The Soul at Work: Listen...Respond...Let Go Using Complexity Science for Business Success

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In a nutshell, "complexity science" refers to how things interact with each other in the natural world. Lewin and Regine, respected academics and authors, attempt to build on this model, pointing out its applications in the business world. The world is often chaotic, though properly challenged people can often surmount and even thrive amidst the chaos. But what does this have to do with business? The authors argue convincingly that the old mechanistic, command-and-control workplace model has outlived its purpose. Industry is "in the throes of revolutionary changes," and companies must see themselves as "complex adaptive systems" more akin to "environmental ecosystems." Employees are not cogs but people, and authentic employer-enployee relationships must be cultivated. Does this sound like the latest flavor-of-the-month management trend? Perhaps. But the authors are onto something here. Surveying a number of companies in both the United States and England, they show how large and small businesses that have embraced the principles of "complexity science" have turned themselves around, often dramatically, with improved profits and, more significantly, a more humane workplace for management and employees alike. Recommended for larger business collections.--Richard S. Drezen, Washington Post News Research Ctr., Washington, DC Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684843841
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 12/7/1999
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.76 (w) x 9.14 (h) x 1.00 (d)

First Chapter

Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but usually manages to pick himself up, walk over or around it, and carry on.
Winston Churchill

We took the daytime flight from Boston to London's Heathrow Airport and arrived about 9:00 P.M., which allowed for a quick taxi ride to one of our favorite Greek restaurants, Anemos, on Charlotte Street in London's Soho district. It was near closing time and only a few tables were occupied. Nevertheless, vibrant Greek music filled the room, which was all decked out in murals of images of Greece both ancient and modern. We had barely begun to eat when Kypros Pesekanos, the manager, emerged from the kitchen carrying a stack of dinner plates. It was time for a tradition that has been going on in Anemos for twenty-five years: Pesekanos began to toss the plates onto the small dance floor, white fragments scattering everywhere. Beaming, and bearing a paunch that proclaimed a lifelong dedication to being a trencherman, Pesekanos was quickly into the spirit of the thing. Crash! Crash! Crash!

The plate throwing at Anemos is a continuation of an old tradition from the homeland, which, Pesekanos explained to us, was a means of letting off steam at bars called Pouzouki (a bouzouki is an instrument like a lute). "You'd get away from the demands of work and family life for a while, drink ouzo, throw some plates to get rid of frustrations and annoyances. And then you're ready to dance -- in the rubble," Pesekanos explained.

Urged on by Pesekanos, we joined a group of half a dozen people in vigorous plate tossing, and danced amidst the mosaic of white shards. For us it was a wonderful way of throwing off the crimps of our transatlantic flight.

Afterward, we joined our fellow revelers around a big table and we began to talk. They were from Denmark, and in the textile business. They were traveling through Europe, checking on sources of fabrics they were using for their designs. "Business has changed for us," they told us. "How so?" we inquired. "Now what's most important is paying attention to the people you do business with," they explained. "Business is not just commerce anymore; it's about developing relationships. Honesty and connection is what we look for, in our employees and in our suppliers. You can see it in the eyes. What we're building is a community; this is our leverage for business success."

What our dancing companions were saying reverberated deeply with us. We had been talking to various businesses in the United States and in Britain, and we were hearing a similar phenomenon occurring among them. A shift is taking place in the world of business, where valuing people and relationships is not just a good or espoused idea, but a conscious management action that has a positive outcome on the economic bottom line. We were hearing that by genuinely caring about people in the workplace, the economic bottom line often benefits as well.

This encounter at Anemos was in the fall of 1997. We were about a year into our study, which involved talking with people in a dozen companies, of different sizes and different business sectors. Some we interviewed several times, for a longitudinal perspective; and often we did a cross section of interviews, from CEO to secretary. We were interested in companies that were following principles from the new science of complexity in running their business. All we had to begin with was an understanding that businesses are complex adaptive systems, and the principles that underlie such systems. Some of the companies we talked to were using complexity principles explicitly to guide how they operated; others reached this place intuitively. It didn't matter which was the case for our work. We found these organizations mostly by word of mouth.

