Surfing the Edge of Chaos

Authors: Pascale, Milleman, Gioja
Publisher: Three Rivers Press, New York, 2000.
320 pages


Over the past two years I have repeatedly seen this title referenced in the footnotes of books on the cutting edge of missional and incarnational engagement. I include books by Alan Hirsch, Leonard Sweet, and Alan Roxburgh in this mix. I noted Surfing and decided that at some point I had to read it. This class was the perfect opportunity.

Surfing takes the macro view of scientific and experimental research into Complex Adaptive Systems. Most of this research grows out a confluence of the biological and physical sciences, with a particular nod to complexity theory.

It was worth my time: particularly when in concert with the next book, Birth of the Chaordic Age. Through the Industrial Age our dominant metaphors for organizations were mechanistic: rationalized descriptions of reality and authority. They were inevitably hierarchical. And for the most part, we came to believe that these descriptions corresponded to reality. It is only as we face a growing litany of organizational problems that we are reexamining our assumptions. Or it could be that complexity science and quantum physics have serendipitously arrived just when the old models are dying.

The managerial tradition in the Industrial Age was built on the premises of social engineering:

  • Leaders as Head, Organization as Body
  • The Premise of Predictable Change
  • An Assumption of Cascading Intention (13)

These tenets, the authors argue, are not compatible with the way living systems actually work. In other words, our previous assumptions were wrong and the models we built based on those assumptions were imposed on reality, therefore not in harmony with it and therefore we have the results we are currently seeing with broad institutional collapse, and conflict and depression and boredom endemic in working environments of command and control.

There is a further qualification to this scenario, however. In times of predictable change, social engineering was workable. But those times are gone. We now live in times of discontinuous change (German sociologist Ulrich Beck). In these times nimbleness and agility are essential and tapping the full potential of distributed knowledge in living systems is essential. In hierarchical and engineered systems that is simply not possible.

From here on I will not walk systematically through the book, but interact based on my notes and the thoughts and ideas that gripped me.

The Bee Hive

Chris Langdon was one of the pioneers of complexity science, and programmed a series of simulations analogous to a beehive in which individual virtual "bees" were given simple rules to follow. When the rules became too rigid or numerous, the beehive froze into inactivity. With a little elasticity in the rules, a repeating pattern was generated that would ripple through the system, and then it would to its original state. In both these instances the rules evoked stability.

With no rules, the opposite phenomenon occurred. The hive dispersed.

But a third set of rules that were described by chaordic algorithms evoked a flow of nonrepeating patterns. Patterns would propagate, disaggregated, and then recombine in novel ways. Internal variety seemed a key to this phenomenon. The authors ask, "why don't all living systems fall into equilibrium?" They argue that two opposing forces are at work to prevent this: the threat of death, and the promise of sex - by which they mean recombinations that introduce diversity. (26)

I found this entire discussion compelling. As I think about the western ekklesial world I have known, diversity is not a notable characteristic. In fact, I would describe most of the current situation as predictable, stable, boring, and homogeneous. It is only on the margins that one finds much diversity. It's not great surprise to note that historically renewal movements are birthed on the margins. It is equally not very surprising that the church in the west is in decline.

So.. how do we find the creative tension between form and freedom, between necessary structures and emergent structures? I believe the answer is there for us: both in the text of Scripture and in the life of the Spirit. If we can get beyond our fear… (John Wimber once noted that faith is spelled R I S K ) perhaps we can yet discover a way forward.

The next piece I found gripping appears in the closing pages of Part One: "Equilibrium is Death." It has obvious application to the church in the west.

"Adaptive leadership .. is a surefire recipe to disturb equilibrium. An example might be Barnes & Noble's threat from or Native American tribes' loss of hunting grounds to the encroachment of Caucasian settlers. What is predictable in these situations? The individuals affected will look to figures of authority. More often than not, those in charge take the bait, try to provide the answers (drawn from traditional success routines), divert attention to easier problems, or tread water - all the while allowing the initial threat to intensify. In the 1930s, a weary British public, still exhausted after World War I, looked to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to find a way to stop Hitler without involving England in another war. Britain had no appetite for rearmament.

"Chamberlain played his part, seeking to maintain equilibrium in the British social system through a policy of appeasement. He signed the Munich Treaty, acceding to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. The long period of appeasement did not end until Hitler's invasion of Poland. By then, the German war machine was ready to take on the world. Initially, Chamberlain gained authority by taking the problem off the shoulders of the British people and carrying it for them. His prompt loss of authority when this solution failed is the other side of the quid pro quo.

"Leaders are to a social system what a properly shaped lens is to light. They focus intention and do so for better or for worse. If adaptive intention is required, the social system must be disturbed in a profound and prolonged fashion. Magnifying a threat or utilizing organizational devices to propagate "genetic diversity" then becomes important.

"Adaptive leaders can be frozen out when followers don't want to face the bad news. Churchill was written off as a hawk and an eccentric for five long years as Hitler rearmed Germany, pursued technological advances in airplanes and submarines, and otherwise mobilized an increasingly militant German nation. "Followers turn to authority as a bulwark against the associated uncertainty and risk. "The essential work of adaptive leadership is to resist these appeals," states Heifetz (Leadership without Easy Answers, 1999). (39-40 )

Stunning. And maybe just a bit too close to home. I visited a local church two Sundays ago, something I am not in the habit of doing. I find most services boring, predictable, dualistic and occasionally offensive. The preacher was lecturing on postmodernity. He was advocating for certainty and using traditional apologetic approaches. His assumptions were squarely rooted in foundationalism and modernity and the Enlightenment. While not knowing it, he had enthroned Reason as Queen above even faith. I know a little about the man, his heart for the church and his passion for truth. Sadly, it was somewhat misdirected and I am also aware of many people alienated by his teaching.

