Thursday, September 15, 2011

What sustains your organization?

When we ask people what sustains their organizations they tell us it is an income stream (money) or the people who work there, the shareholders, the leadership or the customers. Some also say it is the process of  transforming some simple lower-value things such as raw materials or steps/actions into more complex products and services. In a way it is all of these things but none of them.

Some of us have begun to study organizations as complex systems so we can help people more successfully navigate accelerating change, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

When we think of organizations this way, we soon discover it's a flow of energy through a system that  sustains the complex order. Simple interactions at a local scale help create the global order. The global order helps organize the local interactions. And if the energy flow declines or disappears - then the system collapses or disperses.

Prigogne and Stengers, whose 1984 book, Order out of Chaos, helped spark a revolution in the way we think about the world, calls these dissipative systems. Think the red spot on Jupiter (click to watch) and hurricanes (typhoons/cyclones).

Hurricanes form near the equator when warm, moist air rises, causing an area of low pressure. Cooler air flows in, which also becomes moist and rises. As the air rises it forms cloud, it starts to spin and becomes more organized. The hurricanes then travel either north or south into cooler water/air or cross over land where they lose their potency, the wind speeds drop and they become tropical depressions. Eventually they just simply "disappear".

Dissipative systems persist out on the edge, in a state of "dynamic stability", remote from thermodynamic equilibrium. Sometimes, these systems also undergo what is called a "phase transition" from one kind of order to another, like the shifts from a solid to a liquid to a gas or even a plasma.

Consider for a moment a social system as a flow of conversation. What might happen if the local rules of interaction shifted from "you must" to "what if we?" rather like the shift from solid to a liquid. How could organizations harness such a change.

In many ways we do. A team can be thought of as a dissipative system. When the players go out on the field their efforts can often be disjointed or poorly coordinated. Or they can somehow magically become better coordinated and develop a new and more powerful structure. When it does, the system taps into a flow of energy. It could be the players collective enthusiasm or new found affinity with each other, or the roar of the crowd. The system becomes sustainable at a higher level of organization and performance, until the crowd goes home!

So here are some questions to think about organizations as dissipative systems:

1. Give some example of dissipative systems, where the flow of energy through the system, sustains it. eg. hurricane.
2. Thinking of your organization as a dissipative system, what flows through your organization to sustain it? And how does this work?
3. What would happen if the flows through your organization was disrupted or stopped?
4. Thinking of your family, organization as a dissipative system, what changes in energy flow through the system might result in a phase-shift to a higher level of order?
5. How could you and your organization capitalize on a phase-transition to a new and higher level of order, closer communication and coordination?

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