We will delve into complexity science in more detail in later chapters, but suffice it to say here that the new science is the latest attempt to understand the structure and dynamics of complex systems in the natural world, including human social systems such as business organizations. Complexity science views such systems as being like living organisms, which adapt and evolve, rather than being like machines, which has been the traditional perspective. Companies whose management is guided by principles of complexity science are organizationally flat, have fewer levels of hierarchy, and promote open and plentiful communication and diversity. Complexity science argues that these properties enhance businesses' capacity for adaptability, thus giving them a cutting edge in these fast-changing times. The companies we chose for our study therefore shared the properties of being organizationally flat and having rich, open communication. But initially we had no idea what our study would find in the realm of organizational dynamics, of management style, and people's way of working.

What we began to hear about consistently was a new way of doing business -- from Babel's family paint and decorating stores of thirty-five people, to St. Luke's advertising agency of a hundred, to Monsanto Company of 22,000. For these organizations, people had become the new bottom line, not simply for humanistic reasons, but as a way to promote adaptability and business success. In today's business environment of rapid change, a collective effort, a recognized need for others, becomes the means of survival and success.

Reflecting on the plate-throwing evening, we realized that this old tradition was a timely analogy for what we were hearing as being the current climate in these companies: breaking of old ways of doing things, seeking a new freedom, and trying to have fun while doing it. Pesekanos had told us that Anemos means "wind," which was apt, too, because a wind of change is blowing through the business world, bringing with it a new hope and a potential for a deep human resonance within organizations, which we all seek deep in our hearts. But it also brings anxiety, uncertainty, and fear, because it is predicated on far less control and far less predictability than is assumed in traditional management practice. Bending with these winds, business practice is becoming more like an improvisational dance on the broken plates of change.

A World in the Throes of Change

The business world is in the throes of revolutionary change, a time when business leaders are frantically preoccupied with change itself. Modern management theory borders on being obsessed with change of one sort or other -- how to generate it, how to respond to it, how to avoid being overcome by it. The reason is not hard to find. Pick up any newspaper, magazine, or business book and there it is: chaos reigns. At the cusp of the twenty-first century, we are experiencing structural shifts in our economy brought about by the revolutions in computation and communication technologies. But, as Intel's Andy Grove indicates, change is not exactly a welcome guest in business: "With all the rhetoric about change, the fact is that we managers hate change, especially when it involves us."

The change is not only real, but it is also accelerating, driven by rapid technological innovation, the globalization of business, and, not the least of it, the arrival of the Internet and the new domain of Internet commerce. A new kind of economy is emerging -- call it the information economy, the connected economy, call it what you will. The world of business is transforming, a shift that rivals the onset of the Industrial Revolution in its impact on society and the way commerce is transacted. With this shift, managers are finding many of their background assumptions and time-honored business models inadequate to help them understand what is going on, let alone how to deal with it. Where managers once operated with a machine model of their world, which was predicated on linear thinking, control, and predictability, they now find themselves struggling with something more organic and nonlinear, where limited control and a restricted ability to predict are the order of the day. No wonder most managers and executive professionals are uneasy, and eagerly seek new ways of coping. One thing is certain in all this, however: you can't figure out what to do in the future by looking at how you did things in the past.

Business Theories, Business Theories, and More Business Theories

These turbulent times are reflected in the proliferation of new business books on change -- there's seemingly hundreds of them. Managers have never been short of advice for new ways of working, of course. The history of the (currently) $17-billion-a-year management consulting business (in the United States alone) is a litany of new techniques that successively offer relief from the "old" and, by implication, wrongheaded management style. "Management theorists have a passion for permanent revolution that would have made Leon Trotsky or Mao Zedong green with envy," write John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their book The Witch Doctors, the title being a none-too-subtle commentary on the authors' perceived validity of some of the theories. The list is long and includes management by objectives, management by walking around, total quality management, and the biggest of the more recent offerings, reengineering. There have been more than twenty such nostrums in the past few decades, and the pace of their birth and subsequent demise is picking up alarmingly, which, say Micklethwait and Wooldridge, smacks of a certain "faddishness."

