13- The Interlocking Systems of Postmodernism

October 20, 2008

  [© Copyright. Feel free to link to this blog. Please ask author for permission before copying.]

[Derived from William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Ten Themes and Variations for Postmodern Leaders and Their Coaches. and from a forthcoming book, William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Building an Appreciative Organization: Themes and Strategies for Effective Postmodern Leaders, Consultants and Coaches. For information on both books contact Pacific Soundings Press, P. O. Box 70, Harpswell, Maine 04079.]

Theme: The Postmodern Condition

 Fundamental Question

What are the paradoxes, whip lashing contradictions and dizzying changes of which our world is made, and how might an appreciative perspective assist in responding to the challenges of this postmodern condition?

Physical scientists have suggested several different labels for the diverse—diverging, interlocking and unpredictable—systems that Peter Drucker and many postmodernists describe. Many physical scientists would consider these systems to be chaotic. These systems are justifiably identified as chaotic because behavior inside each system and between systems is neither predictable nor readily described. In recent years, however, the term chaotic has been reserved for systems that are much less coherent and structured than the world’s political and economic system described by Drucker and the postmodernists. The three-sphere world of Peter Drucker is more accurately identified as a complex or turbulent system in which domains of order (the dynamics operating within any one of the three spheres) are intermixed with domains of chaos (the dynamics operating between the three spheres). Highly complex systems are perhaps even more difficult to comprehend than chaotic systems, given that they seduce us with moments of rationality and clarity only to dart away into other moments of insanity and confusion, when their orderly subsystems collide with each other.

Dynamic Systems and Computer Modeling of the World

This recognition of complexity in the contemporary world system—and the accompanying interplay between globalization and segmentalization is perhaps most vividly represented in the attempts that have been made over the past four decades to create accurate computer-models of the economic, political and environmental dynamics of our world. Many of the high powered computer-models of our world (the models developed by Jay Forrester and his colleagues at M.I.T and Dartmouth College) have been highly successful in predicting and describing the general trends in our postmodern world.

They have not been very successful, however, when it comes to predicting the precise impact of global events (such as the availability of food or temperature changes) on specific geographic regions or societies in the world. Global computer-based models have now generally been replaced by models that acknowledge broad worldwide dynamics, while also recognizing that each of these dynamics plays out somewhat differently and at a different rate in each of several geographic regions of the world. While Forrester and his colleagues (notably Donella and Dennis Meadows) attempted to build a unified, world-based model of various ecological dynamics, Mesarovic and Pestel described and modeled a world in which subsystems offer their own distinctive, self-organizing dynamics.

We have been similarly unsuccessful in using global models to predict yet another complex and turbulent system—namely, the weather. We are not much better at making predictions that we were twenty or thirty years ago. Specific, localized aberrations or rogue events (what chaos theorists call the butterfly effect) that can neither be predicted nor adequately described apparently have a major influence on the weather that occurs in other, remote parts of the world. In North America we have seen the influence of El Niño (a small body of water off the western Central America coast), much as we recently witnessed the impact which conflicts in very small countries (Kuwait, Kosovo) or a sexual misadventure (the Monica scandal) has had on the entire world community.

Troubling Ambiguity: Shifting Boundaries and Multiple Roles

In his penetrating and controversial description and analysis of the postmodern world, Frederic Jameson speaks about the troubling ambiguities of the boundaries that exist in this new era. This troubling ambiguity exists at all levels—personal, group, organizational and societal. At the personal level, the postmodern world has helped to produce a sense of rootlessness—a pervasive sense of not quite belonging anywhere. One of the Tarot cards contains a portrait of the charioteer. This person carries his home on his back. He is always in transition and depends fully on the specific context in which he finds himself to determine what he believes and even who he is.

The postmodern charioteer is also without permanent holdings or tangible possessions. She may be wealthy, but her wealth is often quite transitory and based to some degree on smoke and mirrors rather than on anything one can touch and hold. The massive wealth that was made from the sale of stock in new e-commerce companies that had not even turned a profit yet – or the overnight losses in companies’ value and their employees’ net worth when unexpected bad news is made public – speak to this sense of impermanence, as do the many “virtual possessions” that people can now buy which are so readily disposable.

The Unbearable Lightness of Postmodern Being

Milos Kundera is often identified as one of the leading postmodern novelists. His perhaps most famous book is titled The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It describes the new forms of anomie (loss of identity) and alienation (sense of separation from everything and everybody) that was pervasive in Eastern Europe during the Soviet occupation. Many social observers of our time suggest that this novel speaks not just to the Soviet culture, but also to the postmodern culture to be found in many contemporary societies. Projecting this into our new century, Bill Joy would seem to be in support of this conclusion. He has rather cryptically suggested a pervasive weightlessness in our postmodern society:

George Carlin observed humorously that our houses are the places where we keep all our stuff, and that if we didn’t have so much stuff we could just wander around. As digitalization [of many commodities] drives the weight of things to zero, we are becoming much more nomadic. .  .  Physical retail spaces are getting replaced with virtual e-commerce places, eliminating the physical stores between the warehouses and the customer; college campuses for continuing education are being replaced with distance learning, eliminating the classrooms; buyers and sellers can find each other in online auctions, proving much more efficient markets. The encompassing trend is that most complex systems with centralized control are giving way to simple distributed systems. . . .

Joy further suggests that the new digital revolution not only encourages us to become weightless nomads. It also invades our privacy—further disrupting the boundaries between self and other:

As the wireless network makes us more nomadic, we clearly will have the power to remove bothersome space and time constraints from our lives. Yet the same technologies that make possible wireless ubiquity and nomadism threaten our privacy. . . . We are likely to find ourselves living in a world where every action will be watched the way the actions of celebrities are scrutinized today. The vulnerability and anxiety that we feel as our lives become electronic is already the stuff of Hollywood movies like The Net. . . .

