My graduate thesis looked at self-organizing emergency response teams. I wanted to look at things like firefighter team dynamics and effectiveness through the lens of self-organization and see what could be discerned about things like leadership and why some teams were more effective than others. I became interested in looking at this because I noticed that teams that were led by autocratic leaders seemed to run into far more problems and be far less effective than other teams.
These are the lessons I learned about self-organizing systems and how leaders/change agents can create real change in systems.
All Systems are Self-Organizing
When I started researching my thesis I had a difficult time finding a clear definition of what a self-organizing system was among scholars. How would I know whether I idnetify a team to be self-organizing or behaving in a self-organizing fashion if I didn't know what criteria to use? In the end I identified the properties of the teams I wanted to study. The team would have to be comprised of individuals who were autonomous actors working towards a common goal where they did not feel coerced or threatened. So that helped differentiate teams that felt they were under the thumb of an autocrat from teams that felt free to iniate action.
As I reviewed the literature on this subject I had a startling realization: all systems in the universe are self-organizing systems. How could it be otherwise? Subatomic particles started the whole thing and simple systems become more complex over time. There is no evidence of a puppet master pulling all the strings and controlling the universe and people. It all seems to have arisen from the bottom up.
All Systems Are Relationships
Matter is not solid. What we percieve as solid is actually 99.99999% empty space. What we are perceiving when we see and touch a block of matter is essentially a very dynamic system comprised of relationships. Consider the fact that you are not made up of the same atoms or cells that you were 7 years ago. Does this mean that your identity as an individual has changed? Are you not you anymore?
As far as I can tell what makes you a person, is not the elements, the atoms, the cells that make up your body, but in a very real sense it is the stuff in between...the relationships. Atoms and cells can change out, be replaced and die precisely because who you are, what makes you person is still intact...the relationships between all the discrete units. If one by one each neuron in you brain was replaced with an identical neuron in exactly the same state and position, you would still be you even though your brain would be comprised of entirely different atoms.
The lesson in this, at least to me, is that it is important to pay attention to relationships. Does my presense in a system create health or disease? Well that depends on my relationships with others in the system. Violent relationships are qualitatively and quantitatively different than loving relationships for example and result in different system outcomes.
A Systems DNA Determines What it Looks Like
Surely a dictatorship can't be considered a self-organizing system? In fact it is. When one describes a system called a "dictatorship" you are describing an aggregate, or group of individuals that are in relationship with each other. Like any other system the individual agents organize themselves according to their core beliefs and motivations and the environment.
Another example might be two people in a park. This can be called a diadic system (2 agents). In this system one agent is a mugger and the other a victim. Within this system each agent has a number of choices available to them based on the actions and perceptions of the other. The victim can hand over money, try to talk his way out of it, fight the mugger, run away etc. Within each course of behaviours lie a number of sub choices as events unfold. In every system the environment and other agents create both constraints and allowances for other individuals.
The fractal or DNA called "we must respect individual property rights" results in a much different looking system than the fractal "the state owns everything" doesn't it?
Hierarchies are Emergent Properties of Systems
Hierarchy is a word that I'm not sure is entirely accurate. Our tendency to look at systems as top-down or bottom-up isn't necessarily the best way to look at systems. These are really inelegant ways to look at a system where agents take on different but complimentary roles and dance dynamically in life affirming ways, but for lack of simpler explanatory language I'll engage in typical organizational language.
Hierarchies emerge from the bottom up. Single celled organisms often evolve over time into multicellular organisms that eventually need brains and nervous systems. Richard Dawkins suggests in the "Selfish Gene" that a more fruitful way to view evolution and reproduction is that the body and brain are serving the purposes of the gene. Successful species are ones whose hierarchy (brains and bodies) successfully serve the needs of genes, namely propagating.
We usually think of hierarchies as system controllers but they are really there to serve individual system agents by decreasing the amount of information each agent needs to track to stay in organization with the rest of the system. When teams of fire fighters are attacking a blaze it is critical that they work in organization with each other, if one team engages the wrong tactic at the wrong time it can put another team in real danger. With multiple teams on scene it becomes problematic for each team to track and know what each other team is doing. The incident commander (a poor label in my opinion) exists to serve the needs of these teams by keeping track of the big picture and feeding back to the teams pertinent information for them to act effectively. Without a proper incident commander hierarchy the fire teams would not be able to act effectively in their own self-interest, namely to put out the fire and get home safely.