Managers are ambivalent about management theories: they want tools to help them manage, but have become skeptical that, as the pace of the birth of successive theories picks up in the way it has, they will barely have time to master the present one before it will be replaced by the next. Managers clearly display an admirable degree of open-mindedness in being willing to take on new ideas, but business fads can be crazy-making as well. Front-line workers, on the other hand, are less ambivalent, as the popularity of Scott Adams's Dilbert cartoon attests. An article in The Economist says of Adams that "whereas most business writers write for the one in ten people who are interested in management theory, he writes for the nine of ten who hate it."

We will argue in this book that managers, consultants, entrepreneurs, executives, other business professionals, indeed, anyone who works, can take some comfort in the fact that they are not alone in riding a bucking bronco of change that demands a different understanding of the world. Science, too, is in the midst of an important intellectual shift, a true Kuhnian paradigm shift that parallels what is happening in business, or, more accurately, is the vanguard of that change. Where once the natural world was viewed as linear and mechanistic, where simple cause-and-effect solutions were expected to explain the complex phenomena of nature, scientists now realize that much of their world is nonlinear and organic, characterized by uncertainty and unpredictability. As in science, managers are discovering that their world is not linear but rather predominantly nonlinear, not mechanistic but rather organic and complex. It's amazing how far we have been able to take the linear model for understanding the world, both in science and in business. But in the new economy, the limitations of the mechanistic model are becoming starkly apparent. A new way of thinking is required.

Enter Complexity Science

The realization that much of the world dances to nonlinear tunes has given birth to the new science of complexity, whose midwife was the power of modern computation, which for the first time allows complex processes to be studied. The science is still in its infancy, and is multifaceted, reflecting different avenues of study. The avenue most relevant to understanding organizational dynamics within companies and the web of economic activity among them is the study of complex adaptive systems. Simply defined, complex adaptive systems are composed of a diversity of agents that interact with each other, mutually affect each other, and in so doing generate novel behavior for the system as a whole, such as in evolution, ecosystems, and the human mind. But the pattern of behavior we see in these systems is not constant, because when a system's environment changes, so does the behavior of its agents, and, as a result, so does the behavior of the system as a whole. In other words, the system is constantly adapting to the conditions around it. Over time, the system evolves through ceaseless adaptation.

Complexity scientists are learning about these dynamics of complex systems principally through computer models, but also through observation of the natural world. "That's all fine and dandy for scientists and academicians," one executive commented when we made this point, "but what's it got to do with me and my problems?" The point is that business organizations are also complex adaptive systems. This means that what complexity scientists are learning about natural systems has the potential to illuminate the fundamental dynamics of business organizations, too. Companies in a fast-changing business environment need to be able to produce constant innovation, need to be constantly adapting, and be in a state of continual evolution, if they are to survive.

"Oh no, not another fad," one manager said. There is always that danger, of course. But if complexity scientists are right in arguing that if complex adaptive systems of all kinds -- in the natural world and the world of business -- share fundamental properties and processes, then the science offers something that most management theories do not. The argument here is that most management theories are not really theories at all, but merely techniques for managing in a certain way. Complexity science is still nascent as a theory but it has determined certain fundamental processes and characteristics of complex adaptive systems. In other words, when we speak of businesses as complex adaptive systems we are not speaking of a metaphor or a technique; rather, we are saying that by understanding the characteristics of complex adaptive systems in general, we can find a way to understand and work with the deep nature of organizations.

