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Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (Revised) by Margaret J. Wheatley

In our organizations, communities, and personal lives, we struggle to discover how to create change. The irony is that our struggle takes place in a world that changes constantly, that is quite adept at change. I believe that our greatest hope for moving past the ineffective change processes that plague us is to ally ourselves with life. If we can understand how life changes, we will dance more gracefully in this dynamic universe.

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The destination has changed for me. I realize that the work is not to introduce a few new ideas, but to change a world view. Now that I understand that this is our work, there are different things required of us, not just some new implementation techniques. If, in fact, we are all voyaging to discover a new world, then we need to be together in this work differently, with greater patience, compassion, and courage. I comment on a few aspects of the journey and the ways we must join together.

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The quantum world teaches that there are no pre-fixed, definitely describable destinations. There are, instead, potentials that will form into real ideas depending on who the discoverer is and what she is interested in discovering.

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To quote Heisenberg again: “The violent reaction to the recent development of modern physics can only be understood when one realizes that here the foundations of physics have started moving; and that this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.”

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Each of us lives and works in organizations designed from Newtonian images of the universe. We manage by separating things into parts, we believe that influence occurs as a direct result of force exerted from one person to another, we engage in complex planning for a world that we keep expecting to be predictable, and we search continually for better methods of objectively measuring and perceiving the world.

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In the quantum world, relationship is the key determiner of everything. Subatomic particles come into form and are observed only as they are in relationship to something else. They do not exist as independent “things.”

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And at the grandest level of scale, looking at the earth as a whole, is the Gaia theory, first proposed by James Lovelock. There is increasing support for his hypothesis that the earth is a self-regulating system, a planetary community of interdependent systems that together create the conditions which make life possible (see Lovelock 1988, Margulis 1998).

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There are many attempts to leave behind the view that predominated in the twentieth century, when we believed that organizations could succeed by confining workers to narrow roles and asking only for very partial contributions. As we let go of the machine model of organizations, and workers as replaceable cogs in the machinery of production, we begin to see ourselves in much richer dimensions, to appreciate our wholeness, and, hopefully, to design organizations that honor and make use of the great gift of who we humans are.

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Many scientists now work with the concept of fields—invisible forces that occupy space and influence behavior. I have played with the notion that organizational vision and values act like fields, unseen but real forces that influence people’s behavior. This is quite different from more traditional notions that vision is an evocative message about some desired future state delivered by a charismatic leader.

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Each organism maintains a clear sense of its individual identity within a larger network of relationships that helps shape its identity Each being is noticeable as a separate entity, yet it is simultaneously part of a whole system. While we humans observe and count separate selves, and pay a great deal of attention to the differences that seem to divide us, in fact we survive only as we learn how to participate in a web of relationships.

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In a dissipative structure, anything that disturbs the system plays a crucial role in helping it self-organize into a new form of order.

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The things we fear most in organizations—disruptions, confusion, chaos—need not be interpreted as signs that we are about to be destroyed. Instead, these conditions are necessary to awaken creativity. Scientists in this newly understood world describe the relation of disorder to order as “order out of chaos” or “order through fluctuation” (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984). These are new principles that highlight the dynamics between chaos and creativity, between disruption and growth.

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Chaos theory has given us images of “strange attractors”—computer-generated pictures of swirling motion that trace the evolution of a system. A system is defined as chaotic when it becomes impossible to know what it will do next. The system never behaves the same way twice.

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If we believe that there is no order to human activity except that imposed by the leader, that there is no self-regulation except that dictated by policies, if we believe that responsible leaders must have their hands into everything, controlling every decision, person, and moment, then we cannot hope for anything except what we already have—a treadmill of frantic efforts that end up destroying our individual and collective vitality. What if we could reframe the search? What if we stopped looking for control and began, in earnest, the search for order? Order we will find in places we never thought to look before—all around us in nature’s living, dynamic systems. In fact, once we begin to look into nature with new eyes, the teachers are everywhere.