Entropy is Death
Entropy is a term that physicists use to describe how closed systems tend to go from order to disorder over time. Stars explode, life dies, and organizations dissolve. There are ways to negate entropy and even engage negentropy (growth, life and flourishing). For example hierachies that are servile can increase the freedom and choices available to individual agents (empowerment is the term in organization development circles). On the flip side, hierarchies that fail to recognize that they are part of a self-organizing system and prescribe control over agents usually accelerate entropy. The key seems to be in the DNA (the beliefs, motivation and knowledge) of the leader.
In my research I found that teams that had incident commanders that were described as autocratic had far more issues with chaos and disorder. Sometimes fire fighters would get tired of waiting for orders and would freelance, sometimes the orders a team would receive would be wrong, teams found themselves in more dangerous situations, frustration level were high, fires tended to take longer to put out and higher property losses were reported. This type of entropy is nurtured by a belief that is incongruent with reality. The incident commander here might view the fire fighters as pawns for him to move around as opposed to autonomous actors in a self-organizing system. As a result he sees his role as a controller and tries to impose control with incomplete information. He doesn't see what each team is seeing, hearing and feeling. He is not in the best position to control each team, the teams are in the best position and really need a hierarchy that is going to serve their needs.
It might best be understood that hierarchies emerge as a way to increase the freedom or choice available to individual agents within a system thereby decreasing entropy, but failing to recognize the servile purpose of hierarchy and attempting to impose control and limit freedom and choice of individual agents results in increased entropy.
Recent research has shown that your genes are not set in stone. The field of epigenetics is unveiling astonishing ways in which our environment and the behaviours we engage in can alter our genetic expression and even pass these new traits on to our offspring. Likewise our organizational genetics are far from set in stone, we can change. It starts with our core beliefs about reality. Failure to align our beliefs with reality result in inaccurate mental models that lead to bad decisions and bad decisions to entropy..
An example of an often useless mental model is an organizational chart. Organizational charts with well defined boundaries and boxes are rarely an accurate description of an organization. There are a number of problems with it. What do the lines mean? Do they represent information, coercive power, attraction or something else? What happens if Bob doesn't follow the line on the chart and connects with someone on the other side of the chart? Do people look at the chart first to see why they have something that doesn't accurately describe what is going on and work on revising their mental models,or do they go to Bob and reprimand him for not following the line? I think its often accurate to say that two people who get a pay cheque from the same place and work in the same building are not part of the same organization.
An often fruitful exercise in organizational workshops is asking participants to attempt to draw accurate organizational charts that show what is actually happening in the organization, the degree to which these charts differ from the official charts often says a lot about the level of reality congruence an organizational culture has. Another worthwhile exercise is asking people to draw their organizational pyramid upside down with the boss at the bottom and ask what the implications are in terms of individual behaviour when the "boss" views himself below his "subordinates". What happens if we replace the words "boss" and "subordinate" with something more accurate? What changes then? It is this kind of inquiry that changes the organizational genetics and brings mental models closer to alignment with reality and sets the stage for unleashing real performance and flourishing.
Leadership is Attraction
Forces that hold organizations together are attractive not repulsive or compulsive. This is as true of molecules and biological organisms as it is of social organizations. In chaos theory the term "attractor" or "strange attractor" is used to denote a core that attracts organization, in human organizations I call this a legitimate leader. Sometimes when we identify ourselves as a leader, maybe because we've been given the title "manager" or "supervisor" or "captain", we get into trouble thinking that it is our job to enforce compliance to a particular set of words called policies or laws. This gets us into trouble because it causes one to apply a force that is the opposite of attraction. While the force you apply may cause short term compliance you have in fact added entropic force to the organization and destabilized it. That person, in the core of their being, understands that you are not in organization with them, you simply get a paycheque from the same place.
Understanding that you are not a leader if you apply force is important if you are concerned with creating change. If you hear a would-be leader talking about trying to overcome resistance to change you have heard someone explain why they aren't a leader. People aren't resistant to change so much as they are attracted to a core of personal power, dignity and esteem. Leaders connect with this core in a person and are good at communicating how a particular change will create personal flourishing. When people understand that their lives are improved by a change in course or behaviour then the change agent can be called a leader. If a change agent has forced compliance then they are not a leader but an entropic force and you can expect to see systemic disorder emerge.
Part II - Hacking Performance
There are a number of things I learned in my research that can be useful to anybody interested in creating organizations that are healthy, high performing, robust, and sustainable. We want a system that is dynamic and can adapt quickly to changing conditions. The boundaries of this system are not rigid and brittle, but alive with possibility and creativity. I'll briefly describe eight things you can do to hack negentropy and make it work for you. Each one of these disciplines is worthy of lengthy exploration and mastery, and my hope here is to simply provide information that motivates you to find out more and start to look at your organizations through a lens that is more congruent with reality.
