Sometimes when I read something, I have the sense that I’ve come home. The writing is new, fresh, and intriguing, and at the same time familiar and intuitive. It’s that way for me with Meg Wheatley’s latest book, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time.
A series of essays collected under headings such as "Organizing: There is a Simpler Way", "Leadership: We Make the Road by Walking", and "Obstacles: Where the Road Gets Hard", the first two-thirds of the book first introduces and then elaborates on Wheatley’s thesis that change best and most effectively occurs – in organizations, in systems, in life – by embracing natural humanistic forces of networks and relationships rather than hierarchical control systems. Rather than re-engineering faulty programs, organizations or systems as if they were simple machines with interchangeable parts, substituting fixes that are external to the system, Wheatley instead promotes a "new story" where creativity and relationships are the means by which teams or systems can self-organize.
If this sounds too "out there" or touchy-feely, stick with me here. For Wheatley’s premise and examples are grounded in reality, experience and common-sense, not in high-on-a-mountain-top-guru or organizational-development-consultant-speak.
Anyone who’s been around enough has likely experienced any of the
common maladies of working life prevalent in some organizations:
isolated and demoralized employees, abandoned change efforts,
new-initiative-of-the-month disease. As workers, leaders or consumers,
we’ve probably all experienced organizations
that had a vague focus, highly controlled access to information, or
restrictive ability to collaborate. Rather than relying on outside
fixes to initiate and sustain change (I’ve heard it said that an expert
is anyone who comes from 100 miles away), Wheatley contends that with a
clear identity, free flowing information, and the ability to create
relationships across boxes, organizations can and will self-organize
for change, for the better. Rather than seeing workers as problems or
obstacles to change, this model instead acknowledges the innate human
desires for connection, meaning and value in our work and workplaces.
And leaders are essential to this process. It’s not about
laissez-faire management or embodying a Polly-Anna perspective.
Instead leaders who embrace this model, Wheatley tells us:
our humanness; they welcome the surprises we bring to them; they are
curious about our differences; they delight in our inventiveness; they
nurture us; they connect us. They trust that we can create wisely and
well, that we seek the best interests of our organization and our
community, that we want to bring more good into the world.
I can hardly do justice to her profound work here, but I found that
Wheatley’s essays spoke directly to my (at times frustrating) past
experience as a manager and supervisor within a large bureaucracy, as
well as to my best hopes and dreams for what work within organizational
walls or in the community can be. Her essays also spoke to my own
values and focus in my work as a coach: that everyone carries a desire
to make a difference, and that it is essential – imperative! – that
this is called forth in each and every person, carried forth in the
ways that they are called to do so. As Wheatley says:
you carry this story within you, it is time to tell it, wherever you
are, to whomever you meet… We do not need to create a massive
training program, a global approach, a dramatic style…. We need to
break [the] silence and share [these] ideas of the world.
Grounded in sound theory and linked to viable common-sense practice, I know I’ll be continuing to turn to Finding Our Way as I continue to find my own.