Shhh. It’s happening.

Multi pertransibunt & augebitur scientia
Many will travel and knowledge will be increased – inscription on cover of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum

travel

I was fortunate to recently enjoy a cuppa with the magnificent Kate Griffiths-Lambeth in the crypt of St Martin in the Fields in central London. As we chatted, we watched as a tiny mouse scurried around beneath the feet of customers, scavenging crumbs and moving at an entirely different pace to the large and clumsy mammals occupying the same space. One can only marvel at the agile, adaptive and innovative nature of these wonderful creatures as they carve out their niche in our ever-changing, complex and technological 21st Century human world. By happy coincidence, buried nearby in the adjacent churchyard is no-less a notable than Robert Boyle, 17th-century natural philosopher, chemist, physicist, and inventor.

Boyle is seen by many as a key member of the Invisible College, a precursor to the Royal Society and as one of the founders of modern chemistry. In his approach, Boyle followed many of the principles of scientific enquiry espoused in Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. Bacon was a proponent of inductive reasoning (covered, in part in my previous post) in discovering the essence of a thing. However, what was considered most revolutionary in Bacon’s philosophy was that natural philosophy must begin with the senses. The quote, attributed to Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said; People will forget what you did; But people will never forget how you made them feel.” has become a trope of motivational posters in offices across the planet but, taken in the context of Bacon’s philosophy, it does carry a resonance for those of us who concern ourselves with making work and working lives better and in the examination of transforming organisational life.

In an earlier post, I took a brief look at Schein’s model of organisational culture. We can see from the model that how people feel (positively, negatively and, indeed, indifferently) will be directly influenced by behavioural leadership. This is the workplace of emotional intelligence. We probably now know all that we need to about the physical environment needed to sustain the bottom tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Schein’s model feeds directly into the other four tiers and the behavioural environment around us is much more fluid than the built environment. Our responses to it are necessarily more complex and perhaps impossible to engineer for. The science of the senses at work might be seen to centre around Murphy’s Law, that is, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”, itself sometimes seen as a form of the second law of thermodynamics because both predict a tendency towards a disorganised state. Serendipity has been described as one of the three outcomes of the law of unintended consequences, the cause of which is often attributed to the world’s inherent complexity. Trying to engineer serendipity through the built environment may therefore be seen as the modern day equivalent of the alchemist’s quest to turn base metals into gold.

Organisations are often described as complex adaptive systems. This is all very well, but those organisations are made up entirely of people. Human behaviour most often tends towards complexity, chaos and disorder. Murphy’s Law is the human face of thermodynamics. Like the mouse, we are incredibly adaptive as a species. Perhaps uniquely as a species, our actions have a much greater propensity for unintended consequences. TrojanMice.com has it that: “The most productive state to be in is at the edge of chaos where there is maximum variety and creativity, leading to new possibilities.” Providing conditions at work for innovation and creativity to occur might require us to go to some uncomfortable places that can seem chaotic and disordered. These are not physical places in a pre-designed built environment but an environment of the mind and of behaviours.

However much we try to replicate the conditions required for those happy coincidences to occur, sometimes you just need to sit back and, you know, let shit happen.

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3 comments

  1. fuchsia blue ltd · · Reply

    I love this post… had to read it a couple of times to fully absorb what is here. You cover a huge amount.
    I’d argue with you about complex adaptive systems/ organisation being made up entirely of people – of course, in one way, they are… but in another, those people are still part of a wider context, a product of their environment and the social, emotional and relational norms that forge them. The DNA of organisational life must essentially have a non-human element to it, even if it cannot be separated from the people who inhabit or effect it.

    Anyway – my point was going to be about uncomfortable places that seem chaotic and disordered actually being pretty useful and creative.

    I used to really push back against this thinking – used to think it was mean and unhelpful to take people to uncomfortable spaces. I sought a “supportive” “helpful” model which meant everyone (including me) would be more-than-less happy….
    Since stepping more toward this “edge of chaos” thinking, I challenge more and disrupt more, especially perhaps in my coaching practice. I invite more of the unknown into the workspace… sometimes with surprisingly powerful results… both positive and with one client in particular it engendered anger., which I was uncomfortable with, but I worked with.

    My point? It’s hard to work this way – more unpleasant than working in platitudes and niceties may well be…. but Oh My Word it is satisfying.

    Thank you, my friend. As ever there is an invitation in your writing to step a little closer to the edge.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Julie. I remain unconvined by the thought that organisational DNA has non-human elements. Every single thing about organisations is a human construct – the place or places it inhabits, the products, thinking and artefacts it produces, the systems designed within in it and the interactions it has with the wider business and natural environment as much as the way that individual humans are products of the social, emotional and relational norms (or otherwise) that produced them. The theory of non-human elements could allow us to put a comforting distance between ourselves and our impact on the world around us (sounds a bit like abrogating responsibility to some higher power).
      Taking people to the “edge of chaos” requires a great deal of care, thought and varying degrees of planning. In my opinion, the art to doing this well lies in mindfullness and a careful managing of the tensions it creates in equilibrium. One also needs to be realistic about the chances of this happening in extremis. We’d all love to skate right up against the bleeding edge from time to time but we’re rightly cautious whenever we’re not travelling alone.

  2. Loved this post – I seem to spend much of my time on the edge of chaos and, although it is often uncomfortable, it is never dull. I agree that in our ever more complex world, many of the traditional approaches we have applied to people are holding organisations and the individuals within them back, rather than enabling them to succeed. We need to change with the times, but to do so we must simultaneously foster trust and understanding, so that people feel safe when attempting something new. Being the lone mouse, when the waitresses are looming in on you because they don’t think there is a place for you in their café, is not a good place to be…

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