I had the pleasure of hearing Margaret Wheatley speak at last week’s Organization Development Network 2019 annual conference.
I’m a fan of physics and enjoyed Wheatley’s first book, which she mentioned came out 25 years ago. She referred to is as a failure, in that it didn’t have the influence she had hoped. Personally, I hope to have a failure that sells 300,000 copies. Perhaps my next book, “Planned Change: Lewin for Beginners, Lewin for All!”
Her analysis of why it failed to have the impact she hoped diverges from mine. She seems to think it is because business leaders are stuck in old ways of thinking. She mentioned Einstein’s “Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results,” as well as other similar quotes.
I want to tell her that I think she has a blind spot that traps her in the same dilemma. I will try to offer this unsolicited feedback, but first I want to post this for you to ponder, dear readers.
I think the OD profession is dominated by academic (theoretical) and socio-centric thinking (consensus is good, authority is bad) and that is reflected in Wheatley’s thinking. The problem with “Leadership and the New Science” was not that leader’s rejected it. It was that application, especially of “self-organizing systems” as found in nature, reinforced passive leadership (already an epidemic, according to research and my own experience) and chaos. In other words, many tried to do what she said, and most failed to get any thing close to desirable results.
Now she is asserting that business leaders should always ask above all else, “how will this effect relationships?” A good question. I like it. And a one-sided question. She started her presentation by dissing scorecards as worthless, and by implication business metrics. I agree most make scorecards and metrics into such a complicated morass that they are essentially worthless, but throwing out metrics because of that is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Relationships and goal clarity are both important. Damage either and you have trouble.
I am confident if Wheatley took the Social Style behavioral profile she would be a strong Amiable, probably with analytic as a secondary style, although she also has expressive and driver traits. Her values come almost entirely out of Amiable, which places relationships above all else. An important potential learning from taking such an assessment is that you realize that it is easy to project your style traits onto everyone else and the universe, and to judge others through that narrow lens. I think Wheatley is doing that and is apparently unaware. By shifting from self-organizing systems to “get off command and control and focus on relationships” she is not really shifting at all but rather is doing the same thing and hoping for different results.
No offense intended. She’s not a practitioner, she’s a theorist. She expects other people to put her theories into practice, rather than applying them to organizations herself. Without being a practitioner, or at least teaming with practitioners (as Lewin hoped ALL academics and practitioners would do) the feedback loop is missing.
So, in a nutshell:
She spent about 30 minutes detailing how bad things are in terms of plastic in the eco-system, etc.
She told us being “a warrior for the human spirit” and “relationships” is the only way forward.
The (socio-centric) audience loved it. I loved it too…except it is not OD, or only one important (but not new) aspect of OD.
No doubt others view it differently.