OMD/Assignments/641/Wheatley Critique

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641 - Self Organization and Complexity Theory

Wheatley Critique

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, Margaret J. Wheatley.


From Barclay: Divide your critique between (i) points where Wheatley may have not gone far enough (too shallow, lack of practical applications, too trapped in her own "box"), versus (ii) points in which Wheatley is wrong — just plain wrong.

Chapter 8: Change The Capacity of Life

Wheatley’s introduces this material gently, so that those working in hierarchical organizations can begin to see 'how' they might identify self-organizing patterns into their organizations. Trouble is, she doesn't explain exactly how one goes about doing it. (As Wheatley is a consultant, we do understand her goal is to sell her expertise._ This is problematic, because the reality is the transition to such 'recognition' is that hierarchical organizations will have to go through extreme cultural changes before becoming self-organizing - whether in projects, or the organization itself.

She suggests that we need to value others, but touches so lightly on the deep personal and professional changes required to embrace these values. These changes require the ability to shift paradigms, and form a mental model where there are multiple and interchangeable leaders and followers, and a multiplicity of leadership behaviours. (i.e., the cumulative effect of evolutionary change is revolutionary). "Check your ego at the door" might be a guiding mantra ~ particularly as one has to wrest oneself away from the Newtonian pulse of "engineering change". Great ideas come from everywhere and everyone, not just the appointed or meritorious (as defined by the corporate compensation plan) 'leaders'. As Kennedy and Eberhart elucidate in ‘Swarm Intelligence’ good ideas are not born in a vacuum, intelligence is socially created and reified.

Says Graham C. quoting Wheatley: “We need to work with the whole of the system, even as we work with individual parts or isolated problems.” (p. 139) It would be helpful if she were to expand on this, and offered up some more real life experiences that highlight the process of change. (Of course, it sure sounds good - and we believe it too - but we, as social researchers(!) would like to see the evidence ~ in Western and/or Eastern cultures.)

We appreciate Wheatley's ode to Charlotte's web (i.e., the organizational spider web metaphor (p. 145). However, it is certainly not the only one - guided missiles, Eiffel towers, families or incubators, with incubator coming closest to the web. (Trompenaars et al, 1998). It would have been cool to see a direct comparison (maybe in a table - with comparisons by organizations, or at least in terms of stages of development - i.e., from Tech - Geoffrey Moore's Crossing the Chasm).

We would also have liked to see more emphasis on the need to transform, at ALL levels, the hierarchical systems that continue to dominate most corporate organizations, instead of such simple lovely prose: “If a system is in trouble, it can be restored to health by connecting to more of itself.” (p. 145).


Wheatley states, “Self-reference explains why any living system is motivated to change. It will change to stay the same.” (p. 147) We are concerned about this statement because self-referencing can slip into solipsistic thinking. Perhaps a better way is to engage in a dialectical, or a trialectical (neologism’s are fun!), dance between personal internal states, states within the organization, and the way an organization effects and is affected by the external world. Sorry Margaret: this too is a dance of discovery!

We further take issue with Wheatley's cursory treatment of organizational motivations: yeah, like the big multinationals are out there doing a world of good. The reality is that while most corporations DO consider the positive and negative externalities of what they do (and of course, the profit motive and tax implications!), they work from self-interest, not from self-reference / awareness. It's just the nature of the corporation. They're not going to change because it's written so. (Bakin, Joel (2004). The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Free Press, NY.)

Dwelling Consciousness

In order to dance the ‘trialectic’ (Tangent: teehee, come on everyone throw your hands in the air and do the trialectic!!) one must achieve the ‘dwelling consciousness’ as Wheatley refers to. We like to think of it as "Whole Body Meditation".

As Wheatley moves from Goethe to Thich Nhat Hanh, she is telling us a story but doesn't really bother to show us 'how' one gets to these states (although she does suggest exercises in non-linear thinking like painting). Both Goethe and Thich Nhat Hanh earned their self-knowledge stars by accessing non-traditional gateways and experience portals such such as martial arts (Aikido and To-Shin Do), meditation and yoga. Can it be that meditating on a pinhead can be a more powerful learning experience than an organizational reorg?

She may have been trying to avoid discussing anything that might incite people’s defense of their religious beliefs, however most religions have similar paths to self-awareness. She could offered more guidance and emphasized the need for personal shifts within the ego in order to reach these states, and developing the ability to let go of ego attachments and desires, including the desire to be 'in control' and 'be the leader'.

