Thursday, December 16, 2010

Beginning Critique of A New Paradigm for Organizational Theory

Margaret Wheatley has written a fascinating book, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (Berrett-Koehler, 2006), in which she employs insights from the "new" science (post-Newtonian physics and so forth) to posit organizational theory change. Using chaos theory and quantum physics as well as self-organizing living eco-system theory, she says that disequilibrium and chaos are good qualities that reveal creativity and organizational life and health. Organizations are unchanged, she believes, by applying mechanistic models that are outdated and don't work anyway. "There is no objective reality out there waiting to reveal its secrets. There are no recipes or formulas, no checklists or expert advice that describe 'reality.'" (p. 9) The earth itself, she posits, has an amazing ability to right itself, to "respond to change and disorder by reorganizing itself at a higher level of organization" (using a theory developed by Ilya Prigogine, p. 12). And, "ethical and moral questions are no longer fuzzy religious concepts but key elements in the relationship any organization has with colleagues, stakeholders and communities." (p. 14) Organizational vision and values may be "unseen but real forces that influence people's behavior" rather than the traditional "picture of a preferred future" produced by a "charismatic leader." (p. 15)

One of the recommendations for Wheatley's book came from a pastor in Canada who was very "encouraged that there is still reason to believe ardently in the great resilience of the human spirit to re-invent itself over and over again, whether we view it fractally or as the first signs of a dawning and long awaited millennium of harmony and happiness for everyone." I have just started reading through this book with my accountability partner. I am interested in new leadership initiatives and organizational theory as well as scientific insights given my background and training in mathematics, philosophy and logic. So this blog is about "first impressions."

First, I am encouraged that this "new" approach to leadership and organizational theory has jettisoned the old mechanistic materialistic science where the human, relational, and even faith elements were forbidden territory. Our old trust that "science [industrial, Newtonian science] has all the answers" has certainly failed us, and failed us miserably. We do live in an interdependent world, and there are forces that cannot be materialistically understood that affect everything. I do church organizational work, and the old paradigms of "adding" faith to organizational theories and structures are wanting. They do not work well, if at all, in many cases.

But I must reserve judgment here. Will this "new" science in organizational theory and life simply "replace" the old science, with all of its anti-faith restrictions? Will the foundational evolutional theory so infuse this new approach that God and faith have nothing to say to us about organizations? Will this simply be another trumping of the "new" realities of the new science over faith? It seems so at first sight.

Second, the internal earth replenishment theories that say the earth and its environment can handle chaos and simply rejuvenate itself without any outside force or help from a providential God places humankind or "mother earth" squarely as the "master or god" of this world. These relational "forces" between people can then be seen as mere evolutionary development of the human spirit, and we have the power, the knowledge and the ability to right a chaotic world by our own intelligence, wisdom and know-how. We don't need faith or God at all in this newly defined world order. That reasoning and perspective should trouble the Christian greatly.

Third, to suppose there are no universal truths or laws and that everything depends "on its context" defiantly goes against divine biblical revelation that says there is a Creator God who has pre-defined everything and orders this world and universe according to His unconditioned and unconditional will. Our "discoveries" are but the unveiling of truths given by God Himself to be found and unlocked for use by creaturely humankind. We don't "create" in these sense of "create out of nothing."

Fourth, the "forces" that Wheatley talks about existing between matter I see as the sustaining power of Jesus Christ as the One who "holds all things together" by His command and fiat (Colossians 1:17, where a very technical term is used). This is not swamp gas or ethereal evolutionary societal understanding or undefined particle forces. This is God-at-work.

I am happy that Wheatley is debunking the old science. What remains to be seen by Christians and people of faith is where she places our hope as we investigate the applications of the new science to leadership and organizational dynamics.