The Minding Organization: Chapter 3

Adapting and Planning

Complex systems cannot be studied by the time-honored scientific approach of breaking the system into its smallest components and studying them separately, then inferring total system behavior from the behavior of the separate parts.  This scientific approach, known as reductionism, fails to consider the most important aspect of complex system behavior. This aspect is the unplanned and undirected, spontaneous interaction of the components in the process of self-organization.  The interaction allows the system to adapt to a changing, uncertain, chaotic environment environment that cannot be fully anticipated as the future unfolds and becomes the present.

Adaptation is the central characteristic of complex systems that operate in part with no plan.


To adapt, we must position the system on the edge of chaos. Clusters of the system are given the authority to experiment, interact with other systems, go off on tangents, wander off course to explore what is out there, and falter many times before there is a big payoff resulting from spontaneous, breakthrough innovation.  This can be achieved in a system that has balanced the unplanned with the planned responses; a system which is flexible, unplanned , and chaotic enough to permit exploration, innovation, and adaptations, together with planned responses that are steady and orderly, but not to the point of a rigidly frozen state of order.

Organizations Plan Too Much

There is too much planning in organizations today. The metaphors of the past 30 years are not working. Half as much planning as is presently done will be more than enough for starters. Even the nature of the planned portion will have to change if we are to embrace a model of chaos and uncertainty in system behavior as the most suitable for adapting to a world characterized by chaos and uncertainty.  Long-range strategic planning has seen its heyday. We must learn to bring the future closer to the present and very often respond to events in real time as they unfold.  The majority, as many as two-thirds, of the organizations that have come into being in the last 10 years emerged quickly, with no long-range plan at all. They define self-organization in action.  These new creations were more of a result of innovative, creative thinking in which the future was brought into the present, rather than any particular planning. Obsessive planning parallels the obsession with centralized control. Both may lead to excessive rigidity with no room for adaptation.

Making a Half-Plan

An important message repeatedly surfaced regarding the human organism, and it is the basic message of our book. The minding organization as an organism must plan for the future 50%  and it must be ready to respond to the 50% that cannot be anticipated.

It is the unrehearsed, unplanned, new movement, thought, perception, language, and emotion that is produced by human beings that is the act of creating. Movement, thought, perception, language, and emotion stored by past experiences, training, and rehearsing, can be reproduced from the planned. We can safely conclude that human experience nearly always involves both the earlier stored part, which is reproduced, and the newly created part, which is produced.  The balance between the two varies. At the extreme, when we predominantly reproduce responses, there is a great deal of constancy, little surprise, and much repetition as time marches on.  We have the sterility of near-perfect order. On the other hand, when we predominantly produce new, varied, and unrehearsed responses, we are constantly surprised, because we never know what will come next. We have the visibility of near chaos.

On a daily basis we should act with the balance of the planned and unplanned responses. We all have a capacity for creativity. We also have the capacity for innovation – putting new ideas, our own and those of others, to practical use. How much creativity an innovation take place depends on how much tolerance people and organizations have for the unplanned. Highly ordered and planned organization stifle creativity and innovation. The emerging organization that embrace the chaos and uncertainty of the unplanned thrive on creativity and innovation. Such organizations are relentless in experimenting and improvising to constantly find better and simpler ways of adapting in an interactively linked universe of systems, at times competing and at times cooperating, in their quest to survive and thrive.

Entrepreneurial organization all start out with such seat-of-the-pants thinking and acting. Such young organization have few rules and much vision. The goal is to carve a niche for themselves and they actively seek new opportunities for growth.  Their willingness to adapt and change is strong because they have no stake in any preconceived way of doing things.  Gradually, however, as they become successful, organizational thinking loses its flexibility and becomes more fossilized. The company grows to have a stake in maintaining the status quo, with resources dedicated to its preservation. To thrive in an ever-changing world, and to keep up with entrepreneurial upstarts who would like nothing more than to replace them, organizations must reincorporate the attitude toward chaos that made them good to begin with.

The Tradition of long-range planning is losing its relevance. We must learn to embrace uncertainty and chaos, using flexible short-term plans that are based equally on uncertainty and chaos. A metaphor for the organizations of the past were the railroads with their fixed tracks, fixed stations for passengers to embark and disembark, fixed and closely monitored times of arrival and departure. The plan for operations was frozen, to eliminate the uncertainty of the unexpected to the extent possible. Order reigned supreme. This was the model that organizations tried to emulate in the past. The passengers of the railroad and the customers of like-minded corporations had to adapt to the plans of the respective organizations. You could go on a train any place, any time, as long as the place and time were in the plans predetermined by the railroad, just as you could alter get a Ford in any color you wanted, provided you wanted black.

A metaphor for the organizations of the future is taxis cruising the roads of major cities, looking to pick up passengers. Taxis cruise in a somewhat random manner, without fixed stations, and without fixed times of arrival and departure. Uncertainty, surprise, and the unexpected are the rule. Whereas the railroads have no traffic jams (in fact, traffic is stopped to let trains go through, to ensure that the plan is not disrupted), for the taxi traffic jams are a possibility, but then the taxi can adapt and use alternate surface roads, making just-in-time decisions as events unfold on the road. The taxi has some rules of conduct – fixed pickup location sin airports and hotels, traffic lights and laws that must be obeyed, and a taxi may have arrangements with some customers for fixed and regular pickup times. Even while cruising the city streets, the route taken by a taxi is not entirely random, because it follows a path that tries to match the randomness in time and place of potential passengers. Thus, some streets will have more taxis cruising, others fewer. As demand changes because of new office buildings and hotels, or the demolition of such buildings, the number and frequency of taxis cruising the streets change. Although the system has a communication center, scheduled maintenance, and other planned activities, it is a self-organization system to a degree. It embraces uncertainty, chaos, and the unexpected by adapting a flexible, random plan with a repertoire of responses that attempts to match the uncertainty and chaos of the world within which it operates. The organization of the future will embrace the metaphor of the taxi, in which uncertainty is a reality, and the need to perpetually adapt to new emerging realities is a way of life.

People Are the Real Assets

He suggests that successful efforts to adapt to change depend on individuals and their collective action, not on financial resources and corporate policies. Trust and respect are the driving forces that empower people to successfully adapt to change.

In the organization that is emerging, the real assets will not go home at night because they will not go to work in the morning; they will work wherever they are.

Self-Organization Sparks Creativity

One attribute of self-organizing systems is adaptation. The brain adapts to inputs from the environment, the body adapts to infection and injury, and organizations adapt to changing realities and market condition.

A second attribute of complex self-organizing systems is more amazing and illuminating. It appears that complex systems tend to position themselves at the boundary between operating in a stable fashion, based on a set plan, and at the same time responding with creativity and innovation to unplanned, unrehearsed, and unexpected developments that call for change, flexibility, and risk.  This boundary is the edge of chaos. Moving too far away from this edge toward the planned and stable, the system freezes and become sterile; moving too far toward the unplanned, the system collapses in chaos and disarray.

A third attribute of complex self-organizing systems has a most profound effect on the likelihood for adaptation on the edge of chaos. This is the size of the system, and the amount of diversity within it. Innovation occurs best in small groups of diverse backgrounds. Uniformity and sameness, with no intellectual and cultural diversity, stifle innovation. With our increasing reliance on “global togetherness” through cyberspace and mass media, many individual differences may disappear; the implication for creativity , adaption, and innovation may be deadly.






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