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Book Summary:

The Unshackled Organization:
Facing the Challenge of Unpredictability Through Spontaneous Reorganization

By Jeffrey Goldstein

1994, Productivity Press, Portland, Oregon

- The author suggests a new approach to organizational change based on the theory of self-organization. He argues that the job of the leader who is interested in effecting change, building more effective and relevant organizations is to create far-from-equilibrium conditions which unleash the inherent creative capacity of the organization and its people.

Chapter 1 - New Wine Skins

Key Points: Four features of self-organization challenge traditional notions of organizational change:

  • Feature #1 - "Self -organization is a self-generated and self-guided process." "What is radically new about the self-organization perspective is that a work group or organization will spontaneously know how to reorganize in the face of challenge, if the obstacles hindering its capacity to self-organize are removed." (emphasis added) This is contrasted to the conventional approach to change which, even if it involves participation, is essentially driven by the hierarchy.

  • Feature #2 - "Self-organization moves beyond the idea of a system as an inert mass characterized by an innate resistance to change. Instead, change is the activation of a system’s inherent potential for transformation, i.e., its "non-linearity."" Consider the image of a flower bulb - its contains the future flower that blossoms under the right conditions of soil, air temperature, sunlight, moisture.

  • Feature #3 - "Self-organization results from the utilization, even enhancement of random, accidental, and unexpected events. Change, then, is not the suppression of chaos: it is order emerging out of chaos..." In organizations we have been trained to view variation as a problem, to control and eliminate unpredictable variations and maintain the equilibrium.

  • Feature #4 - "Self-organization represents a system undergoing a revolution prompted by far-from-equilibrium conditions. This is vastly different than a mere shift in system functioning and a subsequent return to equilibrium."

Chapter 2 - Growth in Nonlinear Systems

"Difficult things beneath heaven
Are made up of easy things
Big things beneath heaven
Are made up of small things
Thus the sage
Never deals with the great,
But accomplishes greatness."
                       - Tao Te Ching (63)

Key Points:

The differences between linear and nonlinear are presented. Conventional approaches to organizational change assume the system is linear. Hence management usually assumes that a major change initiative requires extensive advance planning, that resistance to change must be anticipated, when resistance arises you overcome it with persistence, determination and skill, and that large change requires large-scale efforts. This approach is based on a number of questionable assumptions, notably that organizations are "largely predictable enterprises," that do not change naturally and are "inert masses" which require a "proportionality between effort and results."

  • "In linear systems change is gradual and incremental, whereas in nonlinear systems change can be precipitous and revolutionary."

  • "In linear systems the whole is merely the sum of the parts, whereas in nonlinear systems, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

  • "In linear systems interaction is only one-way, whereas in nonlinear systems interaction is multidirectional."

  • "Linear systems have predictable outcomes, whereas nonlinear systems may have unpredictable outcomes."

  • "Linear systems at equilibrium conditions remain the same, whereas nonlinear systems at far-from-equilibrium conditions can undergo transformation."

Many change efforts fail, in whole or part, because linear methods are used to try to change nonlinear systems. It takes a nonlinear strategy to unlock the "evolutionary potential" inherent in a nonlinear system.


Chapter 4 - From Resistance To Attraction

Key Points - "New research into nonlinear systems challenges the concept that resistance to change is inherent to systems. The traditional conception, in fact, is turned on its head - in nonlinear systems resistance shifts from being an inherent property to being a temporary condition of a system currently at equilibrium."

  • Recent research in psychology has shown in circumstances involving change, resistance is "an attraction to an affirmative core that involves the need to survive with dignity, autonomy and integrity....resistance simply indicates that the organizational patterns that are operating are initially and temporally attracting the system to remain the way it is."

  • "Change is a matter of transiting into new attractors, a process brought about by appropriate far-from-equilibrium conditions. This implies that change does not overcome resistance, but that resistance is expected, accepted, and respected. Resistance ceases to be an issue when it is no longer the dominant attractor of a system."

  • Resistance then indicates that an organization or work group is "under the sway of an equilibrium attractor, which invites an exploration of the equilibrium-seeking processes...which keep the behavior of the system within the accepted setting, or culture, of the group by disallowing deviations from behavioral norms, decision-making methods, work design, management styles, and so on."


Chapter 5 - The Equilibrium Effect of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Key Points:

  • "The nonlinear, circular structure of self-fulfilling prophecies keeps an organizational system at equilibrium. This nonlinear cycle creates a barrier around work groups and organizations that keeps them isolated and closed-off to new information or new ways of interacting with their environments. The self-fulfilling prophecy has the power to do this because it is self-confirming - its own beliefs reinforce themselves by way of actions congruent with those beliefs." A run on a bank as an example - concern that a bank is collapsing leads to frantic withdrawals, which leads to a weakening position of the bank which confirms the original fears and so on.