Joy is not very optimistic about our changes of successfully addressing this potential invasion of privacy given our track record during the modern era:

The tendency will be for the new digital landscape to leave its inhabitants too exposed—cell phones ring in the theater, miniaturized Web cameras and microphones observe us clandestinely, data-mining reveals our habits and predilections. Will digital design save us by restoring some sense of privacy and anonymity? History suggests we can botch it badly. The last major man-made overlay on civilization’s landscape was the automobile. Even though we love our cars, we did a horrible job with them—they pollute, they isolate, and they have changed the landscape in ways that make them both incredibly frustrating and absolutely essential. If we are to build a new digital overlap on our world, we must do better this time.



09- The Tale of Three Organizations

September 2, 2008

[© Copyright. Feel free to link to this blog. Please ask author for permission before copying.]

[Derived from William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Ten Themes and Variations for Postmodern Leaders and Their Coaches. and from a forthcoming book, William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Building an Appreciative Organization: Themes and Strategies for Effective Postmodern Leaders, Consultants and Coaches. For information on both books contact me at P. O. Box 70, Harpswell, Maine 04079.]


Theme: 21st Century Leaders Are Faced with the Difficult Challenge of Working in Three Different Kinds of Organizations


Fundamental Question

How do we lead, consult and coach with in widely differing settings in which organizational culture varies and organizational structures and processes vary so widely?


In my two previous essays on this blog I described the fundamental nature of societies that might best be assigned the labels “premodern”, “modern” and “postmodern”. In this essay I briefly, but systematically, review many of the elements of three types of organizations and suggest several perspectives and strategies by which the leaders of contemporary organizations can survive in and even help to co-create our emerging postmodern world. Eight dimensions are commonly used by contemporary theorists and practitioners as focal points for their investigations and analyses of organizations: size, complexity, intentions, boundaries, communication, capital, worker values and leadership. Our analysis of the emerging postmodern organization will center on these eight elements. In the case of three of these dimensions we have combined two separate, but closely related, aspects of organizational life. Size and complexity tend to be closely related. Intentions and boundaries directly bear on one another, as do capital and worker values—especially when consideration is given to shifts in each of these dimensions during the premodern, modern and postmodern eras.


In essence, we have been proposing in this essay that major shifts have occurred in each of these dimensions as our world has moved from a premodern era (based in the extraction of natural resources and craft work) to a modern era (industrial and human-service based). Shifts of a similar magnitude are now occurring throughout the world (and particularly in the Western world) as we move into a postmodern world.


Size and Complexity

We find in the premodern era the dominance of simple organizational structures (usually based in the family unit) and an emphasis on gradual growth. By contrast, in the modern era, emphasis is placed neither on the process of growth itself nor on the gradual expansion in organizational capacity, but rather on the outcome of growth, i.e. large size and an accompanying increase in organizational efficiency and market share. Organizational structures are no longer simple in the modern era. However, these structures are usually uniform within and between organizations (being bureaucratic in nature). Furthermore, these structures are compatible with hierarchically based forms of leadership and authority, and with the highly energy-intensive and technologically driven processes of mass production.


In the movement to a postmodern era, emphasis tends to be placed not on growth and largeness, but instead on keeping things small or of moderate size. Structures are neither simple nor uniform—despite the emphasis on smallness. Rather, fragmentation and inconsistency typifies the postmodern organization. It is comprised of differing organizational structures, policies and procedures. While many people view this fragmentation and inconsistency as transitional in nature—between the modern era and some new, as yet undetermined, era—there is reason to believe that this will be a much longer- term condition of postmodern organizations.






















































Intentions and Boundaries

The premodern organization typically has tacitly held boundaries (particularly between work and family life) as well as tacitly held intentions. This doesn’t mean that boundaries and intentions are unimportant; rather the intentions and boundaries are taken for granted and rarely discussed.  There was little need for an explicit definition of organizational intentions since family members primarily performed the work of the premodern organization. Furthermore, their intentions focused almost exclusively on the provision of sufficient nutrition and shelter. Furthermore, even among those working in the trades, a formal statement of intentions was unnecessary since the product spoke for itself. A system of bartering and exchange of goods and services (for example, the farmer’s market) eliminated the need for any substantial monetary system.


In the modern era, boundaries are quite clear, while statements of intention have tended to remain rather unclear or inconsistent. In modern organizations, clear distinctions are made between the places where employees work and where they live, relax, and worship. We know when we are entering and leaving a modern organization and often define this organization by its sheer existence rather than with regard to its specific intentions. Thus, in the modern era, large organizations can buy up other organizations with relatively little regard for the compatibility of organizational intentions, and can diversify their enterprises primarily with regard to monetary or market gain, rather than with regard to some founding purpose or cause. In many cases, the mergers and acquisitions have resulted in impressive short-term financial gain and even in the rebirth of organizations that have been poorly managed or become stagnant. Longer-term consequences, however, have often been much less positive or even destructive to both organizations.


Frequently, the absent of a clear statement of intentions in modern organizations has been hidden behind the facade of fiscal accountability. The organization exists to produce a profit for the owner or the shareholders. Such a statement of intentions in the modern world heightens confusion or inconsistency in the identification and maintenance of long-term goals and sustaining values. While profits are often essential to the existence of a modern organization, they should not be the reason for its existence. Furthermore, profits rarely provide sufficient guidance to steer the leaders of modern organizations through the increasingly turbulent waters of our emerging postmodern world.