Chapter 9: The New Scientific Management

Organizational Hierarchies vs. Self-Organization

We find Wheatley’s continued referencing to leaders to be misguided. In order for a system to be truly self-organizing we must change our attitudes and release our attachment to traditional forms of leadership. Graham, in his summary, states, “our leaders need to be more participative, step in as helpmates.” While this is in line with Wheatley’s view on leadership we would suggest that to truly embrace Situational Leadership, we need to do away with attachment to leadership based on ascribed status (boss is leader because s/he is the boss. Period.). IMHO wikis and self-organizing communities is that they rely on everyone and noone, and status is built by anyone who shows initiative. In self-organizing communities, we build on each other. (Randy Fisher, 2008). Also, see John Conway's The Game of Life - (This doesn't mean they are necessarily sustainable or scalable - they have to be properly designed, and that is a different discussion.)

Situational Leadership

Situational leadership (or 'Emergent Leadership") implies that different situations require different skills and therefore different ‘leaders will emerge’. For this transition to occur, we may need group facilitators - who are skilled in 'facilitating' an increase in individual, group, departmental and organizational self-awareness. Think interim facilitators vs. traditional leaders.

Our main critique is that Wheatley is that she often doesn’t go far enough....and much of her Chapter 9 writings are devoted to proving the merit of her case to the scientific community. Again, where's the evidence Margaret?.

We DO we acknowledge that the arcane nature of the material might necessitate 'a lighter view of the new science' And since the new science is so new, perhaps there needs to be new research using traditional and self-organizing approaches to persuade the skeptics - the scientific community (We'll be learning how to sell it to our CEOs in Week 9 of Barclay's course - notice the irony?).

The 'New Science' can be a rough read - has anyone read Cilliers? - and Wheatley has done an admirable job in making it accessible to anyone from the seasoned executive, the meditative guru, and the wet-behind-the-ears graduate student.


Wheatley, Margaret J. (1999). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. Barrett-Koehler; San Francisco.

Kennedy, James; Eberhart, Russell (2001). Swarm Intelligence. Academic Press; London, San Francisco, San Diego.

Bakin, Joel (2004). The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Free Press, NY.

Kelley, Robert E. (1988). In Praise of Followers. Harvard Business Review. November-December. (142-49)

Moore, Geoffrey, Crossing the Chasm

Trompenaars, Fons & Hampden-Turner, Charles (1998). Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business, 2nd. ed. New York, McGraw-Hill.

For more on meditation self-awareness, empathy and detachment: Chodron, Pema (1994). Start Where You Are: A guide to compassionate living. Boston, Shambhala Classics.

Ideas for Reflection

  • "engineered change, Newtonian Universe"
  HH: in reading this I am struck with the irony of it... she is suggesting that engineered change doesn't work, but yet she is engineering a change toward unengineered change...(That's a great insight, Hollie)
  • dwelling consciousness - Martin Heidigger (Meditation: Whole Body Meditation - Thich Nat Han)
  • systems sensibility
  • Akaido
  • "Dance of discovery"

Why the business failed to secure a major contract - "patterns" - what are they?

  • doesn't talk about superordinate don't need a crisis, to work together...
  • she seems to be caught somewhere in between the old paradigm and new paradigm....
  • difference between "leader" as "The Leader" and "leadership behaviours" which everyone can engage, and take the lead, according to their strengths, interests, motivations, etc. HH: bring in situational leadership and the article on Followership (I'm gonna see if I can dig that up today...)see below

p. 146 - she references "information" - RF preference "insight /intelligence"

p. 148 - "In the process of doing actual work, the real identity of the group, not some fantasy image, always becomes visible." - Randy - how is she going to do this - get work in a donut shop...HH: I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on this!

p. 148 ..."we discover a unifying energy that makes the work of change possible...."

p. 154. - "These were difficult lessons to learn. I was well-trained to create things - plans, events, measures, programs. I invested more than half my life in trying to make the world conform to what I thought was best for it...It's not easy to give up the role of master creator and move into the dance of life." - RF in order to do this stuff internally, you need to have some established credibility in the engineering Newtonian world... RF question: how to transition to this credibility.

HH:As I have been contemplating your question here I wonder if this isn’t why Wheatley chose a more moderate approach to the material. It’s pretty radical stuff and for those stuck in a Newtonian Universe and still attached to traditional forms of leadership it might be easier to digest this watered down form. Maybe it was her intent to offer a discussion that is accessible to all and introduces the concepts gently in ways that will encourage readers to start on the path… If she pushed it too far she might loose credibility.

we could use this as a conclusion… something like, “While our critique of Wheatley is that she often doesn’t go far enough with these ideas we acknowledge that the arcane nature of the material might necessitate this. We do acknowledge that this material is difficult and radical when taken to its extremes, this can be alienating to some. It may have been Wheatley’s intent to water it down to make it accessible to those she wanted to reach the most.”

  • self-reference - change to change, not change to stay the same...modern corporations not willing to own how they affect the environment... - requires empathy and energy...real care...

p. 154. - "We must know what "center" feels like. We must know who we are, patterns of behaviour, our values and intentions." - RF -what about 'boundaries' HH: I think you are on to something here... I am thinking of something I posted recently in my blog...

