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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.


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Environments and Mindsets for Complex Change

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 30, 2014

Balinese farmers have grown rice in paddies irrigated through an intricate network of canals and aqueducts built around hundreds of tiered water temples for more than a thousand years. Priests in the temples and hundreds of grower collectives known as subaks evolved a well orchestrated collaboration to control pests and make sure water was fairly distributed.

In the 1980s, international development organizations introduced chemical fertilizers and re-engineered growing and harvest patterns with the goal of growing more rice. The water temples and subaks were disregarded. Several years into the program, rice yield had plunged and rats and other pests were proliferating. In his extraordinary book Aid on the Edge of Chaos, Ben Ramalingam tells the story of the subaks in Bali and the dynamic self-organization that had allowed growers to cooperate in management of complex issues related to soil quality, pest control, crop yields, and rainfall and to make continual adjustments as local conditions required. The subaks also performed social, legal and spiritual functions.

Researchers from the Santa Fe Institute found that the farmers cooperated on the basis of their own dominant needs. Those upstream were most worried about pests, and those down stream worried about water shortages. Ramalingam explains the researchers used ecological simulation models to show how humans were reshaping the ecosystem, and how cooperative behavior emerged over time. With the water temples as the nodes, he writes, the subak networks were "a particular form of social organization shaped by a process of cooperative agents co-evolving in a changing environment." By 2012, he says, the government of Bali had arranged that the subaks would be preserved in perpetuity as a vital part of the country's unique cultural, social and economic farming system.

Ramalingam believes an understanding of complexity science and complex adaptive systems can help cultivate new mindsets that will enable policy makers and program designers to increase effectiveness as they try to improve health and economic conditions, reverse adverse impacts of climate change, and build peace in war ravaged areas. He provides lucid examples and commentary on the work of many complexity scholars, including John Holland, Stuart Kauffman, Jane Jacobs, Herbert Simon, Joshua Epstein, a scholar of agent based modeling, and Warren Weaver, a mathematician who wrote an influential paper on "Science and Complexity" in 1948. He quotes Friedrich Hayek's 1974 Nobel acceptance speech in which the economist said we can't acquire enough knowledge to master complex events, so we need to use the knowledge we can get to "cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment" for growth the way a gardener does for plants.

Ramalingam cites several innovative development and humanitarian efforts that draw upon the concepts of complexity: they include dealing with epidemic outbreaks in Asia, water sharing in Bhutan, subsistence farming and urban change in East Africa, disaster responses in Southern Africa, and industrial production globally. This informative book is filled with memorable stories, well-turned phrases, extensive research, and a wide-ranging exploration of the insights of complexity science. While the focus is aid, the usefulness extends to just about any field.

In a section on positive deviance, Ramalingam describes the work of Monique Sternin and the late Jerry Sternin in reducing childhood malnutrition in Vietnam. The Sternins pioneered the use of positive deviance (PD) in social and behavioral change. They helped parents living in impoverished villages discover that some of their neighbors had healthier kids despite having no additional resources. The parents of the healthier children were gathering shrimps, crabs and greens that were free but generally considered unsuitable for children, and they had different mealtime practices. Ramalingam also notes the successful use of PD in reducing MRSA rates and in improving business operations. Plexus Institute led an initiative in which several hospitals using PD processes dramatically reduced the incidence of healthcare associated infections. In an interview with Ramalingam, Monique Sternin noted Plexus Institute's role in developing the science and theory behind PD and scaling up the work.

image from wikipedia

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  ecology  environment  organizations 

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Soft Traits that Drive Corporate Culture

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 16, 2014

How can business ventures grow and retain the commitment, passion and agility they had when they started? Distilling patterns from interviews with more than 200 CEOs, business writer Adam Bryant identifies six elements he believes every organization needs to foster a culture that encourages innovation and drives results.

In his New York Times article "Management be Nimble" he describes what he calls the main drivers of corporate culture-the things that will have outsize positive or negative impact, depending on whether they are done well or badly. Many business scholars and theoreticians support his views.

To start, leaders need to boil down an organization's priorities into a simple plan that also identifies clear goals and metrics. At the insurance company FM Global, he writes by way of example, the operating framework is profitability, retaining existing clients, and attracting new ones. Of course, not all simplification is that easy. The University of Oregon Holden Leadership Center website offers some goal definition steps that can help aid direction and avoid chaos.