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Several years ago, organizational theorist Karl Weick called attention to a similar observation dilemma in organizations, what he termed enactment. We participate, he noted, in the creation of our organizational realities: “The environment that the organization worries about is put there by the organization.” Weick’s observation, from a social science perspective, displays a sensibility quite similar to that of quantum physicists. There is no objective reality; the environment we experience does not exist “out there.” It is co-created through our acts of observation, what we choose to notice and worry about. If we truly embraced this sensibility in our organizational life, we would no longer waste time arguing about the “objective” features of the environment. Conflicts about what’s true and false would disappear in the exploration of multiple perceptions. Weick encourages us to move away from arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong, and instead to focus our concerns on issues of effectiveness, on reflective questions of what happened, and what actions might have served us better. We could stop arguing about truth and get on with figuring what works best (1979, 152, 168-69).

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To live in a quantum world, to weave here and there with ease and grace, we need to change what we do. We need fewer descriptions of tasks and instead learn how to facilitate process. We need to become savvy about how to foster relationships, how to nurture growth and development. All of us need to become better at listening, conversing, respecting one another’s uniqueness, because these are essential for strong relationships.

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One evening, I had a long, exploratory talk with a wise friend who told me that “power in organizations is the capacity generated by relationships.” It is an energy that comes into existence through relationships. Ever since that conversation, I have changed what I pay attention to in an organization. Now I look carefully at a workplace’s capacity for healthy relationships. Not its organizational form in terms of tasks, functions, span of control, and hierarchies, but things more fundamental to strong relations. Do people know how to listen and speak to each other? To work well with diverse members? Do people have free access to one another throughout the organization? Are they trusted with open information? Do organizational values bring them together or keep them apart? Is collaboration truly honored? Can people speak truthfully to one another?

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We thought we were doing something helpful to solve a problem, and suddenly we are confronted with eight new problems created by our initial solution. There is no way to prevent these troubling consequences. We can never do sufficient planning to avoid them, because we can’t possibly see all the connections that are truly there. When we take a step or make a decision, we are tugging at webs of relationships that are seldom visible but always present.

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But a quantum view explains the success of small efforts quite differently. Acting locally allows us to be inside the movement and flow of the system, participating in all those complex events occurring simultaneously. We are more likely to be sensitive to the dynamics of this system, and thus more effective. However, changes in small places also affect the global system, not through incrementalism, but because every small system participates in an unbroken wholeness. Activities in one part of the whole create effects that appear in distant places. Because of these unseen connections, there is potential value in working anywhere in the system. We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. I have learned that in this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of “critical mass.” It’s always about critical connections.

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I want to use the time formerly spent on detailed planning and analysis to create the organizational conditions for people to set a clear intent, to agree on how they are going to work together, and then practice to become better observers, learners, and colleagues as they co-create with their environment.

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Sometimes I receive calls from consultant friends who are deep into a project and very frustrated. In one such call, a friend reported that his client organization had collected data, defined five key problem areas, and created task forces to solve each of those issues. Yet the managers were having problems coordinating the task forces. The longer the task forces studied the issues, the more they were seeing the problems as interrelated. Threads of interconnections were everywhere, yet the five groups were still acting separately from one another. The result was fatigue and impatience. People simply wanted to get on with implementing something; anything would be a relief after so many deadening meetings and detailed plans. As I listened to my colleague, I shared his “Newtonian despair.” I knew what he was feeling; I knew where things were headed if he continued to pursue these separate activities. We talked for some time about bringing the whole system together to access a deeper system’s intelligence, but he was struggling to believe that this would help. He wanted to respond in new ways, but lacked a richer vision of what to do, of how to be in this world with greater trust.

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Space everywhere is now thought to be filled with fields, invisible, non-material influences that are the basic substance of the universe. We cannot see these fields, but we do observe their effects. They have become a useful way to explain action-at-a-distance, a descriptor for how change occurs without the direct exertion of one element needing to shove another into place.

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This type of field possesses very little energy of its own, but it is able to shape energy that comes from another source. Morphic fields are built up through the skills that accumulate as members of the same species learn something new (Sheldrake 1995, 82). After some number (not specified) of a species have learned a behavior, such as bicycle riding, others of that same species will be able to learn that skill more easily. The behavior collects in the morphic field, and when an individual’s energy combines with it, the field patterns the behavior of that individual. They don’t have to actually learn the skill; they pull it from the field. They learn it through “morphic resonance,” a process Sheldrake describes as individuals being influenced by others like them.