"Right," said one consultant. "So what do I know that's different about empowerment, participatory management, and learning organizations by understanding complex adaptive systems that I didn't know before?" This new science, we found in our work, leads to a new theory of business that places people and relationships -- how people interact with each other, the kinds of relationships they form -- into dramatic relief. In a linear world, things may exist independently of each other, and when they interact, they do so in simple, predictable ways. In a nonlinear, dynamic world, everything exists only in relationship to everything else, and the interactions among agents in the system lead to complex, unpredictable outcomes. In this world, interactions, or relationships, among its agents are the organizing principle.

Complexity science in the business realm therefore focuses on relationships: relationships between individuals and among teams; relationships to other companies in their business environment, or economic web; and, ultimately, relationship to the natural environment. And because the dynamics of complex adaptive systems are complex and largely unpredictable, accepting businesses as being such systems requires a different mind-set: managers and executives cannot control their organizations to the degree that the mechanistic perspective implies; but they can influence where their company is going, and how it evolves.

Complexity science is already finding its way into the business literature, as some managers and consultants embrace complexity and the uncertainty it entails. Articles with titles such as "Between Chaos and Order: What Complexity Theory Can Teach Business" and "From Process Management to Com- plexity Management" are already beginning to fill the pages of management journals. Conferences, such as Embracing Complexity: Exploring the Application of Complex Adaptive Systems to Business, the Big Five company Ernst & Young's foray into the new science, now in its third year, are drawing big audiences. And two prominent business journalists -- Tom Petzinger of the Wall Street Journal and Simon Caulkin of Britain's Observer newspaper -- declared in 1998 that complexity science had finally appeared on the radar screen of business. All this reflects the pervasive hunger among managers for help in managing in the new economy, and the hope that complexity science apparently offers. There is, however, a long way to go, and a lot yet to discover about complexity.

Walking into a Question Mark

In our study we wanted to discover people's working experience in companies that operate by the principles of complexity, and how they see themselves as part of a larger economic web; and through this to understand what is most important in how such businesses work, what helps and what hinders the emergence of creativity and adaptability, the path to successful change. And perhaps also to reach a new model for describing organizational dynamics.

We embarked on the venture with no agenda of what specifically we would find in terms of organizational dynamics. How could we? Neither of us is a manager or executive: one of us (Roger) is a science writer, whose experience with complexity theory is through writing a book on the topic, Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos; the other (Birute) is a developmental psychologist, whose work has been addressing the complexity of relational dynamics within human systems, such as couples and families. We are not being defensive when we say that we feel that our status as outsiders is a strength, because, having not been steeped in management theories, we had no preconceptions or assumptions as to how things should be. And, following the lines of complexity thinking, diverse perspectives are the source of potentially new and creative insights. As our agent, Sharon Friedman, said to us, "You walked into a big question mark." She was right.

The original working title for the book was Complexonomics, not a word we particularly liked much, but it reflected the context in which complexity science was being talked about at the time: in operational problems, such as scheduling; in strategy; and in organizational dynamics. Of the three, organizational dynamics was the least developed. As Ernst & Young's Chris Meyer said of this domain at the first Embracing Complexity conference in 1996, "We have only the vaguest sense of what we are trying to achieve with complexity organizationally."

In our book proposal, organizational dynamics merited just three paragraphs, saying something like "relationships could prove to be important in the overall context." We encountered more than a little resistance to even this minimal speculation, a signal, we believe, of the pervasive skepticism in business that relationships may be important, despite what Peter Drucker has been writing for half a century in terms of businesses as social communities. Even our beloved editor, Fred Hills, was initially distinctly dismissive of this facet of the proposal. (He has since become our greatest champion in this respect, we should add.)

As things turned out, relationships became the central theme of the book, led there by what we heard, not by where we wanted to go. We could have stayed with our original plan, and explored complexity science in the operational, strategic, and organizational dynamics realms of business in the companies we talked to. But we soon found that relationships were at the forefront of most people's concerns, and in their strategies for success. Seeing that organizational dynamics was the least developed realm of complexity science in business, and hearing people's desire for something new there, we were therefore ineluctably drawn into it, into the realm of relationships, to the exclusion of other issues.

