gell-Mann was giving a lecture he had given many times before, but made a small error, saying “1” when he meant “1/2.” He finished the lecture, painfully aware of his mistake, and began to correct the inaccuracy. Suddenly he stopped, full of the revelation that his error was in fact the truth-the error was the solution to a thorny problem that had irked theorists for decades.

Wheatley’s book is lovely to read and her explanations are a pleasure. She doesn’t offer much in the way of concrete business examples, nor any specific solutions. But on the cusp of recent findings that brain cells do indeed regenerate, her book provides plenty to consider.

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World by Margaret Wheatley (Berrett-Koehler, ISBN: 1-57675-055-8)

 

Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of the Globe suite of sites. He is also the founder of Green Magazine and greenmagazine.com and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

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