Description of Wheatley’s Essay
Margaret Wheatley’s Essay “Innovation Means Relying on Everyone’s Creativity” has two central points guiding a wealth of practical knowledge on organizational leadership gained through her experiences. The first is that organizations act in the same way as living organism. The whole of the organization can be seen as a species that will change according to alterations to environmental conditions. The second part of her thesis is “People only support what they create” (Wheatley, 2001). This means that in order to get support for new policies or changes to the organization, everyone within the organization must play a role in enacting that change. As she establishes in her essay, this is not something that can be done on a surface level. Their involvement must be real, and the freedom to enact changes must be genuine.
Wheatley begins by presenting some self-evidence assertions that few people would disagree with. She writes, “The human capacity to invent and create is universal (Wheatley, 2001). She does not mean that this is universal for humans, or even restricted just to life. Looking at the universe, matter and elements combine to create. With scientists continuing to discover more species, it is innate to biology that new variations of life form in order to adapt with changes to the environment. She wonders if our species is the only one that resists inevitable changes. Extinction of some noteworthy creatures would seem to suggest that this is not the case. But it makes a powerful point. Mammoths are no longer with us on earth because of their inability to adapt. Without adaption, life does not continue.
Just as species need to adapt and literally become other species to survive, the same could be said of the worldviews a person or people adopt. Worldviews change and adapt according to the needs of the cultures that carry them. Wheatley cites a paradigm of worldviews proposed by Joel Barker. Under this view, if something seems impossible, it might just be it is not achievable under a particular worldview under which the problem is being viewed. It might be easily achieved by changing the worldview under which it is being viewed.
Just as animals adapt over time to their environments, Wheatley sees organizations and the people that compose them as living system that follow the same rules that biology does. She writes, “Now that I understand people and organizations as living systems, filled with the innovative dynamics characteristic of all life, many intractable problems become solvable” (Wheatley, 2001).
She sees this initial assumption as necessary for an organization to be adaptable and in turn, successful. 300 years of Western culture has treated human beings within corporations and companies as cogs to a machine. Wheatley finds it as a relief that this standard is slowly changing. Though we are governed by Western, it is important to remember that the Western worldview is simply one worldview in a world with many. It may work in instances when pragmatic thinking is required, but it is no mean always the best worldview to adopt when looking at issues.
Wheatley points out that historically, under the Western worldview, “Almost all approaches to management, organizational change, and human behavior have been based on mechanistic images” (Wheatley, 2001). This leads to a “strangely negative view of ourselves” and isolates a person from his self in much the same way that Marx described the alienation of the worker as a cog to the massive system of capitalism.
Solutions are not to be found within organizational charts and hierarchies, but within the creativity of people who unafraid to be innovative. Likewise, blaming someone for problems is not a pathway to finding solutions. It is creativity, and commitments that humans make that are the greatest human resources. This is the conclusion that Wheatley reaches when she views the organizations of our times through the lens of living systems. Wheatley is satisfied with the truth of these ideas simply by the fact that “people working in the organization are alive, and they respond to the same needs and conditions as any other living system. If this is true then the same processes of life that are at work within an individual. They are also at work within an organization composed of individuals. Just like individual cells are alive and make a body, individual bodies are autonomous entities, which form organizations.
At the beginning of her essay, she mentions the importance of creativity. She develops that further by outlining what she has learned fuels creativity—meaning. “Every change, every burst of creativity, begins with the identification of a problem or opportunity that somebody finds meaningful” (Wheatley, 2001). Without finding something important, there is not motivation to invest mental energies in thinking about it. Harnessing creativity is about figuring out what drives people and using that drive in a positive and constructive way. Wheatley has understood that understanding how to harness is more than just assessing individuals within an organization; it involves getting to know them at their own level. What do they love? What scares them? What do they care about? What is the most important thing in their life? Where do they want to be in the future? What past do they come from? All of these are important questions to ask when trying to learn how to lead a group of people.
Just as a population relies on a genetic diversity to have a bounty of genetic possibilities that can become dominant when the environment calls for it, a business environment that is flexible in addressing problems and identifying solutions requires a diverse group of people. A good example is bananas. Domesticated bananas are at a great risk for what’s called wasting syndrome. All bananas are bred to be clones of other bananas. This means that they have the same DNA, which makes it difficult to adapt in order to fight off disease. Wasting disease is killing off entire banana plantations because the population lacks genetic diversity. Wheatley has found that “Almost always, in a diverse organization, the solution the organization needs is already being practiced somewhere in that system” (Wheatley, 2001). The role of a leader then is not necessarily to solve problems, but to identify who can solve them and give them the freedom to do that.