Postmodern conditions have precipitated a crisis with regard to both intentions and boundaries. In order to survive, most postmodern organizations have formulated clearer statements of intentions, in part because they usually no longer have clear boundaries. As specialty shops in postmodern corporate and human service malls, these organizations must find distinctive niches and become more adaptive in the manner in which they market, produce and deliver products and services. The leaders of organizations in the postmodern world repeatedly must re-examine their intentions, for the world in which they operate is constantly changing and demanding new and different products and services. Without a clear sense of intentions, these organizations soon splinter or become aimless vagabonds or scavengers that feed destructively on other organizations and segments of our society.






























































Oral forms of communication were dominant in the premodern world. Small, simple organizations allowed men and women to freely communicate face-to-face with one another. A strong sense of community and homogeneity of interests and values minimized the need for written documentation. With the emergence of industrialized and highly specialized modern organizations, there came an increasing need for written communication (contracts, letters of agreement, recordings of transactions and so forth) as a substitute for direct interpersonal contact. Rather than seeing and listening to another person, one reads her memorandum or written proposal. Other visual modes of communication also prevailed: television, film, graphics, and icon-based computer programs.


The postmodern world tends to be orally based—and in this sense more closely resembles the premodern than the modern world. In the postmodern organization we call each other and leave voice messages, rather than writing letters. We eliminate our secretaries and clerks, and seek to reduce paperwork. The Internet provides an opportunity for information and spontaneous communication to take place that seems more like extended conversation than a formal office memo. As computers are made available with even greater capacity and speed, we are likely to find that the written e-mail is replaced with the visual e-mail, making this mode of communication seem even more like face-to-face conversation.


In the postmodern era, short-term, face to face meetings, ad-hocracy, task forces and temporary systems have replaced long-standing bureaucratic structures that were dependent on written rules and the documentation of policies, procedures and program ideas. In this orally based world, gossip and story telling take on new relevance and appreciation, as does the interplay between communications and relationships. Words intermingle with nonverbal expressions of concern or happiness. People learn how to quickly bond together in temporary groups and then just as quickly disengage so that they can move on to different groups and different projects.


































Capital and Worker Values

Land and other natural resources (for example, gold, oil, and timber) are the dominant and most tangible forms of capital in the premodern era. Ancestry and reputation are two less tangible, but equally as important forms of premodern capital. The divine right of kings prevails. The Catholic Church has emphasized property and prohibited the use of money to make money, hence one could not charge interest on a loan. Thus, an emphasis was placed on property rather than money. Workers, in turn, tended to focus on shelter, food and water—and quality of life. They readily conformed because they looked outside themselves for the essentials of life. They looked toward people in positions of authority to provide both guidance and sustenance and asked for little in return.


The modern forms of capital, by contrast, have been money and buildings. Reputation and ancestry have become less important. The new wealth and new bourgeoisie is more liquid and more volatile. Rich men come and go. This new form of capitalism was supported by Calvinistic doctrine and by the Protestant churches that became more dominant and influential (at least in middle and upper classes) during the modern era. One’s worldly success (as manifest in the non-conspicuous accumulation of monetary wealth) is a sign of one’s predestined salvation. Thus, poverty is considered in some very basic sense to be sinful and a sign of one’s damnation, as is laziness and a questioning attitude about the dominant social order. This Protestant Ethic has dominated European-American notions about the meaning of work and capital for several centuries.


Modern workers no longer owned the business in which they worked, nor did they have a close familial (paternal) relationship with the person who did own the business in which they worked. Workers were now confronted with large, faceless corporations in which responsibility for worker welfare was absent or at best diffuse. As Marx suggested (at the start of the Modern era in Europe), workers were now alienated from the profits for which they toil. They no longer “owned” the products and services they were employed to provide. Thus, the primary motivators for workers in modern organization concerned assurance regarding job, wages and health. Modern workers wanted three things: job security, adequate pay and benefits (a living wage) and a safe work environment. They often unionized in order to obtain assurance in these three areas.


The new capital of the postmodern era is information and expertise. Approval (and its inverse, shame) are components of the new capital. Values of the postmodern worker compliment this new capital. Emphasis is placed on three motivating factors: the meaningful of the work, the ability to influence the work environment and the quality of interpersonal relationships among those working in the organization. The three modern motivators (job security, wages and safety) are still important. They must be addressed in a satisfactory manner prior to addressing postmodern motives. However, assurance regarding job security, wages and health is no longer sufficient. Increasing attention is given to the meaning of work and to recognition derived from colleagues and one’s boss(es) regarding the quality of one’s work. Quality of Work Life programs and Social-Technical Systems dramatically increase worker involvement in the design of production systems and even in daily decision making regarding purchase of equipment, composition of work teams and increased worker safety and security. The new values of the postmodern worker begin to border on the spiritual domain, as greater meaning, purpose and ownership is sought in one’s work and affiliation with an organization.
























































Leaders in the premodern era tended to be great men and women who were selected for their character and education. Great men not only led organizations, they also influenced history and established societal values. Leaders were either born to greatness or provided with an elitist program of liberal arts and mentorship. They tended to exert authority through a paternalistic concern for the welfare and proper education of those who depended on them. By contrast, the more democratic modern era tends to emphasize structures, processes and procedures that ensure the appropriate expression of leadership and influence. Events and structures—not great people—determine the course of modern history, and values are identified as products of the system and bureaucracy rather than as products of any specific individual(s). Emphasis was thus placed not on identifying or producing a great leader (as in the premodern society), but on constructing a great system. Those who head modern organizations typically define themselves as managers rather than leaders. They were to manage and be worthy stewards of the great system that had been created by other people (the nameless and faceless designers of bureaucracies). Modern authority is expressed through the autonomy of rules, regulations, roles and organizational structures.


