Every few years a book changes the way people think about a field. In psychology there is Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence. In science, James Gleick's Chaos. In economics and finance, Burton Malkiel's A Random Walk Down Wall Street. And in business there is now Surfing the Edge of Chaos by Richard T. Pascale, Mark Millemann, and Linda Gioja.Surfing the Edge of Chaos is a brilliant, powerful, and practical book about the parallels between business and nature -- two fields that feature nonstop battles between the forces of tradition and the forces of transformation. It offers a bold new way of thinking about and responding to the personal and strategic challenges everyone in business faces these days.
In this breakthrough business book, Pascale, Millemann and Gioja troll the emerging science of complexity for "ideas [that] can produce a concrete bottom-line impact." Extracting key "dynamics of survival" from the life sciences, these three management consultants successfully show business leaders how to turn their companies into agile and adaptable "living systems" that achieve long-term vitality and sustainability in a swiftly evolving environment. Their four "bedrock" principles are "Equilibrium is a precursor to death"; "Living things move toward the edge of chaos"; "Components of living systems self-organize" in response to turmoil; and "Living systems cannot be directed along a linear path." Writing with clarity and verve, the authors illustrate these larger points by comparing the functioning of organic systems (e.g., Yellowstone National Park), the behavior of organisms (dental plaque) and of insects (fire ants) with detailed case studies of five companies (British Petroleum, Hewlett-Packard, Monsanto, Royal Dutch/Shell and Sun Microsystems) and the U.S. Army. Practical-minded readers will appreciate their nitty-gritty insights into the relative advantages of "adaptive" and traditional "operational" leadership, as well as their consistent distillation of concrete business guidelines. While the authors aver that "there is no permanent victory in this eternal cycle of life and death," they make a persuasive case that "understanding living systems does not decisively win the game but, most assuredly, it improves the odds." (Nov. 1) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 1999
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Excerpt from Surfing The Edge Of Chaos by Richard Pascale
MANAGEMENT AND THE SCIENTIFIC RENAISSANCE
There is a new scientific renaissance in the making. It will usher in new industries, alter how businesses compete, and change how companies are managed. This book explores the managerial implications of this new renaissance.
Scientific discovery shapes managerial thinking. Principles identified more than two hundred years ago, during an earlier scientific renaissance, have had wide influence on how managers think today. Derivative ideas from Newton's laws of motion and his early work on gas thermodynamics were literally lifted, equation by equation, and applied to the emerging field of economics. When they were extended into the realm of enterprise, these applications shaped the practice of management and today's deep-seated beliefs about change.
We are entering another scientific renaissance. The magnets for the inquiry are called complex adaptive systems. Also known as "complexity science," this work grapples with the mysteries of life itself, and is propelled forward by the confluence of three streams of inquiry: (1) breakthrough discoveries in the life sciences (e.g., biology, medicine, and ecology); (2) insights of the social sciences (e.g., sociology, psychology, and economics); and (3) new developments in the hard sciences (e.g., physics, mathematics, and information technology). The resulting work has revealed exciting insights into life and has opened up new avenues for management.
Efforts to understand life are as old as humanity itself. For uncounted millennia, they centered on the selective breeding of animals and plants to improve yields and reduce susceptibility to disease. By the time the first scientific renaissance ended in the 1880s, geneticist Gregor Mendel had unlocked the secrets of heredity. Selective breeding, formerly an art, fell within the grasp of science.
A second milestone of great consequence was the discovery, in 1953, of the double helix of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. By the end of the twentieth century, the vast new frontier they had opened was closing in on both understanding, and possibly altering, the biochemistry of life.
For several decades after Watson and Crick's discoveries, efforts to decipher DNA sequences and other facets of living systems were thwarted by their enormous complexity. But powerful computers and arcane technology for observing microscopic organisms and genetic dynamics permitted considerable progress. A trickle of breakthroughs began. Among them was the capacity to identify particular genes that made a plant or animal resistant to disease or amplified desirable features. By the 1990s, Genenech, Amgen, Immunex, Monsanto, and a host of other firms were developing biotechnology to the point where patented pharmaceuticals and seeds had become commercial realities. These nascent capabilities are accompanied, in turn, by new challenges -- business, ethical, and social.