#166 from R&D
Innovator Volume 4, Number 7
Goldstein is a professor in the School of Management and Business,
Adelphi University, Garden City, New York.
He does research in the application of nonlinear dynamics
and chaos theory to corporations and institutions described in his
book, The Unshackled
Organization: Facing the Challenge of Unpredictability Through
Spontaneous Reorganization (Productivity Press, Portland,
Oregon, 1994). Heís
also president of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and
the Life Sciences.
area of research in the new nonlinear systems sciences (chaos and
complexity theories) is self-organization,
or the sudden emergence of new organizing patterns in a physical
or mathematical system. These
new organizing patterns are self-organizing
because they arise spontaneously out of the system's own resources
and arenít the result of an external or hierarchical imposition. Self-organization represents a creative response of the
system to specific challenges facing it.
Examples of self-organization include:
hexagonally-shaped connection cells appearing in certain
liquids when heated on the bottom to a critical temperature;
"chemical clocks" which show a temporal pattern of
periodically shifting colors when appropriate chemical conditions
are met; and the morphogenesis of the slime mold from a simple
organism into a complex aggregate in response to changes in
processes are not limited to simple physical and mathematical
systems, they can also be seen in social systems including
businesses and institutions when people spontaneously come
together to accomplish some objective without being told to.
As youíll see, self-organization is necessary for a group
or organizationís ability to be creative and innovative.
Such self-organizing processes can have several advantages
over hierarchically-imposed structures.
First, the individuals spontaneously want
to be involved, they are not there because of management coercion.
This means resistance to change doesn't arise.
In fact, resistance to organizational change, itself, can
be seen as a self-organizing process, albeit one opposed to
management objectives. Also,
self-organization in the work environment marks a spontaneous
innovation in the functioning of a work group.
These new patterns include across-the-system coherence,
demonstrating a naturally occurring consensus.
self-organization doesn't happen out of thin air, there are
requirements and conditions for its emergence.
Four factors have been discovered that can also be applied
to cognate processes in the R&D workplace:
Self-organization is a re-organization
of a system's functioning;
re-organization involves an amplification and incorporation of
random events, or noise,
in the system;
3. For random
events to have such a profound impact, the system must become unstable;
Self-organization needs system boundaries
to contain the process.
A closer look at
each of these factors can provide guidelines for facilitating
self-organizing activities in the workplace.
The process of
self-organization is a re-organization of the system's organizing
patterns when they prove inadequate for meeting a challenge. The new patterns emerge out of the system's own resources.
For example, the hexagonally-shaped convection cells
mentioned above represent a reorganization of the liquid to allow
for convection currents,
a better method than conduction
for transferring heat in the liquid when the temperature is too
self-organization to occur, the system must be allowed to
reconfigure its operation. That
is, whatever is serving to keep the system bound to its current
mode of operation needs to be loosened or interrupted.
In the workplace, this may mean a loosening of managerial
control. Of course,
this is what all the current talk about employee empowerment is
supposed to be about. A
processes amplify and incorporate random events into a new way of
being organized. These
random events donít have to be generated, they already exist in
the system. An
analogy is a calm lake. On
a windless day, the lake can appear perfectly still, a mirror of
sky and clouds. Yet,
even in the midst of this calm appearance, a probe under the
lake's surface would reveal a multitude of tiny, random currents.
happenings are the system's noise
or anything that departs from normal and predictable modes of
functioning. In a
work group or organization, examples of organizational noise could
between the way a machine should operate and the way it actually
* variations in
the parameters of a production process;
* fluctuations in
attendance of employees not just at work but at meetings;
* a spontaneous
filling-in for an absent worker;
* people who
remain after work playing around with a new computer program;
* illnesses and
* sudden shifts
in order rates or customer complaints;
* trying out new
methods after attending a seminar.
System noise has
a negligible effect when the system is able to dampen, eliminate,
or compensate for it. However,
self-organization involves processes that, rather than minimizing
noise, exacerbate it. This
aspect of self-organization corresponds to what has long been
known about creativity, i.e., the need for unpredictable shifts
away from normal modes of functioning.
This is also similar to the role serendipitous
"accidents" play in many scientific discoveries.
A well-known example is how Alexander Fleming discovered
of his cultures were not growing bacteria the way he intended.
He didn't just shrug-off this "noise" in his
research, but, instead, inquired further.
He eventually traced this "noise" to pieces of
mold that had fallen from a shelf above the cultures, i.e., the
penicillin mold, a vigorous enemy of the bacteria he was
facilitate self-organizing processes in the workplace, there must
be attention to organizational noise.
One could draw "noise maps" indicating various
departures from the norm, what they may be saying about the
system's operation, and even how they could be amplified and
utilized. For example, putting that group of employees who stay
after work playing around with the new program into a project to
find new uses for the software.
Random events or
noise can only have creative efficacy when a system is in the
right condition, what is technically termed instability.
This is equivalent to the loosening-up, interruption, or
removal of those constraints that are maintaining stability.
In a work unit, such an equilibrium-seeking mechanism may
consist of: micromanagement of how tasks are to be accomplished;
isolation of the work group from its internal and external
environments; corporate culture attitudes expressed in such
self-fulfilling messages as "don't rock the boat,"
"cover your behind," "we've tried that before, it
just doesn't work here," and the entire plethora of
"instability" is a bit scary, bringing to mind the image
of things wobbling out of control, exploding etc.
But it needn't mean this.
On the contrary, in an organization or work group typified
by constantly shifting priorities and tumultuous work schedules,
instability would actually be just the opposite:
less tumult and less ground-shifting beneath you.
Itís precisely in the unstable condition, that a system
has the possibility for self-organizing into new structures and
patterns as it notices, responds to, amplifies, and incorporates
What keeps noise
and instability from leading to total organizational
disintegration is the requirement of firm, but permeable
organizational boundaries. That is,
the process of self-organization is contained within some kind
crucible which channels the noise and instability into a creative
response to the challenges facing the system.
This containment keeps the process from
"leaking-out" or "exploding."
In this sense, self-organization is "constrained
In the workplace,
these boundaries are firmed-up via a process of negotiation among
employees and management. Rather
than imposed organizational structures, the new self-organizing
structures emerge out of the group facing a challenge and
reorganizing itself in the best way to meet that challenge.
This is a process of negotiating a "safe place"
where experiments in functioning can be tried-out and where
unpredictable outcomes are not shunned, but expected.
This is akin to "biasing" the process of
self-organization into a constructive direction.
On the other
hand, research into self-organization demonstrates that such
organizational boundaries must be permeable in the sense that work
groups need to be in vital contact with other work units inside
and outside the organization.
That is, they need to be what has been termed in the
management literature as "close" to customers and
thrives in an atmosphere of exchange between a system and its
internal and external environments.
the power of instability and self-organization, youíll stimulate
a creative and innovative environment.
However, if you fear instability and self-organization,
opportunities to succeed will be severely limited as technical
knowledge and the marketplace rapidly changes.