1) Look in the mirror and be the change
Obese people don't sell many diet books. If you weigh 400 lbs and you walk around spreading the gospel of a new diet you found in hopes that others will live a healthier life you just aren't going to be all that credible or make that much change. In fact you are likely creating harm by turning people away from a healthy diet. Contrast this to a guy who has done the work and lived a healthy life style and it shows. He will have people constantly asking him how they can achieve similar success in their own life. You can create better health in those around you by simply being healthy yourself.
Self-knowledge is incredibly important if you want to make a real difference in your organization. The most effective leaders in a given domain are the ones that understand intimately what motivates them, what their base assumptions about the world are, where their beliefs come from, and what evidence it would take to change their belief. Being able to reprogram ones DNA or fractal to adapt to reality leads to flourishing and this adaptability can only come when engages in the practice of self-examination. Without this self-examination we are simply automatons playing out our programming and can't hope to help others re-program their own lives. Preaching what you practice is far more powerful than practicing what you preach.
2) Remove yourself from toxic environments
Biology is amazing. The way organisms respond to their environment altering genetic expression and behaviour is what determines success and flourishing. Infants that are exposed to in-utero maternal stress and malnourishment exhibit observably different traits than infants who experience good maternal nourishment and peace, with the former being more aggressive and the latter being less aggressive and more attached to mom. It makes sense, an environment of scarce resources favours survival and flourishing of aggressive and dominant individuals whereas an environment of abundance and peace favours survival and flourishing of peaceful and socially attached individuals.
Jim Rohn said "You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with." It is well established that the company you keep, your environment, largely determines who you are. The difference between adults and infants of course is that we can change our environment and change our lives. When we have self-knowledge and understand the kind of person we are and what type of person we aspire to be we can take action and notice whether our environment is nurturing that change or poisoning it. If you find yourself wanting a peaceful, balanced, self-actualized and happy existence in organization with other individuals you do not want to be in a Machiavellian environment because you will not flourish in that environment without becoming aggressive and dominant.
A corollary practice to removing yourself from a toxic environment is that leaders (particularly leaders like parents who have an involuntary relationship over another) are responsible for creating environments that are healthy. The environment you expose your child to will largely determine who they become as people. The environment you create in the work place has similar repercussions. Pay attention to the environment you create through your thoughts, words and actions.
3) Engage in legitimate leadership
There are so many definitions and concepts of leadership floating around that it is a difficult word to pin down a definition for. To be a legitimate leader in my definition at least two conditions need to be met; 1) There are willing followers, and 2) Leadership is expressed as work that seeks to eliminate the need for leadership. As explained earlier leaders are attractors and hierarchies are servile in nature. The most effective, life infused organizations are ones where individuals operate with high knowledge, expertise and creativity. The function of leadership then if you want a high performance, negentropy nurturing, thriving organization is to eliminate the need for leadership. Leadership is dynamic and often temporary. Effective leaders follow others at least as much as they lead, learning from experts and mavens, because they understand that authority is not derived from coercive power or force but rather ones ability to improve the life of another.
My research showed different results for team leaders that engaged autocratic styles and team leaders that empowered individuals. Legitimate leaders expand the view of the individual and give them the information they need to make the right decision in their local environment. Autocratic leaders tend to foster dependency and make teams less intelligent. Teams are given orders that they don't always understand and questioning these order often results in negative treatment and so individuals quickly learn not to learn, not to inquire, not to do anything but what the boss wants. Unfortunately these teams have their expertise eroded, they become more about following rules than understanding systems. Contrast this with an incident commander who views those he is in organization with as autonomous individuals working in coordination with each other. This incident commander finds and provides his team with information that empowers them to meet their goals, which are all the same...put the fire out.
4) Make exploring role clarity a regular practice
Role clarity is best understood as a process that occurs within an individual as they learn their place in relation to other agents within a system. Contrast this with what may be a traditional view of roles being established and imposed from the top by an authority figure as managers and union leaders write out job descriptions for subordinates. This traditional view often fails to recognize the fact that hierarchies emerge from the bottom up. Roles are not static because the environment and the system are not static and so constant examination of ones role is needed for life to flourish in an organization.
Exploration of roles can occur in a number of ways. It usually occurs in real time while a job is being done. "Since you're doing that, I'll do this other thing" Where we tend to get trapped is in our dogmatic mental models of what the organization is or should be. These mental models are often heavily influenced by the memes that infuse our organizational culture. Language, policies and organizational charts are often viewed through a lens of coercive power. One might be inclined to think that these memes are the dictates of a higher authority sent down from on high to maintain control. Isn't it ironic that our delusional idea that using force or control of others to create order actually results in more disorder and chaos?