The postmodern world has called both the premodern and modern notions of leadership into question. The postmodern leader is neither inherently great nor is she merely a product of a great system or bureaucracy. Greatness in a postmodern society involves interaction and great alignment between potentially great people and a potentially great system.  The postmodern leader can be found at any level of an organization. Individual leadership can be effectively exerted and will be influential if applied at the right time, in the right place, in the right manner, and with regard to the right problem or goal. This contextual model of leadership requires careful consideration of both individual and organizational character and style. It also requires a tolerance for ambiguity, recognition of the need for one to learn from his or her mistakes, and a clear sense of personal aspirations. It is ultimately spiritual rather than secular in nature.




















































08- The Tale of Three Societies: II. The Modern and Postmodern

August 25, 2008

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II. The Modern and Postmodern

Theme: Leaders are Embedded in Three Worlds

Fundamental Question

How do we lead, consult and coach in such widely differing social systems that now exist in our 21 Century world?

In my previous blog I described the fundamental nature of societies that might best be assigned the label “premodern.” In this blog I turn to two other societal structures: the modern and postmodern.

Modern Societies

The modern society is a byproduct of Western industrialization. As machine were being invented and built that enabled mass production, there was an increasing need for centralization of both capital (for the machines were very expensive) and a work force (to run the machines). Extended families from premodern communities were broken up as the younger members of the family were lured by the prospect of money and material possessions to the new urban centers of industry. Of even greater importance (especially in modern American life) was the creation of a new form of community—called the suburb. Often identified as “the sultans of sprawl,” William Levitt, James Rouse and Robert Moses led the way following World War II by creating the first large-scale housing developments (Levitttown, New York), commercial malls (Rouse) and expressways (Moses) to connect the suburbs to one another and the urban centers that employed the suburbanites.[i]

The new industrial workers discovered a new commodity: money. They soon substituted wages for the production (or bartering) of their own food or commodities. With the shift to a money-based economy came the vast expansion of financial institutions. While banks exist in premodern societies (primarily to serve the upper class), they play a much larger role in modern societies, serving not only as a safe repository for saved money, but also as a source of unearned money. The modern worker soon discovered that banks would enable them to spend money that they had not yet earned and to take out long-term loans to make major purchases (especially homes). Modern societies inevitably become communities of debt and money becomes the most valued entity in these societies.

Industrial workers also substitute employment in modern organizations for their premodern reliance on the extended family. The organization becomes their new source of security and they look to their work site for friendship and a sense of purpose and community. Increasingly, the modern worker also began to look to the government for basic social services: education, health, retirement. Thus, we find in the modern society not only expansion in the size of private industrial organizations, but also in the size and scope of public institutions. Public education, social welfare and medical services for the elderly became the givens of modern societies. Citizens no longer looked primarily to their family or to their church or other philanthropic organizations for support. Rather, government became the new guarantor of health and happiness. Government soon also entered the much more controversial arenas of organizational operations (labor law and affirmative action), family life (protection of children against abuse) and private morality (the right for women to abort an unborn child).

With mass production came a shift in focus from quality to quantity. Industrialization (and an accompanying capacity for widespread distribution of products) shifted the focus of economics to productivity. Industries (and the workers in these industries) were considered successful if they were highly productive. High levels of productivity in turn led to the need for marketing and a new emphasis on sales. Profit could only be derived from large volume sales (to make up for the initial costs associated with purchase of the mass production equipment). Productivity without sales yielded nothing but a costly surplus of goods. The modern era (in conjunction with the move to suburbia) brought about the department store, the franchise fast food industry, and the abiding concern about crab grass and lawn fertilizers. Thus, the industrial revolution became a Commercial Revolution.

While the premodern craftsman typically only made a product when it was requested and tended to custom make each item, mass production processes called for uniformity of product and for interchangeable parts. The new emphasis on uniform production and marketing and sales set the stage for new organizational roles that were not directly connected to the production process. These non-production roles in marketing, sales and production control were soon complimented by another set of organizational roles—those associated with the overall coordination of organizational functions. These roles (called “management”) soon came to dominate the culture of the modern organization and provided much of the leadership for 20th Century organizations. Thus, the industrial and commercial revolutions produced yet another revolution: the Managerial Revolution.

Postmodern Societies

The new social structures into which the more privileged people of the world are moving offers a remarkable mixture (hybrid/pastiche/mosaic) of the premodern, modern and postmodern. New communities are being formed that in some ways resemble the premodern villages of olden times—yet these new communities are formed around electronic communication systems and the new digital economies of the 21st Century. We are returning to bartering systems, but are now negotiating exchanges over the Internet rather than down at the Town Square. The big businesses of the modern era continue to exist, but are now competing or cooperating with the small e-commerce businesses of the postmodern world. We are returning to premodern rituals and spirituality, while proclaiming our modern-day independence from superstitions and dependence on science and technology. In a futuristic image offered by David Gelernter in Mirror World, the new world will be one in which the premodern sense of an intimate community is interwoven with postmodern technology:[ii]

Imagine that when you are in town, the town is aware of your presence, and of who your friends are and where they are. You may be driving along and be told that someone you haven’t seen for a while is having coffee just over there (and there is a parking space out front, too!) Simple things like this may begin to restore the human scale to our now-so-large cities.

Our new postmodern world comes to us complete with new heroes (ranging between Bill Gates and Madonna) and new legends (such as the sagas of Elvis Presley and Nelson Mandella – to mention the extremes). It also comes to us with great promises (universal education, abundant food sources, new forms of energy) as well as daunting challenges (over population, environmental collapse, virulent plagues). Each of these promises and challenges is global in nature and scope. A level of cooperation between nation-states is required that has never been achieved in either the premodern or modern era. The new global village must look to new strategies and discover new answers, while also honoring the wisdom and values of past eras. Our emerging postmodern era is perhaps best described as an edgy experience: we are poised on the edge of both chaos and order. We know something about what is to come, yet don’t know exactly what form the new will take. As Salmon Rushdie queried in his very postmodern and life-threatening (for him) novel, The Satanic Verse:[iii]How does newness come into the world? How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made? How does it survive extreme and dangerous as it is?”