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We can never see a field, but we can easily see its influence by looking at behavior. To learn what’s in the field, look at what people are doing. They have picked up the messages, discerned what is truly valued, and then shaped their behavior accordingly. When organizational space is filled with divergent messages, when only contradictions float through the ethers, this invisible incongruity becomes visible as troubling behaviors.

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Schroedinger’s cat is a classic thought problem in quantum physics. Physicist Erwin Schroedinger constructed the problem in 1935 to illustrate that in the quantum world nothing is real. We cannot know what is happening to something if we are not looking at it, and, stranger yet, nothing does happen to it until we observe it.

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The problem of the cat has not yet been resolved, but here is the thought experiment. A live cat is placed in a box. The box has solid walls, so no one outside the box can see into it. This is a crucial factor, since the thought experiment explores the role of the observer in evoking reality. Inside the box, a device will trigger the release of either poison or food; the probability of either occurrence is 50/50. Time passes. The trigger goes off, unobserved. The cat meets its fate. Or does it? Just as an electron is both a wave and a particle until our observation causes it to collapse as either a particle or wave, Schroedinger argues that the cat is both alive and dead until the moment we observe it. Inside the box, when no one is watching, the cat exists only as a probability wave. It is possible to calculate mathematically (as a Schroedinger wave function) all of the cat’s possible states. But it is impossible to say that the cat is living or dead until we observe it. It is the act of observation that determines the collapse of the cat’s wave function and makes it either dead or alive. Before we peer in, the cat exists as probabilities. Our curiosity kills the cat. Or brings it back.

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I realized I had been living in a Schroedinger’s cat world in every organization I had ever been in. Each of these organizations had myriad boxes, drawn in endless renderings of organizational charts. Within each of those boxes lay a “cat,” a human being, rich in potential, whose fate was determined, always and irrevocably, by the act of observation.

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As non-physicists, we may think we have an easier time with the mysteries of such things as observation and the role of the observer, but it seems to me we would do well to linger longer with these quandaries, to explore how our perceptions of people and events shape the reality that we then end up struggling with so much.

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The truly miraculous organizational events I have participated in over the past several years are change efforts where the whole system is involved. As many as several hundred people are invited from all parts of the organization, including external stakeholders. For two to three days, they work intensely together to create shared visions of the organization’s past, present, and future. The richness of the interpretations and the future scenarios they create have convinced me of the powers of participation. In these conferences, entirely new and surprising interpretations become available because the whole system is in the room, generating information, reflecting on itself and who it wants to become (see Weisbord and Janoff 1995).

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Over the years, I developed a conditioned response to “communications problems” the minute they were brought up. I disregarded the assessment. I started pushing people to “get beyond” that catch-all phrase, to “give me more concrete examples” of communications failures. I believed I was en route to the “real” issues that would have nothing to do with communication. Now I know I was wrong. My frustration with pat phrases didn’t arise from people’s lack of clarity about what was bothering them. They were right. They were suffering from problems related to information. Asking them to identify smaller, more specific issues was pushing them in exactly the wrong direction, because the real problems were big—bigger than anything I imagined. What we were all suffering from, then and now, is a fundamental misperception of information: what it is, how it behaves, how to work with it.

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Another organization was able to change its approach to information by changing its metaphors. Instead of the limiting thought that “information is power,” they began to think of information as “nourishment.” This shift keeps their attention on the fact that information is essential to everyone, and that those who have more of it will be more intelligent workers than those who are starving. ,

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It is no longer the leader’s task to deal with all problems piece by piece, in a linear and never satisfying fashion. It is no longer the leader’s task to move information carefully along restricted pathways, shepherding it cautiously through channels, passing it on guardedly to someone else.

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Three-winged Bird: A Chaotic Strange Attractor This is a self-portrait drawn by a chaotic system. The system’s behavior is plotted over millions of iterations. The system appears to be wandering chaotically, always displaying new and different behavior. But over time, a deeper order—a shape—is revealed. This order is inherent to the system. It was always there, but not revealed until its chaotic movements were plotted in multiple dimensions over time.

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The spiral appears in human art all over the world, beginning with the Paleolithic period. Carl Jung believes the spiral is an archetype in the human psyche of the dance of creation and destruction.

