We live in two worlds, one created by nature, the other built by humans. In the first, nature displays its infinite ability to create organization at all levels, from crystals to plants to living organisms, and its amazing capacity to innovate and adapt, demonstrated through the 3.5 billion years of its history. In the human world, many organizations and systems we have created - such as in healthcare, education, business and government - feel rigid, inefficient, and incapable of delivering what we want. Inside those organizations, whether private or public, many people at all levels remain dissatisfied with their working environment, and contribute well below their potential. The standard solutions treat only the symptoms of the problem: change the boss, spend more money, introduce a new program, reorganize.
Rise of the Clockwork Organization
Our model for organizations emanated from the industrial era, in which human organizations were viewed as if they were machines. Undoubtedly, machines brought wondrous advances to humanity. The power of engines, the precision of clocks, and the very laws of mechanics created staggering efficiencies in the inanimate world, greatly benefiting the cause of man.
Utilized as interchangeable parts, humans quit working with their hearts and minds. Governed by power structures and measured primarily by material metrics, personal relationships became more brittle, ranking family and community among the casualties of the modern age. Obsessed with measurement (especially of money), the unmeasurable, such as human spirit, shrank from our attention and we lost sight of how systems, especially living systems, operate as a connected whole.
While the march of modernity benefited humankind in many areas - cleaner water, safer housing, widely available education - it has also reduced our well-being and performance in dramatic ways. For instance,at the individual level, lifestyle and environmental factors - not genetic predisposition - account for the majority of diseases in the modern era, according to an account in The New England Journal of Medicine. Despite advances in medicine, diseases of civilization grow more common as modern lifestyles cleave mankind from the natural patterns in which the human species evolved. Diseases such as heart disease, strokes, hypertension, diabetes, asthma, cancer and obesity are a consequence of this discordance and currently cause 75% of deaths in the western world.
At the family level, power structures, gender roles, and disharmony take an unacceptable toll, as reflected in high and in many cases increasing rates of divorce, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and child abuse (see The Social Health of the Nation by Marc L. Miringoff, et al).
At the organizational level, people and the systems they create routinely operate below their full potential (see The Human Equation by Jeffrey Pfeffer). Creativity of the individual is often stifled by bureaucratic constraints. Collaboration is blocked by competition. Too many schools, businesses, nonprofit groups, and government agencies remain rigid and inflexible, even as they are surrounded by rapid change. Many of those who find material fulfillment in their work lives nonetheless remain personally unfulfilled.
The Importance of Relationships
We invite you to spend a moment reflecting on your own life, family, and work. At a deep level, we all sense the inadequacy, indeed the harm, caused by a model of human interaction that relies mainly on power and control. Think of a teenager you know in trouble and you realize that controlling behavior is a poor substitute for values and dialogue. Think about the great teams to which you have been privileged to belong and remember the trusting bonds that emerged among the participants. Or recall how a community pulled together after a natural disaster, all without central leadership or control.
These experiences teach us that what happens between people and between systems - in other words, relationships - play a huge role, often the principal role. This observation stands in marked contrast to the mechanical mental model, which emphasizes the role not of relationships but of individuals, as if they were objects.
A New Way of Thinking And Acting
Whatever their value in the past, mechanistic principles alone are inadequate for the complexity and change we face today. Clearly, we need a new way of looking at work and organizations of all types.
Such a world-view has in fact emerged; it is known as complexity science. At its core, this intellectual revolution is transforming our understanding of life, its structures, dynamics and its care, while providing new principles for making sense of what is most fundamental in our lives: our relationships with other people and our environment.
Such understandings give us powerful new ways of thinking about and acting on issues which span human concern, from such seemingly disparate domains as ecological preservation, childhood education and executive leadership. As such, it is relevant to everyone. Already, some business, community and government leaders are embracing the ideas emerging from complexity science, but they remain a minority.
To build on this opportunity Plexus Institute was founded with this mission:
(In this mission statement "health" is meant to include physical as well as mental and spiritual dimensions. A "healthy" individual has a healthy body, healthy relationships, a healthy home and workplace. A healthy person is poised for learning, growth and adaptability. Similarly a "healthy" organization generates more than material success. It creates an environment in which relationships are rewarding and opportunities to learn, grow and contribute are available to all. It is poised to adapt. A "healthy" community is one in which all people are nurtured and valued, where information flows freely, where there is healthy interaction among all groups and where institutions support the growth and development of all.)
We at Plexus Institute are a community of diverse people - scientists, business executives, nurses, artists, teachers, journalists, researchers, physicians, college students, and community leaders - united in our determination to create something better. We are people who, by learning from each other, are making strides against some of the major problems afflicting society and human organizations.
The following pages tell the story of Plexus Institute. It is told in these chapters:
- Ideas that Matter: Introduction to Complexity
- The Results of the Early Years
- The Opportunity
- The Activities of the Institute Membership Offerings and Benefits
- The Structure and Finances of the Institute
- An Invitation