Rules of the road, Bryant writes, involve behavioral guidelines, development of accepted values and a commitment to live by them. When people see a disconnect between stated values and real action, Bryant suggests, the cancer of cynicism can metastasize.

Writers from Goethe to Emerson to Tupac Shakur have weighed on in the concept of respect, and much has been written about office bullying and other unproductive work behavior. Bryant quotes Robin Domeniconi, chief marketing officer at Rue La La, a flash sale site, who uses the expression "M.R.I" to describe her firm's cultural guide. That means "most respectful interpretation" of what a person is saying. David K. Williams, author of The 7 Non-Negotiables of Winning: Tying Soft Traits to Hard Results, writes in Forbes about respect as one of his non-negotiables.

Bryant also writes about the importance of teams, the ability to have difficult conversations and the hazards of email. Despite speed and convenience, email can be a dangerous trap. In "How to Avoid Virtual Miscommunication" a post on his Harvard Business Review blog, Keith Ferrazzi writes that we often convey less information than we think, less clearly than we think, and we make more assumptions than we realize about the recipients of our messages. Ferrazzi inveighs against sloppy presentation and cryptic meaning, and urges we remember that the medium is the message: that we think about whether a text, IM, video, or email is suitable for the content we are sending.

Bryant is the author of Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation. He also writes The Corner Office, a regular New York Times business feature. Read his New York Times essay here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  leadership  organizations 

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Making “Best” Even Better

Posted By Jeff Cohn, Thursday, June 13, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 19, 2014

The dictionary defines bestas "of the highest quality, excellence, or standing.” From this comes best practices, which Wikipedia defines as "a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means.” The definition continues, "a ‘best’ practice can evolve to become better as improvements are discovered.” What happens to our drive for improvement when we hear a practice being referred to as best? I think there is a natural tendency to think only about the first part of the definition and assume that our work is done. Couple that withthe fact that many things referred to as best practices are developed elsewhere and "shared” with us for us to "adopt.” Often these decisions are made near or at the top of our organizational hierarchies, and the challenge becomes one of implementation: "do what worked for them and it should solve our problems too.”

I met a colleague this week that arrived at her current healthcare role via a pathway that brought her to Silicon Valley. She has been struck by the tendency for healthcare workers to look to their "superiors” for permission prior to trying something new. She stated that things were quite different in the IT world. People, recognizing situations in which improvements were needed, took the initiative to try to make changes and then inform their bosses about the results of those experiments. There was a culture of ongoing improvement that included and, in fact, relied on the idea that for many of our problems, we’re going to have to discover solutions that work for us.

I believe that our organizations and communities need a learning approach to improvement. We may learn that someone else’s best practice is exactly what we need, and then enthusiastically go about implementing it. We may find that we can improve that practice as "improvements are discovered” that the originators hadn’t found. Maybe those improvements are intimately intertwined in the relationships, processes, and culture of our particular organization/community. In that case the improvement works for us and won’t work for others. For this reason we may learn that what was a best practice for someone else actually isn’t useful for us, because the "superior results” were intimately intertwined with someone else’s relationships/processes/culture and are not transferable to ours. We may actually discover that there already exist superior results that work for us- our internal best practices, our positive deviants, whose practices our organization/community will embrace once they are able to discover them from their peers. And, finally, we may find that we have to create our own solutions through an iterative process of innovation, experimentation, and continuous learning.

There is a clear link with all of this and how leadership occurs. A focus on imported best practices is consistent with a traditional hierarchical leadership model, as "solutions” flow down into the organization from above, leaders providing both the vision of what needs to happen and how to do it. The learning approach requires what Plexus Institute Board member Mary Uhl-Bien, PhD calls complexity leadership. Formal leaders create the conditions for the emergent learning necessary so that those who own the work can make decisions most useful for them. They provide a general vision and acknowledge there is no clear path for getting there, enabling and supporting the multiple possible "hows” that may work in local contexts. For me, organizations embracing this approach to improvement have the potential to go beyond best practices and become truly best.

Tags:  catching butterflies  cohn  community  leadership  organizations  technology 

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Disruption Inevitable But Not Always Disastrous

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 6, 2013

Globalization, technological change, huge financial crises, political turbulence and natural disasters in the last two decades have made disruptive events virtually inevitable in business and industry. Yet some companies manage better than others and some even come out ahead.