We are not talking about relationships in terms of networking and the like. Rather we are talking about genuine relationships based on authenticity and care. We knew from complexity science that interactions among agents of a system are the source of novelty, creativity, and adaptability. And we therefore expected that companies guided by the science would in some manner attend to interactions among people in them. But this could have simply manifested itself in a concern for prolific communication. Open and prolific communication was indeed what we found in these companies, but universally it was in the context of genuine care. Those people we spoke to who had worked in companies other than their present ones told us that, in their experience, this is uncommon in the business world.

We can restate this in the language of complexity science as follows: In complex adaptive systems, agents interact, and when they have a mutual effect on one another something novel emerges. Anything that enhances these interactions will enhance the creativity and adaptability of the system. In human organizations this translates into agents as people, and interactions with mutual effect as being relationships that are grounded in a sense of mutuality: people share a mutual respect, and have a mutual influence and impact on each other. From this emerged genuine care. Care is not a thing but an action -- to be care-full -- to care about your work, to care for fellow workers, to care for the organization, to care about the community. We saw that genuine care enhanced the relationships in these companies, with CEOs engendering trust and loyalty in their people, and the people being more willing to contribute to the needs of the company. In the context of complexity science, care, which enhances relationships, in turn enhances companies' creativity and adaptability.

We can see, therefore, that management practice guided by complexity science leads us to a very human orientation, and this was a surprise, counterintuitive. Of course, there have been many human-centered approaches in management before, among the more notable being political scientist Mary Parker Follett's work done in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, in which there has been a recent resurgence of interest. For more than half a century, there has been a constant battle between human-oriented management and scientific or mechanistic management, with the latter prevailing. But it is only now, and for the first time, that there is a science behind this way of thinking that gives a legitimacy to the whole realm of human-centered management. With complexity science, we have human-oriented management practice emerging from science, a novelty.

What About People?

We attended many conferences on complexity science in business, which typically focused on computer algorithms that made difficult operational problems tractable. Time after time, at the end of the day we would hear people say, "This all has great potential and it will be important in business, we know that. But what about me? What about people?"

Yes, what about people? "Business is about people" has been bandied around for some time, and yet rarely addressed with any human depth. Consequently, the feeling of not being valued is pervasive in the business world, and a few writers recognize the fact. "Too many people feel insecure, threatened, and unappreciated in their jobs," writes Tom Morris, a philosopher and business consultant. "Overall job satisfaction and corporate morale in most places may be at an all time low." Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT's Sloan School of Management and author of The Fifth Discipline, notes that the prevailing mechanistic model of business encourages managers to see people as machines, not as people. "We deeply resent being made machinelike, in order to fit into the machine," he says. Henry Ford once said, "How come when I want a pair of hands, I get a human being as well?" A manager in today's knowledge-based economy might paraphrase this: "How come when I want a mind, I get a heart as well?"

And how come there commonly continues to exist a denial in the business mind, a stark omission of the importance of people and valuing them for not only the revenues they bring in, but simply as human beings? How come we refuse to see the obvious -- that when people are treated as replaceable parts, as objects to control, are taught to be compliant, are used as fuel for the existing system -- that inevitably you are going to have an organization that is fraught with frustration, anger, and isolation, which ultimately is detrimental to the business?

Some managers recognize the lack of humanity in their organizations, and are frustrated with the perceived impossibility of doing anything about it, anything genuine that is. Alan Briskin, author and business consultant, quotes a manager in a large conglomerate as follows: "We're so busy moving people around, trying to meet our deadlines, trying to influence people to believe in what we're doing, that we just don't want to really look into anybody's eyes and see they have souls. We should start with the premise that we have souls. But souls are difficult to manage. And even if we talked about people having souls, it would probably be from a corporate viewpoint." The manager's last point is that making "soul" into some kind of company slogan would be worse than not recognizing the existence of workers' souls in the first place. But more to the point, trying to influence people to believe in what they are doing, without seeing who the person is, wanting them to be something for you rather than recognizing them for who they are, is an act of imposition, not engagement. To be blunt, it's dehumanizing. And people will resist when they're not included in the process and have things imposed on them.

