Our Process for Understanding the Problem is Broken


“For fragmentation is now very widespread, not only throughout society, but also in each individual, and this is leading to a kind of general confusion of the mind, which creates an endless series of problems and interferes with our clarity of perception so seriously as to prevent us from being able to solve most of them…

The notion that all these fragments are separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflicts and confusion.”

[David Bohm]

David Bohm was an American scientist who has been described as one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century. He contributed new and unorthodox ideas to quantum theory, neuropsychology and the philosophy of mind.

We try to solve problems in meetings, sometimes using a tool we just read about and cobbled together at the last minute. Or maybe we use something we just learned or talked about, becoming a perfect example of the cognitive bias called availability heuristic. It's based on the thought that if we can recall something, it must be important.

It almost doesn't matter what the problem is, says Margaret Wheatley in Leadership and the New Science, “what matters is how familiar and terrible our process is for coming to terms with the complaint.” We have plenty of tools to document and track things, and to assign tasks to people. Yet much of the planning, predicting, and analyzing is aimed at trying to control rather than understand.

She says:

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. Sounds familiar? Read all about organizations defending themselves even against their employees…

We have drawn boundaries around the flow of experience, fragmenting whole networks of interactions into discrete steps.

Organizations still have technical and mechanistic approaches. 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.

In addition to a mechanistic worldview, the other two primary Western cultural beliefs that keep people apart, according to Wheatley, are individualism and competition. When people are free to make their own decisions based on shared meaning and values, order emerges out of chaos —and problems are solved.

Organizations need to master three primary domains, according to Wheatley —identity, information, and relationships

1. Identity helps with sense-making capacity

It's is both what we want to believe is true and what our actions show to be true about us. A clear and coherent identity creates an enormous advantage. Organizations that act coherently with their core develop a stronger sense of confidence.

2. Information as medium to get things done

For organizations to thrive, they need to reach a balance between the influx of new, potentially disruptive data, and orderly system in which known data is cataloged and used, for example to measure progress. Stock and flow.

3. Relationships pave the way

Relationships activate information. The more access people have to one another, the greater the opportunities in the organization. This is perhaps (still) the biggest stumbling block of organizations. Workplaces where people maximize access to and collaboration with others, while also have clear blocks of time to get things done alone, increase their ability to collaborate with customers.

Organizational theorist Karl Weick noted that we participate in the creation of our organizational realities. He says, “The environment that the organization worries about is put there by the organization.” We create our own realities. Thus we should first act and experience something we create, interact with it, then formulate our thoughts and plans.

Says Weick:

just-in-time… supported by more investment in general knowledge, a large skill repertoire, the ability to do a quick study, trust in intuitions, and sophistication in cutting losses.

Rather than engaging in strategy, which is based on assumptions, we should be strategizing, which involves choice based on time dependent information. In a world of frequent, unplanned changes, responding is more important than predicting.

Rather than focusing on tasks, we should focus on process. In the networked marketplace, relationships are more important than transactions. Once we begin to understand how everything is connected to everything else, we can see the path to greater resilience and success.


Leadership and the New Science tackles the thorny issue of restoring hope and sanity to organizations by showing how new discoveries in biology, chaos theory, and quantum physics can help generate new ideas, new ways of seeing, and new relationships.