Transition in Organizational

Forms and Roles

We propose that the transition from the premodern to the modern society has produced a comparable transition in the form that organizations take and the roles being played by people who work within these organizations. Furthermore, there are comparable changes in organizational forms and roles that are taking place with the transition from a modern to postmodern society. In many cases, technology is the common element in bringing about the transition from premodern to modern and from modern to postmodern in both social structures and organizational forms and roles. New machine-based technologies created the industrial era, which transformed the ways in which people lived.

These technologies also produced the organizational transformations from premodern to modern. A new machine that can produce five thousand widgets an hour replaces low wage workers who can each mold only two hundred widgets per hour. The workers are now shifted to jobs that require monitoring of machine output or to jobs requiring the packaging of the widgets to be shipped half way around the world. Other workers obtain a high school or even college education and enter the organization as marketing experts (so that potential buyers half way around the world will come to believe that their life is unfulfilled without widgets). Others enter the modern organization as accountants (since monetary exchange has replaced bartering in a world where purchasers live many miles away). The largest proportion of workers now enter the organization as managers (for all of the other functionaries in the organization need to be coordinated, motivated and assessed). Thus, from the introduction of new technologies into an organization comes a sequence of events and decisions that produce new organizational forms and new organizational roles.

A similar case can be made with regard to the transition from modern to postmodern social structures and organizational forms and roles. Technology has once again served as the primary transformer of both social and organizational structures. We are therefore in an excellent position to learn from the previous technological impacts that transformed our premodern societies. As Justin Fox noted in a special 1999 issue of Fortune (anticipating the new century):[iv]

. . . despite the prophets of the Digital Age who depict it as unprecedented, it’s not. Just take a look at business history—which really only begins about 500 years ago. That’s when the Commercial Revolution began in Western Europe, replacing eons of stagnation with global trade, sophisticated financial markets, increasing specialization of labor—and economic growth. This was a true revolution, a complete and total break with the past built around one of the essential realizations of the age, as laid out by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations in 1776: The true wealth of a nation is measured not by how much gold it possesses [the premodern emphasis on natural resources], but by what it can produce [the modern emphasis on productivity].

This laid the groundwork for a series of technology-related revolutions—of which the Internet is only the most recent. The most important of these breakthroughs made workers (and capital) more productive, and brought us to the unprecedentedly wealthy, unprecedentedly crowded, unprecedentedly connected, unprecedentedly complicated state in which we find ourselves. Once you look back at the early days of the factory, the railroad, the automobile, and especially the harnessing of electricity, a lot of what seems new about the Internet starts looking familiar. Better yet, you begin to get a sense of how this particular shakeup might play out.


[i] Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life in the New Frontier.

[ii] Bill Joy, “Design for the digital revolution,” Fortune, March 6, 2000, p. 15.

[iii]Quoted by Edmundson. Prophet of a New Postmodernism. Harper’s 1989.

[iv] Justin Fox, “How new is the Internet, really?” Fortune, November 22, 1999, pp. 174-175.

04- Poised on the Edge of Order and Chaos

July 27, 2008

[© Copyright. Feel free to link to this blog. Please ask author for permission before copying.]

[Co-Authored: William Bergquist and Agnes Mura]

[Derived from William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Ten Themes and Variations for Postmodern Leaders and Their Coaches. and from a forthcoming book, William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Building an Appreciative Organization: Themes and Strategies for Effective Postmodern Leaders, Consultants and Coaches. For information on both books contact Emily Browne, Administrator, Pacific Soundings Press, 3550 Watt Ave. Suite 140, Sacramento, California 95821.]

Theme: Acknowledging the Role of Chaos in Our Postmodern World

Fundamental Question

What might we learn from postmodern theorists, observers and critics as well as contemporary physicists and biologists about the nature of change as it is now occurring in 21st Century societies?

In a 1991 article in Scientific American that has become a classic in the field, Stuart Kauffman introduces a new concept of chaos and order. He describes three different categories or states in which many systems can be placed. One of these states is highly ordered and structured. Kauffman draws an analogy between this state and the solid state that water takes when it is frozen. A second state is highly chaotic. Kauffman equates this state with the gaseous form which water takes when it is evaporating. The third (most interesting) state is one of transition between order and chaos, which Kauffman equates with the liquid state of water. The differentiation between solid, gaseous and liquid networks can be of significant value in setting the context for any discussion of postmodernism in organizations—and, in particular, the irreversibility of many organizational processes. We must look not only at ordered networks—the so-called solid state—and at chaotic networks—the so-called gaseous state—but also at liquid networks that hover on the brink of chaos, if we are to understand and influence our unique postmodern institutions.

The third (liquid) state holds great potential when we examine and seek to understand confusing and often elusive organizational phenomena such as intentions, leadership and communication. Turbulent rivers, avalanches, shifting weather patterns, and other conditions that move between order and chaos typify the liquid state. Liquid systems contain chaotic elements as well as elements of stability. There are both quiet pools and eddies in a turbulent river. Mountain avalanches consist of not only rapidly moving volumes of snow but also stable snow packs on top of which, around which, or onto which the cascading snow moves. Stable and chaotic weather patterns intermingle to form overall climatic patterns on our planet.