Even Michael Hammer, one of the developers of reengineering, eventually came to realize that management is not just about organizational structures or process teams. In an interview in the Wall Street Journal, he admitted that in his enthusiasm to make companies more efficient and profitable he forgot about people. "I wasn't smart enough about that," he conceded. "I was reflecting my engineering background and was insufficiently appreciative of the human dimension. I've learned that's critical." Trust is critical if organizations are to excel, as the European business consultant Charles Handy argues forcefully in his recent book The Hungry Spirit. And trust was one of the major casualties in the rush to downsize in the name of reengineering. More than 70 percent of U.S. companies are struggling with low morale and lack of trust, principally as a result of the trauma of downsizing, according to a 1997 Wharton School survey. The same is true in Europe.

"In the living company, the essence of the underlying contract is mutual trust," says Arie de Geus, a former senior executive of Royal Dutch/Shell. "Before they will give more, people need to know that the community is interested in them as individuals." An important reason why some companies fail, he says, is that "managers focus exclusively on producing goods and services and forget that the organization is a community of human beings that is in business -- any business -- to stay alive." It is common sense that if people are treated as machines, not as people, they are unlikely to give loyalty and trust -- they will not give of their best. And yet, unfortunately, to use Voltaire's phrase, "common sense is not so common."

Many companies that are anything but human-oriented in their management practices survive and even thrive, of course -- for a time. "If you've drained the tank of human goodwill and motivation, you can continue to coast downhill for a while, even at a pretty rapid clip," observes Tom Morris, "but heaven help you if you encounter any big bumps in the road or the competition forces you into an uphill struggle." Senge is even more emphatic about the matter. "As we enter the twenty-first century, it is timely, perhaps even critical, that we recall what human beings have understood for a very long time," he says: "that working together can indeed be a deep source of life meaning. Anything less is just a job."

It is possible for people to be valued for themselves in the workplace, not just their function; for people's souls to be nurtured and allowed to emerge where they work. In short, it is possible for work to be more than just a job, that work can be fulfilling and a life-enhancing experience, with all its trials, tribulations, and thrills. This is precisely what we observed for the most part in the companies we talked to.

To the manager who says, "This all sounds soft and unbusinesslike," beware: these companies are all very successful in traditional bottom-line terms, not despite being human-oriented, but rather, as many of the CEOs we talked with argue, because of it. To the executive who says, "Okay, that sounds easy, I'll try it," beware: it's not easy; it's hard, perhaps the hardest of all management practices. And to the manager who says, "That sounds all well and good, but I can't afford to spend time on relationships," beware: you are not getting the best out of your company. In fact, it's more a question whether you can afford not to. It doesn't have to be either/or, a dichotomy between money and people. In fact, it can't be. Our world is too complex.

Structure of the Book

We present our work in three parts. In the first part, "The World of Complexity Science," we introduce the ideas from the new science in the context of complex adaptive systems, specifically as they relate to the world of business. We give a little history of management theory, principally to show why something new is needed in the new economy, and to see why complexity science might be that something new, which can expand rather than simply replace existing business models.

In the second part, "The World of Complexity Experience," we present stories of organizations that we talked to, to be read with the principles of complexity in mind. Although each story is qualitatively different, each exhibits a common way of working, that is, striving toward greater adaptability by attending to their organizations as complex adaptive systems.