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Although overwhelming levels of information are intentionally created in these sessions, it is never the volume that matters. It is only the meaning of information that makes it potent or not. When information is identified as meaningful, it is a force for change. In the system’s networks and feedback loops, such information circulates and grows and mutates in the conversations and interactions that occur. This process seems to be the way nature creates the well-ordered and diverse beauty that delights us: Information is generated freely by the system and fed back on itself so that it continues to grow and change.

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The process of fractal creation suggests some ways organizations can work with the paradox that greater openness is the path to greater order. A fractal reveals its complex shape through continuous self-reference to a simple initial equation. Thus, the work of any team or organization needs to start with a clear sense of what they are trying to accomplish and how they want to behave together. I think of these agreements as the initial equations (see also Chapter Seven). Once this clarity is established, people will use it as their lens to interpret information, surprises, experience. They will be able to figure out what and how to do their work. Their individual decisions will not look the same, and there is no need for conformity in their behavior. But over time, as their individual solutions are fed back into the system, as learning is shared, we can expect that an orderly pattern will emerge.

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The shape of chaos materializes from information feeding back on itself and changing in the process. This is the familiar process of iteration and feedback described in much of new science. It is the same process that results in self-organization, and also the creation of fractals

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What is important in a fractal landscape is to note not quantity but quality. How complex is the system? What are its distinguishing shapes? How do its patterns differ from those of other systems? In a fractal world, if we ignore qualitative factors and focus on quantitative measures, we doom ourselves only to frustration.

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Often patterns become discernible if we ask simple questions: “Have we seen this before?” “What feels familiar here?” To see patterns, we have to step back from the problem and gain perspective. Shapes are not discerned from close range. They require distance and time to show themselves. Pattern recognition requires that we sit together reflectively and patiently.

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to architects who explain the beauty of buildings and towns as the repetition of harmonious patterns, fractals have entered the imagination and research of many disciplines.

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When chaos has banged down the door and is tossing us around the room, it is difficult to believe that clear principles are sufficient. Anytime we experience chaos, our training urges us to interfere immediately, to rush in, to stabilize, to prevent further dissolution. Certainly one of the strongest critiques we make of each other is to say, “You’re out of control.” But if we can trust the workings of the world, we will see that the strength of our organizations is maintained if we retain clarity about the purpose and direction of the organization. When things become chaotic, this clarity keeps us on course. We are still able to make sense, even if the world grows mad.

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In this chaotic world, we need leaders. But we don’t need bosses. We need leaders to help us develop the clear identity that lights the dark moments of confusion. We need leaders to support us as we learn how to live by our values. We need leaders to understand that we are best controlled by concepts that invite our participation, not policies and procedures that curtail our contribution.

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In all types of organizations, too many filled with people exhausted, cynical, and burned-out, I have witnessed the incredible levels of energy and passion that can be evoked when leaders or colleagues take the time to recall people to the meaning of their work. It only takes a simple but powerful question: “What called you here? What were you dreaming you might accomplish when you first came to work here?” This question always elicits a deep response because so few of us work for trivial purposes. Most people come to their organizations with a desire to do something meaningful, to contribute and serve. Everybody needs, as philosopher and management scholar Charles Handy says, “an inner belief that you are in some sense meant to be here, that you can leave the world a little different in a small way” (in Hesselbein and Cohen 1999, 130). If we are asked to recall that inner belief, and if we hear our colleagues speak about their own yearnings to make a small difference, we feel new energy for the work and for each other.

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If we can’t analyze wholeness, how then do we learn to know it? This is a question that has occupied philosophers and some scientists for many centuries. They each describe new ways of understanding, but their answers feel insufficient. They fail to provide the precise, analytic techniques we think we need to understand anything.

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Goethe describes several ways to sense the whole, and I am particularly challenged by one of his processes—that we can discover the whole by going further into its parts. While this sounds like good old-fashioned reductionism, it is quite different. We inquire into the part as we hold the recognition that it is participating in a whole system. We hold our attention at two levels simultaneously. We recognize that this one thing we are studying is only there because of the rest of the universe (see Bortoft, 1996, 6). We can understand the whole by noting how it is influencing things at this local level.

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We have to use what is going on in the whole system to understand individual behavior, and we have to inquire into individual behavior to learn about the whole.