The liquid state is one that is filled with edges and shifting boundaries. A liquid, edgy state is also filled with the potential for learning. A liquid system has the capacity to adjust and rework itself into an orderly, solid state. At certain points, however, the solid state (the eddy, the snow pack, or the stable weather pattern) reaches a super-critical state and can no longer adjust to the addition of another change or variant in pattern. At this point the system becomes fluid and an avalanche occurs. Portions of the system take on a very different form, and the system can once again adjust to the addition of a few changes or alterations in pattern. We would suggest that most organizations live on the edge, in the liquid state, poised on the edge of chaos. Furthermore, organizations are dynamic systems that can adjust based on quick and accurate feedback systems. This is first-order change. Yet, at a super-critical stage, organizations can no longer adjust. They can no longer accept any additional change or crisis. The one additional piece of straw has broken the camel’s back. An avalanche begins and the organization changes in a profound manner. This is second-order change. (see our initial description of first and second order change in essay 1.2)

The theory of self-organizing criticality (or weak chaos) and edginess suggests that small events (first order changes) such as a shift in leadership will usually produce only minor alterations in the structure and dynamics of the organization (the snow pack will get a bit wider or a bit higher). However, a change in leadership sometimes will create a major second-order alteration (an avalanche). Furthermore, while the outcomes are dramatically different, Bak and Chen have proposed that the same processes are involved in the initiation of both the minor and major changes, and that the onset of the major event can not be predicted—in part because the same process brings about both outcomes.

The liquid state and the edge are places of leadership and innovation (“the leading edge”). They are settings where things get done—yet often in the context of a very challenging and exhausting environment (what Peter Vail describes as a white water world). Edges have no substance. They come to a point and then disappear. Perhaps this is what the new postmodern edginess is all about—what Milan Kundera calls “the unbearable lightness of being.” We need to learn how to live and work in this new environment of edges. If this is the case, then perhaps we need to listen to the architects and prophets of postmodernism, for they may provide some valuable clues as to how this world might best be faced. These architects and prophets come in many different forms: deconstructionists, feminists, chaos theorists, structuralists. This blog is devoted, in part, to the examination of these postmodernists as they might help inform and revise our assumptions about the nature, purpose and dynamics of those organizations in which we live and work.

03- First and Second Order Change

July 21, 2008

[© Copyright. Feel free to link to this blog. Please ask author for permission before copying.]

[Co-Authored: William Bergquist and Agnes Mura]

[Derived from William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Ten Themes and Variations for Postmodern Leaders and Their Coaches. and from a forthcoming book, William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Building an Appreciative Organization: Themes and Strategies for Effective Postmodern Leaders, Consultants and Coaches. For information on both books contact Emily Browne, Administrator, Pacific Soundings Press, 3550 Watt Ave. Suite 140, Sacramento, California 95821.]

Theme: Acknowledging the Role of Revolution in Our Postmodern World

Fundamental Question

What might we learn from postmodern theorists, observers and critics as well as contemporary physicists and biologists about the nature of change as it is now occurring in 21st Century societies?

In the first essay (1.1), we noted that pendulums—and organizations—tend to move toward homeostasis (the same final state) and toward homeo-rhesis (the same pattern). It is difficult in any organization (operating like a pendulum) to change either the tendency to move toward a specific final state or to alter a pattern. Stasis and rhesis are typically only altered with profound—even revolutionary—change. Gregory Bateson describes this as second order change and contrasts this with first order change. Second order change is a process (like fire) that is irreversible. A second order change takes place when we decide to (or are forced to) do something different from what we have done before. A second order change occurs when an organization chooses to provide a new kind of compensation, rather than merely increasing or decreasing current levels of compensation. Rather than paying more money or less money, a leader pays her employees in some manner other than money (for example, stock in the company, greater autonomy, or a new and more thoughtful mode of personal recognition and appreciation). Second order change is required when a leader chooses not to increase or decrease his rate of communication with his subordinates (first order change), but rather to communicate something different to his subordinates than what he has ever communicated to them before. In other words, rather than talking more or talking less about something, this leader talks about something different.

In the case of any second order change, there is a choice point when an organization begins to move in a new direction. Once this choice point is traversed (what systems theorists call the point of bifurcation or what poets call the fork-in-the-road) there is no turning back. Once the fire has begun, one can’t unburn what has already been consumed. One can extinguish the fire, but a certain amount of damage has already been done and a certain amount of warmth has already been generated. Once a leader has changed the way in which she compensates my employees, there is no turning back (as many leaders have found in their unionized organizations). Once a leader has begun to talk with his subordinates in a candid manner about their performance, he can’t return to a previous period of indirect feedback and performance reviews. Once the story has been told, there is no returning to the moment before the story was first told. There is no untelling a story.

In summary, the concepts of reversibility and irreversibility relate directly to those of pendulums and fires, and first and second order change. Just as some changes are first order and others are second order, and some look like the adjustment of a pendulum while others look like fire, so it is the case that some changes appear to be reversible and others irreversible. Those organizational change processes that can be reversed involve the restoration of balance or style. They typically are first order in nature. These processes resemble the dynamics of a pendulum. Other organizational change processes are irreversible. They bring about transformation and parallel the combustion processes of fire, rather than the mechanical processes of the pendulum. Second order change is typically associated with these irreversible processes of combustion.

Throughout the essays offered on this blog, we explore, either directly or indirectly, the nature of irreversible, second order changes in our emerging postmodern world. The implications of organizational irreversibility are profound, for major problems often emerge when organizational fires are mistaken for organizational pendulums. The 1991 Soviet coup, for instance, appears at least from a short-term perspective to exemplify an irreversible, combustible form of change. Whereas the coup leaders thought that the Soviet Union would continue to operate as a pendulum with each new group of leaders restoring the government to its previous state, the people on the streets saw this as an opportunity to bring about a fire—a second order change. There was going to be a change in the very process of change itself. This new order of things was not one of restoration, but rather one of transformation. Even if the new Russian order fails, there will never be a return to the old order. There will never again be a Soviet Union as we knew it during the years of the Cold War. The story can not be untold.