One of the things that high performing fire teams do to foster role clarity is operate in a heightened state of curiosity. Feedback is constantly sought and communicated on these team both during events and practice drills and afterwards. Understanding ones role in relation to others and the others role in relation to ones self is key to being an adaptive high performing team. I remember one fire call where communication broke down because of conditions and the incident commander realized he couldn't function inside the organizational chart and asked another experienced officer to take command on an adjacent side of the building to compensate for the communication barrier. It was beautiful to observe the way leadership and communication flowed back and forth between these two officers in a dynamic dance that allowed the firefighters on scene to adapt to changing conditions.This kind of dynamic and adaptable dance is not possible when roles are dictated, only when they are understood and arrived at autonomously.
5) Choose a positive mental state
There has been a lot of research done on mental states. It turns out our brains are hardwired to perform better in a positive mental state. More choices occur to us when we are in this brain state and we engage creative problem solving which is important for complex situations. One study even showed that peripheral vision improved with a positive mind state. One neuroscientist described the optimal performance mindset as being one where cognition is balanced on the edge of chaos, it dips in and out of the boundary line between order and disorder exploring possibilities. Being comfortable with uncertainty is important because solutions don't always present themselves immediately during this process.
Negative mindsets like fear, that raise cathecolamine and cortisol levels, are rarely useful in today's environment. This mindset narrows choices and limits or negates learning. When you explore the base of autocratic leaders you often find fear lurking. These people are often afraid of losing control and failing. Fear of losing control drives them to become dictatorial and chaos ensues.
Successful incident commanders are able to stave off fear and anxiety and create a positive mindset. One thing that can be done when fear and anxiety creeps up on you in stressful situations is very simple...breath. It turns out that one of the objective indicators of a state of stress is low heart-rate variability, the heart beats at a steady rate due to stress hormones. A person who has an absence of stress has high heart-rate variability, in other words the time gap between heartbeats changes in a predictable rhythm that coincides with your breathing. As you breath in and out it increases thoracic pressure which in turns presses against the vagus nerve which controls heart rate parasympathetically. When you are stressed, anxious, fearful, the sympathetic system is controlling the heart rate visa-vi catecholamines like adrenaline. When you feel anxiety and fear welling up you can stimulate your parasympathetic system and negate and eliminate the sympathetic response by focusing on breathing. Deep and steady breaths with equal inspiratory and expiratory phases while focusing your attention on visualizing breathing through the center of your chest has been shown to return heart rate variability to higher levels and eliminate stress within one to two minutes. This is a simple exercise that works that can help get you into a more positive state of mind. It works great before stressful meetings, and it also works great while you're are responding to a giant fire.
6) Ask the right questions
Part of having the right mind-set is asking the right questions. You can view an organization by asking, "What is broken that needs to be fixed," or by asking, "what is working that we can leverage?" These are two questions that are looking at the same thing but delivering drastically different results. One line of inquiry fixates on problems and the other one fixates on achievement. Appreciative inquiry is a research philosophy that suggests that problem fixation tends to produce more problems, whereas fixating on the positive tends to result in more positive and problems then seem to not be issues anymore.
Marilee Adams has a fantastic book on this issue called "Change Your Questions, Change Your Life" that I highly recommend. She differentiates between a learner and a judger mindset. Judgmental mindsets ask questions like, "whose fault is it","why am I such a failure," and it leads to win-lose relating, blame focus, and automatic reactions. The learner mindset asks questions like "what are my assumptions", "what are they thinking, feeling, and wanting" and leads to thoughtful choices, solution focus and win-win relating.
The right questions bring us more closely in line with reality. Dogma is refusing to ask questions about your beliefs or asking the wrong questions and it prevents us from harmonizing with reality. Psychologist Gary Klein studies adaptive decision making in high performing fire teams and suggests testing ones self for dogma by asking the question, "What evidence or logic could convince me to revise or discard a dearly held belief or assumption?" He suggests that if we cannot think of an answer to this question we have likely found an area of dogma.
7) Watch your language
Confucius said that the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their real names. Our language strongly shapes our perception of reality and so its often worth examining words we use regularly especially when we are in organization with others. One label that often bothers me is "Human Resource Department". This term suggests that humans we are in organization with are resources at our disposal like all the other organizational resources. This term creates the delusion that the organization is an entity that is served by the individual rather than the reality that the individual is served by being in organization with others...its the organization that is the resource not the human.