These stories are not case studies in the traditional sense, but rather they are narratives of people's experiences within these organizations. We chose this form because narratives can contain the complexity of people's experience, can provide a vehicle for readers to connect with their passion, to their struggles, to the kinds of challenges that you, too, may struggle with and identify with. We are not trying to establish formal and empirical proof; rather we seek resonance and verisimilitude as the source of validation, rather than validity. As New York University's Jerome Bruner, a psychologist, states when discussing two modes of thought, and two distinct ways of ordering experience and constructing reality: "Arguments convince one of the truth, stories of their lifelikeness." He also states that "narratives deal with the vicissitudes of life." This is clearly evident in the organizations' stories that we tell.

You will see that these stories are uniquely their own, reflecting the character of each organization -- from stories written totally in people's own voices, to others as journeys we tell. The form of each story emerged from our interaction with the organization. We hope that as you see these other work lives, at least some of you will be validated in your beliefs and say, "I'm not crazy; that's what I want, that's what I think is right, too." And as these stories interact collectively in your mind, perhaps you will begin to see patterns emerge from them.

Part Three, "The World of Relationships," pulls together the organizations' stories and discusses common patterns of behavior we found among them. These patterns of behavior lend themselves as a guide for how CEOs, managers, executive professionals, teams, and front-line people can begin to embrace complexity in their workplace -- that is, working in a constructive way with the processes of complex adaptive systems.

This is not a linear and simplistic "seven steps to success," how-to section, however. Embracing complexity in business is more about a practice, a different way of being, that influences a different way of doing. It is based in the day-to-day practices of the workplace. We call them practices because they are behaviors to strive toward. The word "practices" recognizes that as humans we will often fall back into old ways of being and doing, but, once recognized, you can begin again. What's important is not the falling, but rather the getting up. In this sense, we offer it more as a guidebook than a step-by-step manual.

Our conclusion, "Care-nections and the Soul at Work," points to future horizons and challenges for a different way of working.

The Soul at Work

The title of the book, The Soul at Work, derives from an interview with Patrick Burns at the Industrial Society, a management consulting company in London, one of the stories we present in this book. He was telling us about a three-day company retreat, a very emotional event, where the entire workforce had collectively come to see their purpose, of which they had lost sight. "Although we think we know all about management and that we ourselves have all been doing it, that we're experts, we're actually not," he said. "We're only just rediscovering the world of the soul at work." When we heard the phrase, we immediately recognized that, in fact, we were in the privileged position of being witness to many souls at work in the organizations we talked to. It seemed fitting for the title to emerge this way.

What is the soul at work? In complex adaptive systems, how we interact and the kinds of relationships we form has everything to do with what kind of culture emerges, has everything to do with the emergence of creativity, productivity, and innovation. When more interactions are care-full rather than care-less in an organization, a community of care and connection develops, creating a space for the soul at work to emerge.

"The soul at work" is a double entendre: it is at once the individual's soul being allowed to be present in the workplace; and it is the emergence of a collective soul of the organization.

We witnessed the individual soul at work -- where many people, once disheartened at work, evolved to being engaged in meaningful work. When the individual soul is engaged, people naturally want to add value, are willing to go the distance and devote time to endeavors they feel, regardless of how small, are worthwhile. Many people feel lost in their organizations, feel apart from them rather than a part of them. Many see themselves in a system in which they have little or no influence. Too often we heard front-line people, when reflecting on former places of work, say, "Nobody ever asked me what I thought, and it was hardly a possibility that they would act on it if they did." The business mind that becomes myopic, singularly valuing the financial bottom line and techniques to boost it, ultimately dehumanizes the organization, and, self-protectively, people disconnect from their soul so as not to be exploited. People suffer and their organizations suffer.

Actually, most people want to be part of their organization; they want to know the organization's purpose; they want to make a difference. When the individual soul is connected to the organization, people become connected to something deeper -- the desire to contribute to a larger purpose, to feel they are part of a greater whole, a web of connection. When this context develops, people begin to openly acknowledge the need for others, to see their interdependence, and their desire to belong -- their tribal instinct awakens.