"I was sitting in the Uptown, reading and people watching, when I realized I was the only person by myself. Everyone else was engaging in conversation with others. I enjoyed watching the interplay. I enjoyed watching other people engage in interactions where the most innocent bystander could read the core of their motivations, simply because they are paying attention, without attachment.

Much of human behavior goes unnoticed because we are so busy playing the game. When one goes into public places alone, one is privy to so much information that others are simply too involved to pick up on. It's like the second stage of meditation (meta-station) when you are becoming aware of the sounds around you… attending to them to such a degree that they become boring to the self.

When one watches the dance of social energies without being attached to them it lends itself to…well, to Detachment! Once one becomes comfortable and non-judgmental with the dance of energies outside of oneself, it becomes easier to observe the same dance of the same energies inside of one 'self'… having observed the same behaviors again and again in the human species it becomes easier to accept, in a loving and non-judgmental manner, similar responses in one-self. When accompanied by meditation this can help one experience Atman…"

To me it is a dialectical dance between self-awareness, awareness of others, and awareness of the group dynamic...

pp. 153-154 - RF note to prof. in 604 course:

Wheatley also has resonance for "Cultural Learning".

"Life demands that I participate with things as they unfold, to expect to be surprised, to honor the mystery of it, and to see what emerges." pp. 153-154... Also, "Our dance partner insists that we put ourselves in motion, that we learn to live with instability, chaos, change and surprise."

I LOVE the word "surprise". Instead of focusing on cultural difference, I would like to focus on "Cultural Learning" - which puts my relationships with others into an entirely different light....where I can learn, grow and develop in all of my complexity, and connect with others who are doing the same, at different times, in the same and different contexts, with different results...

Randy Fisher 02:05, 19 February 2008 (UTC)

Notes from Hollie

HH: Randy, I love your thoughts on cultural learning above! I'll chew on it while I take notes... You are so good at this keeping it concise thing... me, not so much! But here are some notes and my thoughts on Wheatley's statements.

The one that I find recurring is that she seems to assume that all of this can take place in traditional hierarchical organizations and I think that organizations, and the paradigms on which they are built, are going to have to go through some extreme changes before they will able to be self organizing...

“We use reductionism to diagnose the problem; we expect to find a simple singular cause for our woes. We sift through all the possible causes… searching for that one broken part…” (138)

  RF -- I agree with you, and also some projects simply start out as self-organizing, based on their "values", process and culture. In fact, didn't she mention that you have to start somewhere, anywhere...and see how the changes propel out? A project is a good way of kickstarting, or at least recognizing this within an organization.
  HH: Great point on projects that start out self-organizing! Do you have experience with these?  I have experience with organizations that start as purposefully self organizing but not projects within larger organizations.  

But in my experience with self-organizing one of the problems I have encountered is with lack of boundaries, which you speak of… they were groups open to any members who wanted to join, and this caused problems. It left space for those who did not share our core values to come in just to cause problems… like ‘flamers’ on websites (I love that this term has been redefined!). I don’t know if this experience is relevant, but I thought I would throw it out there!

  HH: She touches on this, in my view, but doesn’t go far enough… the whole system needs to change. She insinuates that self-organizing can take place in an essentially hierarchical system. She doesn’t insist on the systemic and paradigmatic changes that need to take place. 

She suggests valuing others but does not address the deep personal changes that most need to make (she touches on it later, which I discuss below), which is to give up an ego attachment to being better than someone, to give up an ego attachment to being able to say ‘hey, that was my idea’ because good ideas are not born in a vacuum (Link to: swarm intelligence). If we don’t make those changes in ourselves they will not be reflected in our organizations.

She does suggest some of this when she states, “We need to work with the whole of the system, even as we work with individual parts or isolated problems.” (139) I am thinking of the material covered in Marcella’s self as leader… did you take it? It covers working with one’s shadow, authenticity, being aware of one’s inner worlds. The Followership article could be a connection…

On 144 she discusses the relationship between the parts and the whole and the process of self-discovery stating,

“They are able to see how their personal patterns and behaviors contribute to the whole. The surprise is that they then take responsibility for changing themselves.” (144)

  HH: This seems a little optimistic to me… people have so many defenses. Especially in this disposable world… I find that many people are more likely to run than to take responsibility for their actions. (I can only see this in others because I have witnessed the desire to respond in a similar manner in myself!) 

It might have been helpful if she could have expanded on that… what are some destructive personal patterns that she has seen in organizations? An inspirational story might have been nice, an example, a model…

“Senior corporate leaders report that up to 75% of their change projects do not yield the promised results… this is a shocking failure rate.” (138)

  HH: She suggests that we do away with the change projects, but not that we do away with corporate leaders :D We could link this to the Chillers discussion of neural networks (notes to come later!)…

“As I have struggled to understand a system as a system, I have been drawn to move past cognition into the realm of sensation. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger describes this as a ‘dwelling consciousness.’ When we dwell with a group or a problem, we move quietly into our senses, away from our sharpened analytic skills…” (141)

  HH: I am also compelled by this and would like to explore it more… how could Wheatley have taken it further, expanded on this?

