Books : reviews

Roger Lewin, Birute Regine.
Weaving Complexity and Business: engaging the soul at work.
Texere. 2000

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 24 March 2002

I've read the middle part of this book several times, as written by Tom Peters, by Ricardo Semler, and by others. This is the bit about treating people at work as adults, by being honest and caring, allowing them to realise their potential, grow in their work, and perform an excellent job. The ideas are good, but I found it hard to be excited by them, simply because I've seen them before.

The difference with this book is that the authors relate these ideas to complex systems theory.

p26. most of the words we use to describe the world are ... the exceptions, not the rule: namely "linear", "stable", and "equilibrium". In fact, 95 percent of the world is nonlinear, unstable, and far from equilibrium. To describe 95 percent of the world as "not" something is contrary in the extreme. It reflects a lot about our psyche, and the way we have assumed things to be, not as they really are.

In our fast changing world, businesses can no longer afford to be static, rigid, old fashioned hierarchies: they must be adaptive, nimble and responsive networks. And the way to do this, the authors claim, is to recognise that they are "complex adaptive systems", and make sure they are "on the edge of chaos", or, as they prefer to call it, "in the zone of creative adaptability".

p324. Different states are appropriate for different times ... : a static state, when the environment is little changing and certain; and a chaotic state, when old patterns need to be broken through, to be replaced by something new, but as yet unknown; and the zone of creative adaptability, when innovation is necessary.

Leadership is no longer about control. Instead, its function is to break down the old hierarchical structures, to keep a company in the creative zone, to provide some high level overall vision, but then to step back, and to let the people "do it themselves". The honesty and caring part comes from this being necessary to foster the right kinds of communication in the zone so that the people have the necessary information, the confidence, and the desire, to do the job. Structurally, it is important to allow teams to emerge naturally, rather than having their composition imposed from outside. This way the right people come together, and form the right team.

p324. you no longer have to defend being "soft", because now you know why it works, not just that it does work.

I want to believe, but I'm not totally convinced. I believe the philosophy is a good, humane and practical one, but is it really based on complexity science? Or is it merely applying the field's technical jargon, like "edge of chaos" and "emergence", to only superficial similarities? It's hard to tell. But maybe it doesn't matter; the authors admit it is more of an illuminating metaphor, rather than providing hard and fast (and hence possible inappropriate) rules:

p325. The science has done its job: it has brought us to a position of seeing organizations through new eyes. ... But businesspeople no longer need constantly to seek the validation of the science for each new way way we might feel --- through intuition --- is right to work with organizations as complex adaptive systems.