Complexity and Ambidexterity 3, Part Nine: The Language of Physics and Emergence. by Dr. Eric Zabiegalski

To the human mind, words create and define the world around us. As dramatically profound as sight, we use words to language reality into existence. Our mind uses words to not just create meaning but also operationalize behavior, navigate, and act, it is in this way that thoughts become things. In the business world, the descriptive operational language we have used for the last two and a half centuries to create our work realities has been anchored to the language of Newtonian physics. This is a language defined with cause and effect, predictability and certainty, it is a world of distinct wholes and their parts. A reality drawn from this language is that of the observable world, quantifiable determinism, linear thinking and acontrollable slow-moving futurewith expected outcomes, here,mechanistic reductionist thinking drives the day. 

           The business world of two hundred and fifty years ago however was a different landscape than the one we know today and for this reason it’s time for a new operating language. One which will better characterize and frame what we encounter in the workplace and more closely support what we set out to accomplish. 

Change your Science, change you Language, change your World

Moving forward from the 17th to the 21st century we discover a new way in which to interpret the world, Quantum Physics. These scientific theories propagated by Planck, Einstein, Bohr and others in the early 1900’s largely revised Newtons with its classical mechanics viewpoint and can give us a more refined picture of reality. The world of quantum physics is different in part because it is a world rich in relationships and considered at a “sub-atomic” level. It is a world of discreet events, emergence, complexity, fractals,and relationships between objects. Not simply concerning itself with deterministic outcomes, predictability, and repetitionquantum physics alsoconsiders other phenomena such as chaos theory and dealing with order and change, autonomy and control, structure and flexibility, and butterfly effect, the idea that a small change in one area can have a large impact in anotherLast month we continued our ongoing discussion on complexity and ambidexterity, now let’s give our minds a closer look at how these along with the language of quantum physics provide a new picture of business.

Emergent and non-emergent systems

“The hallways of most organizations are littered with the debris of alternate successes” Woody Powell

We won’t talk much about non-emergent systems because frankly there isn’t much going on, traditional processes from expected places are the order of the day, in this world things don’t just “bubble-up.”  Most organizations are outrageously rich with emergent ideas, and, unfortunately in most of them these ideas are never recognized, never validated, and never realized, why? There are different reasons for this as we will discuss but author of How to Fly a Horse Kevin Ashton says, “sometimes creativity threatens the stability of the status quo, and therefore creative people are stifled either by design or accident.” 

What is emergence? In biology, philosophy and systems theory emergence is quite literally the appearance of something from nothing! In reality however, it is the creation of something new from disparate smaller parts which self-organize or are pulled together to create something new that suddenly appears. It can be thought of as the bubbling-up of something more complex from simpler parts. In organizations this means the creation or appearance of new ideas, processes, or products from unexpected or unplanned places, like from the janitor sweeping the shop floor who has the companies next billion-dollar idea. 

Recently, at a business function I suggested my company adopt an “intrapreneurship” small business model, the idea as I envisioned it would be simple. Like an entrepreneurship innovation model only internal to the organization the company would provide a small amount of seed money, shelter and protect the employee start-up under its umbrella with small resource contributions or support during its infancy and would share in the profits should the new venture spark and catch fire. Such a model as I saw it would go a long way in building a stronger organizational culture for the company, putting its money where its mouth is by showing its members it cares about what they care about. Adopting a model like this would also help the organization diversify its portfolio. Should the company’s primary market begin to dry up being diversified in other areas would make the company more drought resistant in tough economic times as happened several years ago when something called sequestration created devastating budget cuts in the market. Despite knowing of at least a dozen company employees who work passionately in their spare time on their own small businesses my idea has generated little attention or interest.   

What are the chief reasons emergent ideas are frequently ignored, overlooked, or fail to take root in organizations?  First, they often come from unrecognized or unendorsed areas. Because emergent ideas can come from any level in an organization or from disparate places they are often not recognized as legitimate or worthwhile. Secondly, as Ashton suggests, they can come from a direction which might upset the hierarchical power or control bases and stress the structural inertia of the organization and therefore bring too much threatening baggage. Lastly, they can be heralded as too risky in terms of cost, time, or other resources to be worthwhile.

Organizations, like living systems naturally wind down unless they refresh themselves with new energy. But for organizations knowing when, how, and why to refresh themselves often seems to be a point of paralysis. Organizations are dissipative structures maintained by members contributing energy as they ebb and flow between a state of entropy and negative entropy, effectively breathing in and out. Learning to leverage emergence and the language of quantum physics is a vital part of creating learning networks and it is something an ambidextrous organization intuitively knows how to do and do well. What is the right recipe of behaviors to leverage concepts like emergence and what ingredients would create and promote an emergent rich environment? For organizations to thrive they must learn to become ambidextrous and in order to do this they must embrace newer scientific principles like quantum mechanics as their operating language and embrace the power of emergence. Join me next month as we finish our conversation on complexity and ambidexterity by discussing how to learn to tolerate discomfort, accept a productive amount of disorder, and operate successfully at the edge of chaos. Now go out there and shake things up!     Dr. Zabiegalski is available to talk to your organization or venue about this ground-breaking research or speak informatively and eloquently about organizational culture, leadership, strategy, learning, complexity, neuroscience in business, creativity, mindfulness, talent management, personal success, emotional intelligence, and Action Learning. Contact Eric Today.

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