From the Publisher
“Great storytelling, experience-based insight, and effortless prose.”
—Christopher Meyer, Director, The Cap Gemini Ernst & Young Center for Business Innovation, and coauthor of BLUR: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy and Future Wealth
“Surfing the Edge of Chaos is a breakthrough book . . . rendering subtle and complex ideas into readable prose by refracting the ideas through the prism of real-life organizations. This book will be must reading for any serious executive or student of organizational change.”
—Warren Bennis, University Professor and Founding Chairman of the Leadership Institute, University of Southern California, and author of Managing the Dream
“Surfing the Edge of Chaos is an action plan for bringing organizations to life and life to organizations.”
—Prof. Gary Hamel, author of Leading the Revolution and coauthor of Competing for the Future; Visiting Professor, London Business School; and Chairman of Strategos
“Grounded in both theory and practice, Surfing the Edge of Chaos helps any manager facing change to replace equilibrium and the status quo with innovation and self-renewal. The links drawn between the world of nature and the world of business form a particularly rich source of ideas for turning complexity and chaos into resolve and results.”
—Dave Ulrich, Professor of Business, University of Michigan, and author of Results-Based Leadership
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this breakthrough business book, Pascale, Millemann and Gioja troll the emerging science of complexity for "ideas [that] can produce a concrete bottom-line impact." Extracting key "dynamics of survival" from the life sciences, these three management consultants successfully show business leaders how to turn their companies into agile and adaptable "living systems" that achieve long-term vitality and sustainability in a swiftly evolving environment. Their four "bedrock" principles are "Equilibrium is a precursor to death"; "Living things move toward the edge of chaos"; "Components of living systems self-organize" in response to turmoil; and "Living systems cannot be directed along a linear path." Writing with clarity and verve, the authors illustrate these larger points by comparing the functioning of organic systems (e.g., Yellowstone National Park), the behavior of organisms (dental plaque) and of insects (fire ants) with detailed case studies of five companies (British Petroleum, Hewlett-Packard, Monsanto, Royal Dutch/Shell and Sun Microsystems) and the U.S. Army. Practical-minded readers will appreciate their nitty-gritty insights into the relative advantages of "adaptive" and traditional "operational" leadership, as well as their consistent distillation of concrete business guidelines. While the authors aver that "there is no permanent victory in this eternal cycle of life and death," they make a persuasive case that "understanding living systems does not decisively win the game but, most assuredly, it improves the odds." (Nov. 1) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Read an Excerpt
Of Colonies and Companies
Rapid rates of change, an explosion of new insights from the life sciences, and the insufficiency of the machine model have created a critical mass for a revolution in management thinking. The fallout of the scientific renaissance has fostered uncertainty and soul-searching. Executives ask: How do we make practical sense of all this? How do we get the change and performance we need? Clues, it turns out, are to be found in the world of the termite.
Come with us to a remarkable structure: the twelve-foot-high mound of the African termite, home to millions of inhabitants.
The mound is an architectural marvel. Naturalist Richard Conniff has described its perfect arches, spiral staircases, nurseries, storage facilities, and living quarters that vary with the status of individual termites. Tunnels radiate out from the mound more than 160 feet in any direction. These structures enable the termites to forage for grass, wood, and water within an 80,000-square-foot area without being exposed to predators.
Within the mound, a ventilation systemoperated by opening and closing ventscreates a motion similar to respiration. Oxygen is "inhaled" into the twelve-foot tower of mud, and carbon dioxide is "exhaled." The system also holds the internal temperature steady (plus or minus one degree Fahrenheit) even though the external climate ranges from freezing winters to 100-degree-plus summers. Humidity is constant at 90 percent.
This organizational wonderwhich evolved over 100 million years or sois a tribute to an elaborate social structure. Every inhabitant obeys a series of genetically programmed rules, such as: "Position yourself between the termite in front and the one behind, and pass on whatever comes your way." As a whole, members of the mound constitute a sophisticated society that makes it possible to meet the ever changing needs of the colony.
Entomologists have known about the workings of the termite for centuries. In the past two decades, though, a group of leading scientists has offered a different, intriguing perspective. They see the mound as a stunning example of a complex adaptive system.
A complex adaptive system is formally defined as a system of independent agents that can act in parallel, develop "models" as to how things work in their environment, and, most importantly, refine those models through learning and adaptation. The human immune system is a complex adaptive system. So is a rain forest, a termite colony, and a business.
Over the past several years, substantial literature has introduced the new science of complexity. This is a broad-based inquiry into the common properties of all living thingsbeehives and bond traders, ant colonies and enterprises, ecologies and economies, you and me. In aggregate, the coverage on this topic to date has achieved two significant things:
1. It has evoked wonder and excitement about the living world around ushow life surges and declines; how nature competes, cooperates, and thrives on change.
2. It has whetted some managerial appetites for a new approach that might help to unshackle the potential of people and organizations and has begun to challenge the machine model as a suitable management platform for the information age.
We aim to take a step beyond. This book describes a new management model based on the nature of nature, but it also does what no other book has done before. It distills, from the science of complexity, four bedrock principles that are inherently and powerfully applicable to the living system called a business.
In brief, these principles are:
1. Equilibrium is a precursor to death. When a living system is in a state of equilibrium, it is less responsive to changes occurring around it. This places it at maximum risk.
2. In the face of threat, or when galvanized by a compelling opportunity, living things move toward the edge of chaos. This condition evokes higher levels of mutation and experimentation, and fresh new solutions are more likely to be found.
3. When this excitation takes place, the components of living systems self-organize and new forms and repertoires emerge from the turmoil.
4. Living systems cannot be directed along a linear path. Unforeseen consequences are inevitable. The challenge is to disturb them in a manner that approximates the desired outcome.
If properly employed, these principles allow enterprises to thrive and revitalize themselves. In contrast, the machine-age principles, although familiar and enduring, often quietly facilitate the stagnation and decline of traditional enterprises that are faced with discontinuous change.
The choice is that simple and that stark.
Complexity and chaos are frequently used interchangeably, even though they have almost nothing in common. The world is not chaotic; it is complex.
Humans tend to regard as chaotic that which they cannot control. This creates confusion over what is meant by the term chaos. From a scientific point of view, chaos is that unlikely occurrence in which patterns cannot be found nor interrelationships understood. A swarm of bees or the ants that overrun a picnic blanket may seem chaotic but they are actually only behaving as a complex adaptive systems. E-commerce and the upending of traditional business platforms may feel "chaotic," but, technically, these innovations are complex.