"Captains in Disruption," a Strategy + Business article by Ken Favaro, Per-Ola Karisson, and Gary L. Neilson, reports on the experiences and actions of CEOs who not only guided their organizations to survival but were able to shift trouble and turbulence to organizational advantage. To lead effectively in such times, these authors say, CEOs have to anticipate the kinds of disruptions their companies may face, including natural disasters in remote locations that could disrupt their supply chains. Then they have to prepare an adequate response, and find a way to implement it effectively. And of course, none of that is easy.

They quote Clayton M. Christensen, professor and management professor who first examined the dynamics of disruption in his book The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. "How can you make sense of the future, Christensen asks, "when you only have data about the past? That’s the role of theory, to look into the future.” That means being able to analyze data to spot changes and figure out what they mean, which is especially hard when analysis depends on the strength of the limited data and risk models. Further, Christensen says, leaders often lack candid insights from people at all levels of the organization, which they need plan effectively.

Responses to disruption may need organizational redesign and culture change, the authors write, and if top executives have become isolated, they need to begin interacting informally with people throughout the organization who understand first hand what works and what doesn’t. Cross-organizational interaction, the authors write, is by far the biggest accelerator of change.

Antony Jenkins is an executive who took on a tough job during a time of disruption. In mid-2012, Jenkins was head of the retail and business banking division of Barclays, then the U.K.’s second largest bank. Then the LIBOR rate rigging scandal broke, exposing a series of fraudulent actions connected to the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), a primary benchmark for short term interest rates around the world. The bank’s chairman and CEO resigned, and Jenkins took over as CEO. The article explains Jenkins immediately informed the bank’s 140,000 employees that the focus on short term goals and immediate profits were out and a new long term strategy for transformation was in. Jenkins says the "cataclysmic experience” made people ready to listen. Jenkins emphasized involving all stakeholders in asking the right questions to move forward. In addition to bank employees, he met with politicians, media, consumer groups and regulators and listened to their criticisms.

The organizational change needed to respond to this cataclysm, Jenkins told S+B, "is about being continually dissatisfied with that you are doing...It’s about constantly challenging and creating an organization that is never satisfied.” What makes that kind of thinking hard, Christensen told the authors, is the human tendency to be complacent and forget to ask good questions. As an antidote, Christensen points to the famous phrase of former Intel CEO Andy Grove: (and the title of his book) "Only the Paranoid Survive." Read the S+B story here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  leadership  organizations  resilience 

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Shifting Organizational Culture: Learning Transformational Roles from the Soil

Posted By Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD, Monday, June 3, 2013
Updated: Thursday, May 30, 2013

Guest post by Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD originally posted on her blog Leading with Nature

Barley roots – a place where transformation happens.We sometimes hear about an organization that came through grave difficulties and became a success story. Even after hearing the story, we may not really understand how the transformation took place. There is no single way change happens, and it can feel nebulous or mysterious. Without deeper understanding leaders may hesitate to try new leadership styles or begin processes to renew a flagging organization. Today, to give you confidence and inspiration, I share with you a concrete example of how transformation happens… in the soil.

The soil, you see, can transform and nourish itself, with the help of several companions and help-mates. By looking at the different roles and forces that are needed to fix nitrogen in the soil – the biological equivalent of organizational renewal – we can understand how we already play these transformative roles, and how we can play them more intentionally. Supplying nitrogen to plants is a sort of "holy grail” of gardening and agriculture, just as creating a thriving, productive work culture can be the holy grail of organizations. Plants must find nitrogen in the soil to thrive, but not just any nitrogen. It must be nitrogen whose potential has been harnessed. Plants need the form of nitrogen called ammonium, which can be readily absorbed and used by plants. The process of making ammonium is called nitrogen fixing, and gardeners can set up the conditions so that it happens naturally while they sit home in the winter drinking chocolate. Pretty cool!

In the same way, organizational members need certain things from the culture to thrive, such as safety, respect, structure, trust, freedom, boundaries, clarity, and openness to creativity. You can name many more! As in nitrogen fixing, many players and forces come together in organizations to make these things possible so that members are nourished, inspired, supported, and productive. Let us look at how this works in the soil.

Transformation in the Soil: The Nitrogen Fixation Process

Nature’s ability to renew itself is remarkable. Here is a quick summary of how certain plants, like barley, can actually build the nutrients in the soil, just by existing!