“Goethe describes how we can move from interrogation to receptivity… we can dwell with the phenomenon and feel how it makes itself known to us… this manner of thinking, while difficult to grasp for a Western mind, is familiar in Buddhist belief…” (141)

HH: Dwelling in the phenomenon is something I think is so important... being able to sit with one's feelings, define them, get to know their texture and colors. In this way they no longer control you. Naming is so important, it helps equalize the power of emotions. When we name what we are feeling we take some of the power away, just like when we shine the light on our shadow.

“All beings rely on the law of dependent co-arising. The source of one thing is all things. (in Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991, 169)” (142)

HH: We could discuss our experiences etc with meditation, yoga, etc… she suggests activities that encourage non-linear thinking (143) but leaves the above suggestions out.

On 145 she uses the metaphor of a spider web for organizations… but most organizations are not spider webs, they are guided missiles, Eiffel towers, families or incubators (incubator coming closest to the web) this classification is from: Trompenaars, Fons & Hampden-Turner, Charles (1998). Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business, second edition. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Maybe her suggestion that, “If a system is in trouble, it can be restored to health by connecting to more of itself.” (145) would help transform these mostly hierarchical organizations into more weblike structures over time, but again, I think she falls short.

HH: I think the statement that I find most disturbing in the whole book is, “Self-reference explains why any living system is motivated to change. It will change to stay the same.” (147)

HH: The self-referential nature of most large corporations is one of the most dangerous and destructive things about our society! Corporations do not take into consideration how they effect the environment, society, socio-political realities, etc when they are self-referential. It borders on solipsistic (one of my favorite words! I use it every chance I get ;-)… we must stop changing because we have to, and start changing because it is a moral imperative! (But how do you sell that to businesses especially when the rules require profit first... see:Bakin, Joel (2004). The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Free Press, NY.)

Sorry, I know I am the queen of too much information, but I really did try to pare it down!

I'm gonna have to crash soon, but will be back first thing in the morning.

I will read over the posts on chapters 8&9 in the forum and see what has been said so we can discuss those too..

On Hank’s chapter Nine summary…

His focus is on leadership and self-reference… Hank: “our leaders need to be more participative, step in as helpmates” My critique would be that we need to do away with attachment to leadership on ascribed status (boss is leader because s/he is the boss. Period.) to situational leadership… to make this transition we may need to place facilitators in groups, to help with the dynamics, help with self-awareness and listening skills. But I think it is important to think in terms of temporary facilitators rather than traditional leaders.

Crit of self reference above…danger of solipsistic thinking

Outline (aka "Patterns")


  • Need for paradigmatic change… Wheatley’s attempt to introduce this material gently, in a way that those working in hierarchical organizations can begin to interject self-organizing patterns into these organizations. But ultimately a paradigmatic shift will be necessary.
  • Systems sensibility the need to do a dialectical (or trialectical!) dance between personal internal states, states within the organization, and the way an organization effects and is affected by the external world.

This could link to your thoughts on boundaries and superordinate goals… importance of openness and yet importance of everyone being on same page with values and goals. These types of boundaries are essential to keep information as relevant (ex: my experiences with highly open self-org groups) as possible.

  • Dwelling consciousness and the use of meditative techniques to access this state…in order to dance the ‘trialectic’ one must achieve the ‘dwelling consciousness.’ But Wheatley could have gone farther with this, offered more guidance and emphasized the need for personal shifts within the ego in order to reach these states… this leads into….
  • Leadership versus followership and facilitators… need to let go of traditional views of leadership.
  I really like your thoughts on cultural learning and would love to fit them in somewhere….maybe connect to ego shifts and the need to be able to let go of attachment to one’s own cultural values in order to understand the perspectives of others… it’s hard to learn when one is judging.  Donno, any thoughts?
  RF: don't worry about where we will put Cultural Learning - since this is complexity theory, we can just put it in somewhere, after the whole thing is done...I can make a nicely polished bridge!


Something about We acknowledge that Wheatley may have purposefully watered down the material… etc.
  RF - I wouldn't use those words exactly...remember that she has a consulting arm...and like most consultants, she wants to 'sell' the book is the tantalyzer, the lure. Also, the book is written to be accessible to as wide an audience as instead of 'watering down' let's just say that .... and say that this is a weakness, particularly if dealing from a critical perspective

(Comment.gif: Hollie - I really appreciate how you've taken to using's amazing that with a bit of knowledge, you can do some great things! Randy Fisher 23:10, 19 February 2008 (UTC))