The soul at work is also a collective soul. We listened to the collective soul at work -- the transformation of the protean spirit of the organization in all its shades and hues -- from trauma, to hope, to infinite possibilities. The collective soul at work is a journey of aligning individual abilities and values with the collective, shared purpose, an unfolding identity that is constructed and reconstructed continually by the people who are part of the system. And it is this collective soul at work that is most capable of intelligent, humane action that benefits the whole.

How, then, to engage the soul at work? There are no simple solutions. But it begins with altering our perspective. It is to pay as much attention to how we treat people -- co-workers, subordinates, customers -- as we now typically pay attention to structures, strategies, and statistics. That is, attending to the interactions within the system creates the potential for more human connections and thus a more robust system, just as complexity science predicts.

To engage the soul is to see people as people, not as employees. It is to assume an intention of goodwill on their part, and that it is better to err in trusting too much than not enough. It is in recognizing a job well done, not just with money but also with a genuine appreciation. It is to remember that people are inventive. It is to believe in them, not just the numbers. This perspective affects the quality of the interactions in the system, creating positive rather than negative feedback loops; that is, creating trust and commitment, not suspicion and disconnection. It is these feedback loops that can transform the system.

To engage the soul at work is to focus not only on a plan of action but also to be alert to unfolding and unexpected directions and outcomes that are inherent in complex systems. As James Gleick, author of the book Chaos: Making a New Science, writes: "Put your faith in the process -- not your estimate of the final outcome."

To engage the soul at work is to realize that talking to people, listening to them, responding to them is not a waste of time. Rather, this is creating a context where people are more willing to change and to adapt, which in turn makes the organization more adaptable. This human-centered context allows people to further the aims of the organization while retaining their personal integrity and gaining greater personal fulfillment.

For the skeptics and the cynics: suspend your disbelief, soften your vision, and consider that you may be settling for less than you really want and can actually have. Consider that perhaps you don't ask for enough. There is a better way to live and work. It clearly is more desirable in human terms. And it is also an economic necessity in business terms. What it takes is an open mind and courage.

Copyright © 1999 by Roger Lewin and Birute Regine

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2000

    The Best Book on the Business Lessons of Complexity Science

    I have read over two dozens books on complexity science and its applications to organizations of all types. Clearly, The Soul At Work is the best of those books. If you already know something about complexity science and its business applications and want to learn more or simply want to get started on the subject, this is the book you should read. Here's why. First, the authors are very fine writers. They also seem to have had outstanding editing. The book is by far the best written of any that I have read on this subject, and is among the best written of any business books I have read as well. This quality particularly shows up in clarifying ideas that can be hard to grasp (complexity science), explaining very interesting examples, and connecting the ideas to the examples in very useful ways. Second, most of the examples are fresh, so you will learn something new by reading these cases. Most business books choose the same examples over and over (do IBM and Coca-Cola seem familiar?), and it gets a little tiring for the reader. The one example in The Soul at Work that I was familiar with was Verifone, and the authors developed lots of new material there that substantially added to my understanding. Third, the cases have a lot of variety in them (as to type of organization, size of organization, the people profiled, the cultural background of the organization, and so forth) which provides a multidimensional perspective that is very helpful. Fourth, the authors successfully contrast their ideas with the humanistic approach to management and the engineering approach, which is a useful backdrop for understanding what they have to say. Anyone who does prefer the humanistic approach will like this book, and will get many new ideas for employing that direction. Fifth, and most importantly, the central theme of the book rings very true to me based on my over 30 years of consulting experience with organizations of all kinds. Trust-based relationships are an essential element of how organizations become more effective. Improve the trust, and any organization works better. The main reason is that trust helps overcome the stalls of poor communication, procrastination, bureaucracy, tradition, disbelief, and avoiding unattractiveness. Although others have made this point, The Soul at Work makes the point better. If you think about the new electronically-connected world, you can see that its main limitation is establishing trust before we ca

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