  • First, barley grows roots. These roots form a loose chamber where transformation can happen. A species of bacteria calledazospirillumjust loves to hang out underneath barley plants because of the organic matter the roots release.
  • Next, theazospirillumknow how to activate an enzyme system called nitrogenase. This happens to be the only enzyme system known to humankind which can fix nitrogen into ammonium, thereby making the nutrient easy for plants to absorb and use.
  • All of this happens in the soil which surrounds and interacts with the roots. This little clump of soil is called the rhizosphere. This space, embraced loosely by barley roots, is where a few key players come together to change grainy, packed dirt into dark, loamy, nutrient-rich soil. The roots hold together a space where transformation can happen.

What is the result? Well, one warmish February morning I went to the garden and pulled up the barley so I could dig it into the soil, and let it compost so that the nutrients would be available in my onion patch in the spring. When I saw how lush the soil was where the barley had grown, and how sterile the soil was elsewhere, I became a cover crop convert. And, by some accounts, my onion plants were the most vibrant in the community garden. Another gardener had given me half of her onion plants in the spring, so we had a semi-controlled scientific experiment. I planted my onions where the barley had been, with leaf mulch mixed in. She planted hers in soil enriched only with leaf mulch. By June she was astonished at how tall and healthy my onions were. Hers had wilted in the heat.

If you have ever heard leaders, facilitators, or consultants talking shop, you may have heard the phrase "holding the space.” Just as the roots hold together a clump of soil where transformation can happen, one of the key roles in organizational transformation is holding together a process or an intention so that a group can complete its work despite distractions, upheavals, or straying attention. Commonly this role is played by jointly an external consultant and/or a leader. This is a powerful way to proceed, especially if the leader sees him/herself as an integral part of the system andwilling to reflect on his/herimpactin the organization.

And, does it have to be a leader, facilitator, or consultant who plays the role of the barley roots, holding together the process for the good of the organization as a whole? You have almost certainly played this role for someone in the course of your life by being present for, listening to, and believing in someone. Today many leaders are increasingly open to receiving help from all quarters. By simply changing how we think of ourselves and how we relate to others, we can have subtle,real, and positiveimpacts on a system.

As we look at organizational equivalents for the biological roles of barley roots,azospirillum, nitrogenase, and the rhizosphere in creating self-nourishment, let us take a page from the book of Carl Jung, the renowned psychoanalyst who revolutionized the interpretation of dreams. Jung encouraged people to examine their dreams multiple times, eventually seeing that each actor or force or element of the dream could represent part of the individual’s psyche. If there was a child, consider the dream as though you were the child, he encouraged. If there was a dangerous intruder, think of that intruder representing an archetype within yourself. If there was a doorway, think of yourself as the doorway as you interpret the dream.

Since anyone can play these transformational roles, we can use Jung’s approach to thinking of ourselves as playing each of these roles.

Transformational Roles

As organizations learn to be adaptive and innovative, there is increasing latitude for any person to instigate or support transformation. I will focus on just four remarkable roles:

  • Barley Roots – The Space Holder– You may have played the role of barley roots, which”hold the space.” If you have listened deeply to a friend in need, you have created a chamber for renewal or transformation. Consultants and leaders use their attention, guidance,and skill to maintain a "chamber” when working with people. The chamber is a loosely held space, like thebarley roots you see above, that containsand supportsa transformational process. You may have done this byguiding the proceedings of a meeting and protecting progress from disruptions or distractions so that a group’s important work can flow and develop. Or you may have realized that there is another step or direction that the group needs to follow if the results are truly going to be of benefit, and you share your insights and help the group reshape its goals and process to yield a more durable, relevant result.
  • Azospirillum– The Activator- You may have played the role of this species of bacteria whichactivates the enzyme system which does the actual fixing ofnitrogen. If you have ever challenged someone toexamine anassumption or asked where someone got the numbers to back up an opinion, you may have played the activating role. Or perhaps you askedthe "grail question,” which is traditionally, "what ails you?” In organizational life the grail question might be something invitingsuch as, "tell me more about that” or "I can see youare passionate about that and I’d like to hear more.” You may have stayed calm and not gotten hooked into a conflict, and instead probed deeper tolearn what was really underneath a concern or hard-to-name feeling.
  • Nitrogenase – The Transformer– You have probably already played this role too. Nitrogenasetransforms theinert potential of nitrogen into useable ammonium, creating fuel and nourishment for life and growth. You may have revealed a truth that everyone kind of knew but could not put into words. Or chosen to be the first to let go of something that everyone knew was not working anymore, but to which everyone was attached. You may have released a belief thatwas no longer serving anyone and thereby freed up a group of people to collaborate and createmore freely. You may have told a story that shifted how people viewed you or saw a situation, and thereby helped others give themselves permission to tell their own story or open to a new possibilities for your team.
  • Rhizosphere – The Creative Space– You may have played this role with someone else. It can only be lived by two or more people together. It is a collective space. The rhizosphere is something that builds up through shared interactions. It is a collective suspending of judgment so that the true issues can be explored. It is the developing of trust over time, so that you know you can take risks, or others can take risks, without having the new idea or action being chopped down instantly. It is recognizing that creative tension is healthy for organizations, so that there is room for freedom and structure, accountability and creativity, and flexibility and control.