The lumping of humans in with capital equipment has real world consequences. For example health and wellness programs developed in HR departments tend to look like those you'd find on any farm where a farmer is concerned about his livestock. You are scheduled for tests and immunizations, your health is checked and a record is kept at the corporate office. I don't know if I should bother pointing out that the difference between you and a cow is that you are not food to be harvested.
Contrast this with another organization where a person might have the role of supporting the health and wellbeing of the other members. This person would understand that they are there to serve the other members and seek to eliminate dependency on them for health leadership. Helping employees get a handle on their own health, listening to them describe their hopes and dreams for their health, providing resources to help them, and ensuring they get, own, and understand their own health care records would be important. In one organization an 'employee' sees health and wellness as a prescription and reporting process, like vehicle maintenance, you bring your body into the garage to get fixed. In the other organization the individual feels confident and powerful, armed with the knowledge and wisdom to make healthy choices everyday and constantly self-monitoring bio-feedback to understand how their body and mind work and respond to different environments and inputs.
One of my dreams is to change the language of command & control in the fire service. It doesn't align well with reality. Commanders do not command or control a scene. They don't seize the brain of each individual and move them like puppets on a string. I get the motivation to use terminology like this because its comforting to think we can control disorder, our biggest fear and enemy on the fire ground. As discussed leaders who take command & control literally ultimately create more disorder. I'm not sure what language I'd replace it with, maybe 'serve & communicate' or 'feedback & learn'. These words to me are a more accurate description of what high performing teams are doing and recognizing about reality despite the language of 'command & control'. In life and death situations we need to be practiced at checking our assumptions about reality, and language influences our thoughts and actions.
8) Seek out conflict and play with it
Learning at its essence is conflict resolution. You know one thing about the world and you are presented with another piece of evidence about reality that seems to challenge that thing you know. The result is a kind of foggy or confusing state that psychologists often call cognitive dissonance, you are holding two truths in you head that seem to contradict each other. Working through this is where learning occurs, eventually you solve the puzzle and see how they are connected and revise your theory about the world. You can see this happen clearly in infants and toddlers who are exploring the world. They are little scientists constantly repeating experiments like throwing food on the floor to watch it fall or see fido eat it. They repeat these experiments over and over again and eventually learn to make accurate predictions about what will happen. Play peek-a-boo with a baby and you can see the shock and confusion as their world (their parent) suddenly seems to disappear and then reappear. They are in a state of cognitive dissonance, one part of them knows that you are a constant in their life and another part of them knows that you just disappeared. How do they resolve this conflict? They play. They have fun, they laugh and are in a constant state of curiosity and amazement.
Babies who at one time were delighted with the cognitive dissonance peek-a-boo caused eventually grow into adults who associate cognitive dissonance and conflict as discomfort. As we get older, self-exploration of the world is frowned upon by those who benefit from our ignorance of reality. We are discouraged and attacked for asking questions about reality and trying to understand. I remember as a child asking very curious questions to my religion teachers that made them uncomfortable and I was told to have more faith, it was I that had the deficit you see. We don't like uncertainty, conflict, and confusion, we want concrete black and white answers and constantly look to those in power to provide these answers. We depend on the priestly class to rid us of our cognitive dissonance, it creates Pavlovian suffering because of our conditioning. The priestly class of public intellectuals, politicians and religious leaders often rid us of our cognitive dissonance and take away our temporary suffering at the expense of our congruence with reality. Heroine does the same thing for addicts, relieves suffering caused by childhood conditions at the expense of flourishing.
Successful leaders play in the realm of cognitive dissonance, they delight in it as a child does. If two or more people in organization with each other hold different views of the work to be done a conflict exists. This conflict is not resolved by doing what many organizations do and treat the symptoms; arguments, inappropriate behaviour etc. Reprimands are handed out, letters are put on files, disciplinary action is taken and no conflict is actually resolved it simply goes underground. These organizations simply play symptom wack-a-mole. Real leaders get to the heart of the matter and engage in conflict the way a toddler would; with extreme curiosity and inquiry. What occurs as a result is organizational learning. I believe this is why organizations that engage in play, humour, and fun at work tend to be higher performing by most metrics.
Successful organizations in the future will be those that find ways to eliminate coercive power structures, treat people as the ends and not the means, eliminate the imposition of rules, engage in radical honesty, create cultures of autonomy that increase the aggregate organizational intelligence, stimulate moral development, increase liberty and create environments of trust and engagement. You can be the fractal that changes the world. Start by looking in the mirror and engaging in practices that bring you into integrity and virtue otherwise known as alignment with reality. All systems are self-organizing and change always starts with the self.