Evolution at the Edge
It is important to acknowledge that the discomfort created by chaos is necessary for change to occur. It is equally important to safeguard against getting lost or frozen in the midst of the chaos. Leaders need to balance on the edge of chaos, dipping in and being comfortable there in order to move themselves and the organization to higher levels of evolution. This delicate balance includes inviting members of the organization to feel the need for change while not feeling overwhelmed by it. According to Coveney and Highfield in Frontiers of Complexity, “ Complex systems that can evolve will always be near the edge of chaos, poised for that creative step into emergent novelty that is the essence of the evolutionary process.”
The edge of chaos is the best place to observe the patterns of order available, patterns that then may be applied to the current situation. Getting stuck in one particular state of order is not effective because, sooner or later, that state will become obsolete. It is crucial for leaders to remain open to new experiences that the environment contains and show a willingness to adapt and change based on the information received from the environment.
The ability to move gracefully in and out of change and the resulting chaos requires an ability to observe what is happening. Doing so involves being able to psychologically step back and assess what is occurring on multiple levels with detachment. If participants become emotionally involved, it becomes difficult for them to be objective.
Emotional distance allows participants to observe with an open mind, thereby enhancing the likelihood that they will hear other points of view and see what is occurring in a group. This is the reason why it is often suggested that facilitators not participate in the content of a discussion. They are then more able to see what is going on and make helpful interventions, dipping in when necessary to keep the group on course or help members deal with something they are avoiding.
What to Observe at the Edge
It is helpful to observe specific aspects of the group while maintaining emotional distance by asking:
• Are the goals clear?
• Are people listening to one another and communicating well?
• Are individuals involved and included?
• How are people feeling (what are their nonverbal expressions, what they are doing, how are they interacting)?
All of this information will help to identify clues regarding the health of the group, its relationships, and its interactions in the organization. If ineffective interactions are apparent, an intervention will help move the group to greater effectiveness. For example, if people are not listening, the facilitator can ask others to repeat what was just said. If goals are not clear, the facilitator can ask the group to clarify them. If the group is moving off task, the facilitator can ask if this is what the group should be doing. If someone looks angry or confused, the facilitator can ask him or her how they are doing. Another way of observing group effectiveness is to look for patterns in the organization.
Discovered by Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1970s, fractals provide a guide for examining complexity and patterns. They are characterized by patterns that replicate to create the whole. In a fractal, each part is autonomous. However, the pattern of each part is embedded in every part of the whole. Some common examples of fractals are the lungs, circulatory systems, leaves, and feathers. Fractals contain a certain order that allows them to be decoded with a few rules. Complexity is the result of a given structure being repeated many times.
Fractals can be seen within the social life of an organization. Each member is autonomous while it is part of the greater whole. The organization is healthiest when members’ patterns are replicated throughout the whole through effective communication.
Leaders are fractals of others in the organization. Their behavior is often mirrored throughout the organization. If the leader is collaborative, communicates openly, and attempts to learn from past mistakes, this behavior will carry through to the members.
Norms as Fractals
Norms for behaving are patterns that can be observed in the organization. Much like a fractal, an organization is seen as connected if certain norms exist throughout it. Norms are the implicit or explicit rules that guide and determine what behaviors are acceptable within a group. Although often not explicit, these are the rules by which people work on a daily basis. They determine how a group handles conflict and stress, makes decisions, listens, generates ideas, and allows certain language to prevail. In any group, norms may be effective or ineffective.
An example of an organizational norm is the way a group deals with conflict. For example, some organizations suppress tension by pretending it is not there.
Nonverbal cues, such as frowns, crossed arms, and downward glances, are ignored while the group goes on to the next agenda item. This norm keeps the group from examining what is occurring, from sharing thoughts, feelings, and disagreements. These unresolved feelings and disagreements then go underground and sabotage the group later because they have not been resolved. Avoiding conflict cuts off important sources of information that could possibly improve the team, the product, and the way things are done.
Healthy norms are patterns in the organization that can:
• Encourage continuous open feedback, both negative and positive
• Encourage people to share thoughts and feelings
• Encourage individuals and groups to deal with conflict
• Allow learning from mistakes, without blame or judgment
• Create a flow of information throughout the organization
• Encourage participation and involvement in decisions
Each of these norms facilitates the emergence of a truly adaptable organization. All of these norms must be aligned with and support the desired values to ensure that those values permeate the organization. These values are in harmony with the principles that support living systems. As they become institutionalized, healthy norms will come to characterize the organization.