You may think of other transformationalroles – what about the sun and rain?Birds and insects? Or you may define the roles differently that I have done. How would you play with these concepts to make them useful and in alignment with your life experience?

Putting Transformational Roles to Work: A Real Life Example

As a consultant, I know I am having a useful impact when an organizational member is willing to confront me, playing theazospirillumrole of activator. This happened I was working with an organization to helpthe members prepare for a new leader. The leader had not yet been chosen, and the organization was somewhat in a state of shock. Their beloved leader had let the organization down, and had to leave rather suddenly. People were disoriented. Some were relieved, some were grieving.

I was working with a team of five members to design a workshop in which each member would facilitate an activity. We had worked together for about three weeks. The date of the workshop was getting close, andsuddenly in a planning meeting,one of the team members challenged me. I will call her Tamara. I delighted in this because it was a sign of increased empowerment on the team. I”leaned into” the conflict by trying to learn more about Tamara’s concern and the passion underneath her challenge. That day we did not reach a resolution point,nor did wefinalize Tamara’s part in the workshop. But she and I did agree to meet for luncha few days later. She needed to tell me her story. I listened. We worked throughthe tensions.

At the time of the workshop, we still did not know what Tamara’s contribution would be. But she and I had developed mutual respect and trust. And when Tamara’s time to facilitate arrived, shehad been closely following the development of the workshop, and knew what she wanted to do. She led a process that wasappropriate to the group and contributed greatly to the healing of the organizational grief and shock. Tamara’s activity laid a foundation for the final activity, which wasa cathartic conversation in which people forgave each other for long-held grudges, expressed the knowledge that they needed to work togetherif the organization was to have a future, released some fearsabout receiving a new leader, and even opened to a sense of excitement about new possibilities.

In the above story, all of the transformative roles are present. At different times, both Tamara and I held the space for our workshop design and execution, playing the role of the barley roots. Tamara played the role ofazospirillum, challenging me and activating some conversation that allowed me to ask the grail question – what ails you? By telling her story, Tamara made herself vulnerable in a way that built trust between us. That is the role of nitrogenase – the transformer. The team and I together played the rhizosphere – the creative space – by not insisting that Tamara define her role in the workshop. She chose at first to play a barley root role – monitoring and following the development of the workshop, which gave her the intuitive information she needed to let her activity for the group crystalize, just moments before she was to facilitate.

The potential for leadership often lays dormant inside our organizationalsystems. By combining these four roles – the space holder, the activator, the transformer, and the creative space – potential can become active leadership. This helps theorganization transform and nourish itself, just as in the nitrogen fixing process. What additional transformative roles do you see in the above story? How would you interpret what happened?


When I sit on the ground, breaking up clumps of soil with my hands, and mixing mulch or expired barley plants into the soil, I think about these roles. They seem the perfect analogy to help an organization rekindle its ability to overcome, grow, and thrive. We often wait for someone else to initiate change. Sometimes just by taking more time to listen, or to accept someone just as they are, or to challenge someone to see things differently, or to acknowledge something we have learned, we can open up possibilities for ourselves and others to change. We might not see the result immediately, yet when organizational members experiment consciously with these roles,an entire system might gradually shift and transform.

Please share your stories, experiments, and inspirations about roles you have played or seen others play in supporting transformation. Thank you!

Tags:  barney  complexity matters  culture  nature  organizations 

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The Starfish and the Spider

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 6, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Of Apaches and e-Bay, Mary Poppins and Bill W.

It would be easy to miss the metaphysical connection between Napster, the pioneer of electronic file sharing, and the Apache Indians of the American West.

For Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, the kinship between peer to peer internet services and the relational structures among Apache tribes is a central insight into the extraordinary power of open systems. Their book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, is the result of five years of research on decentralized organizations that achieved dramatic successes without rigid hierarchies or control by bosses and managers. Every major organ of a starfish is replicated in each of its five arms, so if an arm of starfish is severed, the arm grows a new starfish. By contrast, a spider that loses a leg is impaired and a spider that loses its head is dead. And an organization committed to strict top-down management, even when it is big and powerful, is increasingly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of cultural climate change and roiling waves of innovative competition.