02- From the Pendulum to the Fire

July 13, 2008

[© Copyright. Feel free to link to this blog. Please ask author for permission before copying.]

[Co-Authored: William Bergquist and Agnes Mura]

[Derived from William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Ten Themes and Variations for Postmodern Leaders and Their Coaches. and from a forthcoming book, William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Building an Appreciative Organization: Themes and Strategies for Effective Postmodern Leaders, Consultants and Coaches. For information on both books contact Emily Browne, Administrator, Pacific Soundings Press, 3550 Watt Ave. Suite 140, Sacramento, California 95821.]

Theme: Acknowledging Irreversibility in Our Postmodern World

Fundamental Question

What might we learn from postmodern theorists, observers and critics as well as contemporary physicists and biologists about the nature of change as it is now occurring in 21st Century societies?

Contemporary organizational theory—and, for that matter, most organizational theory during the past century—has been built upon a solid, mechanistic foundation. Many successful organizations during the Twentieth Century operated as well oiled systems. This perspective was key to the success of corporate enterprise during what Henry Luce called The American Century. These organizations imported resources from the outside (such as raw materials, employees, capital, sales orders and customers). They then provided some sort of transformation upon these imported resources (such as converting iron to automobiles, or untrained children to properly educated citizens). Finally these finely tuned organizations exported the transformed product to other organizations located in the external world. Unfortunately, these organizations are often ill equipped to deal with the highly turbulent, complex and unpredictable world of the Twenty First Century.

The mechanistic organization of the Twentieth Century ran like a pendulum. A pendulum epitomizes elegance and simplicity in motion. We can disrupt the course of the pendulum by giving it an added push or by bumping into it and slowing it down. In either case, the pendulum will adjust its course and continue swinging back and forth at a greater or lesser magnitude. The pendulum, in modern systems theory terms, will always return to a homeostatic balance, retaining its basic form or pathway. Systems theorists would suggest that organizations tend to return to their previous form and function even with disruptions and interference. While the contemporary organization may seem to be chaotic and in disarray, we are (according to many modern theorists) merely witnessing a long term process of homeostatic readjustment and an ultimate return to a former state or style of functioning.

Is this mechanistic analogy to the pendulum still accurate for Twenty First Century organizations? Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, suggests that many processes in nature (including perhaps those exhibited by organizations) don’t match very well with the mechanistic world of the pendulum—as much as scientists throughout the ages would like the world to resemble this orderly pendulum. Rather, many processes of the world are likely to resemble the phenomenon that we call fire. Fire is a perplexing problem in the history of science. Prigogine notes that modern scientists, in an effort to create a coherent mechanistic model of the world, have tended to ignore the complex, transformative processes of fire, concentrating on only one of its properties: the capacity to generate heat. Fire thus became a heat machine for scientists and was treated in a mechanistic manner.

Fire, however, has many fascinating properties. Most importantly, it is an irreversible process: it consumes something that can not be reconstructed. Those of us who live in the San Francisco Bay Area were tragically attuned to this phenomenon during the early 1990s, as we watched the irreversible destruction of our neighbor’s homes in the Oakland Firestorm. These homes could never be “unburned.” There would never be a readjustment in the community that was destroyed by the fire. There could only be the construction of new homes and a new community. Many other processes of change and transformation are similarly irreversible. Avalanches can never be undone, nor can Pandora’s Box ever be closed once the lid is opened and the evil spirits have escaped. Rumors can never be totally dispelled once they are let out of their box, just as the good old times can never be restored, despite the efforts of Walt Disney, Frank Capra and other purveyors of nostalgia.

We are reminded of early childhood experiences. One of us was having a debate with a cousin. This debate like all debates during childhood concerned one of the “fundamental” issues of life. In this instance we were arguing about whether or not anything is impossible. I argued that anything is possible. My cousin argued that some things are impossible and offered an example: “you can’t return the toothpaste to a tube once you have squeezed it out!” I had no good rebuttal to that argument and was very impressed with this evidence. Until recently I had no category in which to place this example of impossibility—or more accurately irreversibility. Many changes in organizations operate like toothpaste that has just been squeezed from the tube. I suppose you could get it back in the tube—but what a mess! And would the tube of toothpaste ever really be the same again? We squeeze out organizational truths in moments of frustration or anger and can never cover them up again (a variation on Pandora’s Box). We tentatively consider a change in organizational structure, but the word gets out and we are soon stuck with this change whether we like it or not. We become bound up in complex and paradoxical relationships and can’t undo them—except by divorce. The equilibrium has been disturbed, chaos often follows, and there is no returning home as the same person we were when we left. Time moves in one direction and can not be reversed.

A second remarkable characteristic of fire is its ephemeral nature. It is all process and not much substance. As Prigogine notes, the Newtonian sciences concentrated on substances and the ways in which forces operated on various substances. It became the science of being. Fire, by contrast, is a science of becoming. Science of being, notes Prigogine, focuses on the states of a system, whereas a science of becoming focused on temporal changes—such as the flickering of a flame. Fire demands a focus not on the outcomes of a production process, but on the nature of the process itself. As adults, we often focus on the outcomes of our children’s creative work. We admire their drawings of sunsets or battles among alien forces. Yet, our children tend to focus on the process of drawing. Their picture is not a static portrait. Rather it is story that is unweaving as the child places various lines on the page. In a similar manner we must often focus on the ways in which decisions are made in organizations, or the styles being used to manage employees, rather than focusing on the final decisions that are made or the relative success of the employee’s performance. Unfortunately, organizational processes (like fires) are elusive. They are hard to measure and even harder to document in terms of their ultimate impact on an organization.