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There are many processes for developing awareness of a whole system—a time line of some slice of the system’s history, a mind-map, a collage of images, a dramatization. Any process works that encourages nonlinear thinking and intuition, and uses alternative forms of expression such as drama, art, stories, and pictures.

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In one corporation, a business unit wanted to know why they failed to secure a major contract. First, they developed a time line of all the events and decisions they could recall. Everybody had to participate; no one person knew the whole story. (The time line ended up being more than thirty feet long.) Everyone reviewed it, developing a rudimentary sense of the whole system that had resulted in this business failure. Next, the whole group defined which decisions, among the many displayed, felt most critical. They then went into small groups, each group exploring in depth one of those decisions. But because they had started with the whole, their search to understand the parts was already different. Each group then brought its analysis of single decisions back to the whole time line. It became instantly clear that similar patterns of behavior characterized each of these decisions.

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The most profound strategy for changing a living network comes from biology, although we could learn it directly from a spider. If a system is in trouble, it can be restored to health by connecting it to more of itself. To make a system stronger, we need to create stronger relationships. This principle has taught me that I can have faith in the system. The system is capable of solving its own problems. The solutions the system needs are usually already present in it. If a system is suffering, this indicates that it lacks sufficient access to itself. It might be lacking information, it might have lost clarity about who it is, it might have troubled relationships, it might be ignoring those who have valuable insights.

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The primary change strategy becomes quite straightforward. In order to change, the system needs to learn more about itself from itself. The system needs processes to bring it together. Many different processes will work, whatever facilitates self-discovery and creates new relationships simultaneously. The whole system eventually must be involved in doing this work; it can’t be done by outside experts or small teams.

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My colleagues and I focus on helping a system develop greater self-knowledge in three critical areas. People need to be connected to the fundamental identity of the organization or community. Who are we? Who do we aspire to become? How shall we be together? And people need to be connected to new information. What else do we need to know? Where is this new information to be found? And people need to be able to reach past traditional boundaries and develop relationships with people anywhere in the system. Who else needs to be here to do this work with us? As a system inquires into these three domains of identity, information, and relationships, it becomes more self-aware.

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From becoming attuned to this dynamic, I’ve come to believe that both individual and organizational change start from the same place. People need to explore an issue sufficiently to decide whether new meaning is available and desirable. They will change only if they believe that a new insight, a new idea, or a new form helps them become more of who they are. If the work of change is at the level of an entire organization or community, then the search for new meaning must be done as a collective inquiry.

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To put this realization into practice has required significant changes on my part. Now my first desire with a group is to learn who they are, what self they are referencing. I can never learn this by listening to some self-reports, or taking the word of a few people. I discover who they are by noticing what’s meaningful to them as they are engaged in their work. What issues and behaviors get their attention? What topics generate the most energy, positive and negative? I have to be curious to discover these answers. And I have to be working with them, not sitting on the side observing behavior or interviewing individuals. In the process of doing actual work, the real identity of the group, not some fantasy image, always becomes visible.

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CEOs acknowledge that about three-fourths of these efforts have failed. This terrible record of failure is, in my estimation, due to approaches that are predominantly technical and mechanistic. New technology is purchased; new organization charts are drawn; new training classes are offered. But most basic human dynamics are completely ignored: our need to trust one another, our need for meaningful work, our desire to contribute and be thanked for that contribution, our need to participate in changes that affect us.

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But I find life much more interesting now, living with not knowing, trying to stay curious rather than certain.

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What we were really asking, and what was also being asked of us, was that we change our thinking at the most fundamental level, that of our world view. The dominant world view of Western culture—the world as machine—doesn’t help us to live well in this world any longer. We have to see the world differently if we are to live in it more harmoniously.

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Once I understood the nature of the work, it helped me relax and be more generous. I learned that people get frightened if asked to change their world view. And why wouldn’t they? Of course people will get defensive; of course they might be intrigued by a new idea, but then turn away in fear. They are smart enough to realize how much they would have to change if they accepted that idea. I no longer worry that if I could just find the right words or techniques, I could instantly convince people. I no longer expect a new world view to be embraced quickly; I don’t know if I’ll see it take root in my lifetime.

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