Modern Physics has long done away with the notion that we can know anything with
certainty yet most management theories and practice seem to be based on a Newtonian
view of ‘knowability’. True leadership recognises that we never know what to do but
this very uncertainty demands that we must act decisively.
As I write this The Age reports that overnight
Jones Industrial Average
fell below 9000 points for the first time since 2003. Maybe by the time you
read this it will have fallen below 8000. Maybe it will have recovered to be
over 10,000. As I heard Craig
James say at a business breakfast this morning, “No
In all my experience as a consultant, the question I am most often asked is “How
do we know what we should do?” This question comes in many forms. Sometimes
my client acts as though I know exactly the solution to their problem – after
all that’s what they pay me for isn’t it. Sometimes I feel like
telling them not only do I have no idea of the solution, I’m not even
sure what the problem is. Unfortunately I more often fall into the trap of
believing the client’s trust in my omniscience is well placed. I believe
that I should know the answer or at least, if I don’t. I should act as
though I do. I justify this by convincing myself that if I work hard enough,
study the client’s situation in enough detail and read enough of what ‘the
experts’ say, both THE PROBLEM and THE ANSWER will become clear to me.
It is at times like this that I forget the greatest service I can give to
my client is to not know. My client knows their business and their organisation
better than I ever can. When I feel like I have to know, or have to look like
I know I can’t ask the dumb questions that everyone wants to ask but
no one dares. With grateful acknowledgment to a dear colleague, I call this
the Colombo model of consulting.
The same is true for leadership. It takes courage to admit you don’t
know what to do yet perhaps the greatest failures of leadership throughout
history have been made by those who acted out of this fear. In the current
economic situation, doing nothing is not an option. Global treasury officials
and financial chiefs must act in the full knowledge that there is no higher
authority to which they can turn who can provide them with just the right settings
to avert a catastrophe, History will judge them harshly if they get it wrong.
belief arises from the triumph of the industrial age where we have come to
think of organisations as machines.
As Danah Zohar puts it:
Classical physics transmuted the living cosmos of Greek and medieval times,
a cosmos filled with purpose and intelligence and driven by the love of God
for the benefit of humans, into a dead, clockwork machine … Things moved
because they were fixed and determined; cold silence pervaded the once-teeming
heavens. Human beings and their struggles, the whole of consciousness, and
life itself were irrelevant to the workings of the vast universal machine” The
Quantum Self: Human Nature and Consciousness Defined by the New Physics,
It seems like more than a lifetime ago that I completed my first degree which
was in Physics. An area of knowledge that I spent 10 years teaching and which
still excites me. In the last act of my last lecture in my undergraduate degree,
my lecturer wrote in letters filling the whole board:
GOD PLAYS DICE
This was a reference to Einstein’s
disagreement with Neils
Bohr and Werner
Heisenberg over the validity of Quantum
Mechanics at the fifth
Solvay Conference in 1927. By this time, Einstein’s
theory of General
Relativity was well known in the Physics world. On the other
hand Bohr and Heisenberg’s Quantum Mechanics was very new. Central to
Quantum Mechanics is the probabilistic nature of the universe. That is that
objects behave according to a well defined probability but their individual
actions are completely unpredictable. An electron, for example, could spend
most of its time close to an atom on the page on which you are reading this.
However, there is a small, but not zero, probability that in one moment it
will be on the other side of the universe without ever having been anywhere
in between here and there. We cannot predict when an electron might choose
to jump such a great distance just that there is a chance it will.
In 1927 Einstein could not bring himself to believe this disorderly behaviour
and made his famous statement “I
cannot believe that God plays dice.” Although
he appears to have eventually come to an accommodation with Quantum Mechanics,
many commentators believe he wasted the second half of his life attempting
to develop a theory that unified Relativity and Quantum Physics. Today there
are about as many physicists who reject quantum theory as the number who believe
in a flat earth.
You may or may not find this interesting. The point I want to make though is
the implications this has for management and leadership. When we lead and
manage, is it possible, at least in theory, to analyse every problem or are
we, like God, merely playing dice.
Many people I talk to find this concept quite discomfiting. We have, most of
us, been brought up with the notion of Scientific
Management. That is, with
appropriate analytical tools and a sufficient level of application, we can
design the optimum organisation with the best possible processes to meet the
challenges that face us. We can design instruments that measure our performance,
measure potential employees skill sets, aptitude and psychological suitability
for the tasks we know need doing. Finally we can determine the market requirements
and design products and services that perfectly dovetail with them. That we
don’t is due to our own failings rather than the failure of theory.
This view of the world has served us well for several centuries – as
classical physics did up to the nuclear age. But in the same way that classical
physics is inadequate to describe and predict the complex interactions of
sub-atomic particles that have led to a revolution in technology, management
and leadership based on that same classical science is inadequate to deal
with a world where information and capital can travel at the speed of light.
The failures of traditional (think bureaucratic) organisations didn’t
matter when the pace of change was so much slower. But, as Margaret
Wheatley points out:
Our seventeenth century organisations are crumbling. We have prided ourselves
, in all these centuries since Newton and Descartes, on the triumph of reason,
on the absence of magic. Yet we, like the best magicians of old, have been
hooked on manipulation. For three centuries, we’ve been planning, predicting,
and analyzing the world. We’ve held on to an intense belief in cause
and effect. We’ve raised planning to highest of priestcrafts and imbued
numbers with absolute power. We look to numbers to describe our economic
health, our productivity, our physical well-being. We’ve developed
graphs and charts and plans to take us into the future, revering them as
ancient mariners did their chart books. Without them, we’d be lost,
adrift among the dragons. We have been, after all, no more than sorcerers,
the master magicians of our time.” Leadership and the New Science 1999.
Similarly Clegg and Hardy observe:
David Silverman’s (1971) The Theory of Organizations … interpretative
emphasis countered the functionalist view. It opened a Pandora’s box,
releasing actors as opposed to systems, social construction as opposed to
social determinism; interpretative understanding as opposed to a logic of
causal explanation; plural definitions of situations rather than the singular
definition articulated around organizational goals. Studying Organization
In the same way the Quantum Physics has required scientists to learn and
adopt a whole raft of new thinking, so must leaders, managers and participants
We can no longer think of our organisations as machines reducible to their
component parts. We must think of them as networks of relationships. No longer
is it adequate to dream that, like the great Watchmaker, we can control all
the levers a dials and set the precise course our organisation will take.
Rather, like a gardener, we can cultivate, water and fertilize.
Perhaps more importantly, we can no longer believe that one person determines the destiny of an organisation. Perhaps this is the remaining, yet most enduring vestige of the industrial age. A belief rather than dying out as its usefulness diminishes has paradoxically become the supreme article of faith of modern commerce.
The central lessons from modern science though are:
- not only do we not know how our plans will turn out, we cannot know
- the greatest untapped creative ability in our organisations is their ability to self-organise – if only we have the courage to let them, and
- it is far more important to look at a problem as a whole rather as a series of separately solvable parts.