Starfish-like organizations can wreak havoc on rivals. The authors see common elements that helped Wikipedia, the Internet, e-Bay, Alcoholic Anonymous and al Qaedaflourish. And they see common challenges that have beset Fortune 500 companies, and 16th Century Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and the modern entertainment industry. What is the difference between Montezuma and Geronimo? Montezuma II was the Aztec leader who presided over an advanced civilization of 15 million people from a grand palace in the capital city of Tenochtitlanin what is now Mexico. When the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes attacked, Montezuma was killed, and Cortes’s armies swarmed over roads and aqueducts. Not long afterwards, the city’s 240,000 inhabitants were wiped out by disease and starvation, and within two years the Aztec empire collapsed.The Incas of Peru met the same fate when another Spanish army invaded a decade later, beginning Spanish dominance over South America.

While the Spanish overwhelmed centralized civilizations, Brafman and Beckstrom argue, they were never able to conquer the decentralized Apaches, who had no palaces, temples, cities, or accumulated wealth. The authors learned from an anthropologist who studied them that instead of a chief the Apaches had a Nant’an, a spiritual leader who led by example rather than force. The most famous Nant’an, they write, was Geronimo, whose people followed him because they wanted to, and who fended off adversaries for decades.

People used Napster, the brainchild of an 18-year-old college freshman, by logging into a central server and sharing music files with people all over the world. The big music labels sued, and Napster closed. But people like free music, and Napster had increasingly decentralized successors—Kazaa, Grokster, e-Donkey—with elusive owners who avoided central servers and obvious business addresses. Every time the labels conquered one such company, another emerged. Even though court rulings favored the big companies, E-Mule and other little per-to-peer file sharing ventures are beyond lawyers’ reach. As the authors explain it, their decentralization is unlike anything the entertainment industry has ever seen. "The software is a completely open source solution. No owner. No Montezuma. Who started e-Mule? No one knows,” Brafman and Beckstrom write. "They simply can’t be found.”

Alcoholics Anonymous has a purpose and ideology that has drawn massive membership distributed in small geographically separate circles. Its catalyst Bill W. let go when he saw AA was growing. Consider al Qaeda, with its rapid succession of mercurial leaders. How can governments fight terrorist organizations, and how can businesses compete with energetic nontraditional rivals?

Brafman and Beckstrom return to the starfish. In the late 1990s, they write, the coral of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia was threatened by an explosion of starfish. Divers with knives cut the starfish in half to kill them. But the starfish just multiplied. Scientists then realized pollution and rising water temperature were spurring the burgeoning starfish population. So only environmental change would stop them. To tame the power of decentralized organizations, ideology has to change. Micro loans and small businesses help change ideologies in slums, where hopelessness helps attracts recruits to terrorist cells. The authors also describe a brick-by-brick community rebuilding effort in Afghanistan, with no money or outside support, where people worked together to recover from the harsh rule and destruction of the Taliban.

Some organizations, they say, succeed by becoming hybrids. E-Bay for instance, is pure starfish. It hosts sellers and buyers who deal with each other directly and safeguard trust through a user rating system. But e-Bay’s PayPal subsidiary is based on rigid controls and secure transactions and "trust” isn’t a philosophical value. IBM bowed to decentralization by supporting Linux, the open source operating system, and designed Linux-compatible hardware and software. By doing so, the authors observe, "IBM is harnessing the collective skill of thousands of engineers working collaboratively world wide, and at no cost to IBM.” Oprah Winfrey’s production company is centralized, but she added a decentralized element with her book club, which has grown exponentially.

This is a collection of provocative, surprising and well-told stories about the social and organizational revolutions going on around us and some of the powerful forces driving the change. The examples are consistently engaging and memorable. In discussing the differences between traditional business leaders and catalysts who spark creation of organizational starfish, the authors cite the lead characters in The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. In Sound of Music, Maria enters a dysfunctional family and helps everyone get along better. But when the movie ends, it’s clear she will stay and remain in charge. Mary Poppins, however, comes to smooth out family turbulence so its members can thrive on their own. A CEO settles in, a catalyst knows when it’s time to move on. "Once she accomplishes her goal,” Brafman and Beckstrom write, "(Mary Poppins) rides her umbrella into the sunset.”

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  organizations 

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