The deeper story is that this man is fearful: fearful of change, fearful of loss of his position, fearful of things he does not understand. A third generation preacher, his world is the narrow and traditional world of Evangelical thought. His approach to change is to hunker down, build higher walls, and generally work harder to convince people that he is right and that new perspectives are dangerous and disintegrative. Unfortunately, his own platform has continued to expand. Predictably so, since there are many fearful and confused believers out there who are looking for easy answers to the increasingly unfamiliar postmodern world we live in. A retreat to authority is just what the doctor ordered. In these times of change, it's not uncommon to long for stability.

It might be a good time to listen to Erich Fromm:

The willingness to be born--
and this means the willingness to let go of all illusions --
requires courage and faith.
Courage to let go of certainties,
courage to be different and to stand isolation...
Faith not in the sense in which the word is often used,
but in the meaning which it has in the Old Testament
where the word for faith (enuma) means certainty..
to be certain of the reality of one's own experience
in thought and feeling. "The Creative Attitude"

A few random quotes that gripped me:

Nobel laureate Herbert Simon views transformation as a shift in identity (66) Why the edge? Wouldn't it suffice to disturb equilibrium but give the edge of chaos a wide birth? …Edges are important to life; in fact, we are drawn to them. They define a frontier that tells us we are about to venture farther than we have ever gone before. "As long as one operates in the middle of things," states science writer William Thompson, "one can never really know the nature in which one moves." (67) Complexity science represents three major steps beyond systems thinking:

1) theoretically, systems thinking can address nonlinear events (such as increasing returns or the links among increased employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and profit). In practice, it is rarely used to do so.

2) Complexity science is not built on the assumption (or even the temptation) that one can proactively control what will happen. Rather, it emphasizes nimble reactions: Expect the unexpected. The focus is on broadly understanding and coping with the world as it unfolds in real time.

3) The living systems view does not focus only on the path of an organism at it maneuvers across the competitive landscape. Complexity also concerns itself with the way the landscape itself changes as the organism moves across it. (105)

Because a great deal of practical knowledge is socially acquired, influencing the social system is one of the most efficient ways to alter the knowledge system and thus, to trigger learning. (202) Lew Platt, until recently the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, frequently described his job as "managing conversations." (202) (This reminds me of a Finnish sociologists maxim, "Community is a network of conversations" Niklas Lehman)

Fractals are the legos of life. (230) [chaordic rules]

Managing from the future - establishing a compelling purpose that draws the organization out of its comfort zone - is a key discipline that moves us to the edge of chaos. (240)

When you focus on winning, you will lose.
When you focus on not losing, you will lose.
Pay attention to your inner balance.
Then perhaps you have a chance to win. (242 - memories of "The Last Samurai")

Managing from the future helps us discover that which is latent within and which seeks fuller expression. (246). Reminds me of Alan Roxburgh on poetic leadership. Poets "are not so much advice-givers as image and metaphor framers… What churches need are not more entrepreneurial leaders with wonderful plans for their congregation's life, but poets with the imagination and gifting to cultivate environments within which people might again understand how their traditional narratives apply to them today…. Many of the programs on church health can only lead the churches down more of the same utilitarian and technological dead ends that have contributed to the current malaise." (The Sky is Falling, 166) And, "poets make available a future that does not exist as yet; they are eschatologically oriented. From this environment, a missional imagination emerges." (167)

The.. machine model and social engineering [have] squeezed all the life out of the nodes that needed to respond in an unscripted manner. Northwest's rigidity proved toxic to intelligent life. (248) "There were things we did intuitively that proved extraordinarily important. First, we learned to keep a low profile, fly below the radar and generally value minimalism. Help happen what wants to happen. Assume resistance and legitimize it as a valid response. Don't try to change it. God with the innovators and early adopters. Small scale, short term efforts fueled by the passion of people result in large scale, long term transformation.

Second, circumvent resistance by reframing. Help people see things in fresh ways by setting what you're working on in a larger context.

Third, "Be the change you want to see." If we want to see more risk takers, take more risks. If we want to see more generosity toward others and their ideas, be generous. If we want people to dream bigger dreams, we must dream ourselves. If we want the whole person to come to work, bring all of yourself to work. Fourth, listening and questioning are more important than speaking and advocating. When we got too hooked on our own agenda, we missed the boat. Not knowing what will happen can be more important than knowing. It gives others the room to create and to generate new ideas. 280-281

The HP labs had a regularly scheduled meeting of its managerial cadre. Its organizers made a predictable request for an "inspiring speaker." Waugh recounts,

"What if, instead of a great speaker, we had a great listener who could "hear them into speech" about their visions for HP's future, driven by the integration of HP technologies? We go forward and use the inspiring listener at the big event. Senior managements sees connections they've never seen before… (282)

Richard Pascale, Mark Milleman, Linda Gioja, Surfing the Edge of Chaos (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000) 320 pages Read a good review at Fast Company…

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• © 2007 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on September 9, 2007