Pendulums operate in a quite different manner from fire. First, the movement of a pendulum is quite predictable, whereas fire is very unpredictable. Once we know the initial parameters of the pendulum (length of stem, force being applied when pendulum is first pushed in a specific direction, and so forth) we can predict virtually everything of importance about this mechanistic and relatively closed system. Even without this initial information, we can readily predict the future movement of the pendulum after observing its trajectory once or twice.

A second important feature of the pendulum that makes it a favorite of many modern day scientists is its primary connection to one of the central building blocks of Newtonian science, namely, gravity. While fire seems to defy or at least be indifferent to gravity, flickering about as if it was without weight or form, our noble pendulum provides clear evidence that gravity is present and operating in a uniform and predictable manner on objects of substance. The pendulum is a tool that readily is transformed into a technology (for example, the Swiss watch), based on its dependability and conceptual accessibility. Fire, by contrast, can burn and rage uncontrolled. Once started, fires tend to take on a life of their own, seemingly defying the laws of entropy. Pendulums gradually lose energy and obey the laws of entropy. They will stop when they receive inadequate attention and never rage out of control.

A third feature of the pendulum is the reversibility of its process. The pendulum must swing back and forth, repeatedly moving back to a space that it occupied a short time before. The pendulum, like many mechanistic systems, frequently undoes what has already been done in order for the system to remain in equilibrium and in operation. A pendulum that swings in only one direction (“to but not fro”) would soon be replaced by one that works properly. Organizations that operate like pendulums shift in one direction. They then soon correct themselves and shift back in the opposite direction. Large inventories are soon corrected by a drop in production orders. Later, production orders are increased to make up for a drop in inventory.

In organizations that resemble pendulums, homeostasis is always preserved—eventually. The organization keeps returning to an ideal or minimally acceptable state. Homeorhesis (a Greek word referring to the tendency of organizations to return to a common pathway or style) is also preserved. Leaders of the organization oversee, review and readjust the organization’s mode of operation in order to return to a desired path, style or strategy. Time reverses itself and even restores itself as the organization returns to a previous stasis or “rhesis.” The exceptional biologist and anthropologist, Gregory Bateson speaks of this as “first order” change. In essence, a first order change is one in which people in an organization are doing more of something that they are already doing or less of something that they are already doing. They bring about first order change as a way of returning to some desired state of being (homeostasis). We spend more money on a computer system in order to reduce our customer response time to a former level. We reduce the cost of a specific product in order to restore our competitive edge in the market place. We pay our employees higher wages in order to bring back the high level of morale and productivity in the company. First order changes are always reversible, because we can go back to the drawing board and repeatedly readjust our change effort, while being directed by feedback systems that provide us with information about how we are performing relative to our standard or goal.

In our next blog we will say more about first order change and consider the role played in organizations by second order change and by the processes of reversible (pendulums) and irreversible (fire) transformations.

01- Introduction

July 6, 2008

[© Copyright. Feel free to link to this blog. Please ask author for permission before copying.]

This blog provides a venue where I can share with my colleagues some ongoing reflections regarding three fundamental themes that I have written about or spoken about in many different organizations and many different countries over the past forty years:

  • The Postmodern Condition in the lives of individuals, leaders, organizations and societies as this condition leads to increasing complexity, unpredictability and turbulence in our world. [I will also be sharing my thoughts about the emergence of a profound new societal trend that I describe as “an age of irony.”]
  • An Appreciative Perspective that can be applied with great success by 21st Century leaders, consultants, coaches and other people who are engaged in the challenging task of influencing rather than controlling other people, and understanding rather than predicting the dynamic nature and outcomes of interpersonal relationships.
  • Radically Shifting Knowledge regarding the human psyche, based on the cognitive and neurobiological revolutions that are occurring simultaneously and interactively in the various biological and behavioral sciences.

A central tenet of my postmodern perspective regarding leadership concerns the complex, unpredictable and turbulent context in which postmodern leaders, consultants and coaches have to choose, act and define themselves. A central tenet of my reflections on the cognitive and neurobiological revolutions concerns the multi-dimensional nature of human thought and feeling, and the profound challenges being faced by 21st Century leaders, consultants and coaches who must make sense of these various dimensions when navigating through the complexity, unpredictability and turbulence of postmodernity.

I intend that this blog will provide brief weekly essays and tools which relate to themes that describe postmodern conditions and build on what we are learning from the biological and behavioral sciences. I also prescribe a specific set of strategies for addressing the challenges inherent in these themes—strategies that reside in the process of appreciation and that lead to the creation and maintenance of a culture of appreciation. Many of these essays and tools will be co-authored with one of my colleagues and provide previews of a book that I am authoring or co-authoring. These essay and tools will also, in many instances, include a consulting or coaching case study based on my own experiences—or the experiences of my co-author—that exemplify the use of an appreciative approach with regard to one or more of three dimensions of organizational transformation: structural change, change in process and change in attitude.

This blog is intended to provide insight and direction for leaders and for those who consult to or coach these leaders. I sketch out some thought-provoking themes from philosophy, psychology and the sciences that underlie our life-and-work experience, and invite leaders and their coaches and consultants to become familiar with these themes—so that they can then invent their own responses and variations. This is also a “how-to” blog. It provides reflections about living in flux and guidelines for engaging, through appreciation, in this postmodern world of flux. This blog is about making choices and decisions—creative and courageous acts in the face of complexity, uncertainty and turbulence. The essays and tools contained on this blog are about finding multiple ways to apply powerful appreciative perspectives as leaders, consultants and coaches. I hope that you find what I write to be distinctive and perhaps a source of insight for you in your own engagement with our postmodern world.