  • "In the self-organization approach to system change, however, resistance as self-fulfilling prophecy is not a fortress to be stormed; it indicates the presence of an attractor - precisely the point where self-organizing transformation is unleashed. Therefore, whatever maintains a condition of resistance at equilibrium is the same process that leads to change at far-from-equilibrium conditions. The nonlinearity will need to be unleashed so that its evolutionary potential can become manifest...Whereas the self-fulfilling prophecy creates stability in a system under equilibrium conditions, under far-from-equilibrium conditions, when the inherent nonlinearity of the self-fulfilling prophecy is revealed and released, the same effect can lead the system to transform itself."


Chapter 6 - Generating Far-From-Equilibrium Conditions
Key Points: To foster far-from-equilibrium conditions:
  • Allow new information into the system - "Information ...refers to knowledge that is available to a system of its own functioning, or the arrangement of its parts, where each element is and what it is doing. Whereas data is a set of facts, information in a social system goes beyond facts about the system to the relationship between the facts, or among the people in the system who know the facts. For example, if the husband in a family says "I am depressed," it is data, since it is a report about the person himself rather than in relation to another. But if the husband says, "I am depressed when my wife looks at me with an angry face," this is information because it is about the relationship between the members of the social system."

  • Work with organizational boundaries - "...arenas demarcated for change must be characterized by firm boundaries....structural boundaries between an organization and its environment, as well as the internal boundaries between functions inside the organization...If the boundaries in an organization are too weak, the system will not be able to withstand the increase of information that the far-from-equilibrium conditions generate."

  • Connect systems to environment - The firm boundaries "must also be permeable enough to allow vital exchange with the system’s environments. Therefore, a crucial phase of facilitating far-from-equilibrium conditions includes connecting work groups and organizations with their environments."

  • Question differences - in attitudes, purposes, expectations, perceptions is a way of "churning up the underlying foundation of self-fulfilling prophecies....When members of a group question differences...they...generate the new information."

  • Challenge assumptions - Identifying and challenging self-fulfilling prophecies and the assumptions which underlie them brings new information into the system.

  • Take advantage of chance and serendipity - "...information in organizations can reside in organizational "noise" or random, mostly neglected, departures from an organization’s equilibrium. Far-from-equilibrium methods enable the organization or work group to notice, use, and amplify this noise, and thereby turn it into new information."

Chapter 7 - Working With Boundaries

Key Points:

  • "Self-organization only occurs within a firmly bounded arena. This firm boundary limits and channels the nonlinear processes that occur in the system...In human systems, boundaries provide a safe holding environment for anxiety and other uncomfortable experiences that accompany the emergence of novelty..."

  • "...new boundaries need to be demarcated in the following four organizational areas: authority, task, political (what is in it for us), identity."

  • "A far-from-equilibrium condition can...be generated by connecting a system with an environment from which it was previously isolated."


Chapter 10 - The Magic Theater

Key Points: "Consider these features of nonlinear systems: orderly patterns emerge out of random events; small events have huge effects; huge efforts have negligible effects; and, mistakes can lead to profound new directions. Indeed, the behavior of nonlinear systems can seem strange, bizarre, and even counterintuitive...Nonlinear systems, them, require a kind of nonlinear intuition..."

  • "Nonlinear change requires nonlinear methods, so self-organization requires an appropriation of disproportionality, unpredictability, complexity, and randomness. Generating far-from-equilibrium conditions, then, is like establishing a magic theater where the necessary ingredients for self-organization can be concocted and enacted."

  • "A change agent must take advantage of accidents, crises, and fortuitous events. A change agent needs to apply a bit of the absurd, the strange, and the complex, then find a key role for play, paradox, accidents, and fun."

  • "Serendipity is the key. The creative spirit lunges at the serendipitous chance event, the fluctuation, the accident, the fortuitous circumstance, the mutation prompted by a difficult and challenging situation."

"A crucial ingredient in the self-confirming cycle of a self-fulfilling prophecy is the inherent sense of being right. Because the outcomes resulting from the action are self-confirming, they contain a sense of their own righteousness, that is, they justify themselves. Consequently, the members of the group caught up in the self-fulfilling prophecy take these beliefs, actions, and results very seriously...If seriousness maintains equilibrium then one remedy for equilibrium is the opposite of seriousness - that is, play. Play, not hard work, can bring about deeper transformation."

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