A second reason that diversity is so important is because while organizations act as a “unit of one” they are composed of unique individuals. Since it is difficult for someone with one worldview to represent another worldview, it is important to have a heterogeneous workforce that carries with it a variety of worldviews.
Wheatley’s next bullet point is to “involve everyone who cares.” Wheatley has learned that it is not optional to build participation, but it is not easy. You cannot force a person to participate. You cannot force a person to solve a problem. It is not just about the positive benefits that involvement brings, but avoiding the negative effects of non-involvement. Those not involved in the creative process of change will be those who resist it.
But the most important reason to involve everyone in the creative process is that when it comes to large-scale solution, no one person has all the answers. By involving as many diverse individuals as possible in solving problems, the most practical solutions can be created. Managers have to admit that there is a lack of control. Things happen at all levels of organizations that do not jump from the bottom or middle level to the top. In this sense, part of being a leader is managing the chaos of different individuals interacting in unique ways. Wheatley believes that everyone within an organization has something to teach.
She shows her willingness to learn by citing the “pioneering” work of researchers about how best to engage people within an organization. Managers need to do more than simply say that participation is “not optional.” They need to create an environment where participation comes willingly, because “people only support what they create.”
It may seem like a contradiction, but Wheatley sees diversity as a path to unity. She begins this part of the essay by wondering if shared meaning is possible between people of diverse races, worldviews and backgrounds. It is possible by instead of looking at what divides a group, what they share. Groups come together when they recognize their mutual interest, and they come apart when they forget that they share the same dream. This reminds me of the philosophy of Aristotle, who believed that despite the many differences to be found in the human race, all of them were seeking happiness. This happiness might take a different form from one person to another, but it is universal as a goal. Human actions reflect that. People want to feel safe. They want to feel appreciated. They want to love and be loved. These shared realities transcend individual differences.
It is because of this diversity that people will never cease to surprise. It is human to assign stereotypes to people based on previous interactions and acquired knowledge. Though it is natural for us to take these shortcuts to understanding, leaders should try not to limit people by putting them in a box. One never knows what a person is capable of doing. Often it is much more than a person expects.
The most important point of Wheatley’s essay, one that gets to the heart of what she is saying on a philosophical reason is to believe in human goodness. She recognizes that everything she conveys in her essay is based on her own worldview. Certainly in some countries where human rights are not recognized, there would be no reason not to see human beings as cogs to a larger machine. Certainly this was the case in cultures that allowed slavery.
Wheatley ends her essay with the bullet point of “relying on human goodness.”
This is a view on human nature. A leader that does not believe that people are generally good at heart will manage much differently than one that does. Her last point is the most powerful. It is clear to a reader of her essay that Wheatley believes wholly that we are all in this together. Though “this” being the world, life, existence, is bigger than any one person’s understanding, it is a journey that we embark on together. Human goodness is a philosophical concept that has been wondered about since philosophy has existed. Some philosophers such as Hobbes have believed that human nature was negative, but others such as Plato believed in “The Good” with capital letters. Wheatley believes in this goodness. It is easy to see from her writing why she makes such a good leader. She genuinely loves people, cares about their needs, and wants them to do well in life. She wants everyone to forget about past wrongs and play on the same team. She writes that she is certain that this view is the only way that to create innovation in workplaces and communities.
Wheatley is fueled by compassion mutual understanding and finding common ground. In a world with leaders which seem often to be only concerned with their own self-interests this is a refreshing view. She believes that we can do the impossible. She believes that people can “learn and change quickly, and extent instant compassion to those who are suffering” (Wheatley, 2001). She ends with a paragraph of powerful prose:
We are our only hope for creating a future worth working for. We can’t go it alone, we can’t get there without each other, and we can’t create it without relying anew on our fundamental and precious human goodness (Wheatley, 2001).
Wheatley is presenting a very idealistic way of thinking about leadership. She takes as a given that most people are at heart good, want to work together, and care about others. I do agree that the management style she advocates is not just a way to be effective, but it is a way to do so without harming others. She is advocating workplaces that functions with the spirit of togetherness and understanding. In our diverse world, such thinking is essential since work places of today are a heterogeneous group.
While, I do agree with her on this, I disagree with her leaving out some realities we face as a species. Within the diversity of human beings, are also psychopaths, an inborn psychological condition that creates individuals incapable of compassion. Though such people occur in less than 1% of the population, leadership’s positions such CEOs are filled by around 10% of such people. Such individuals have no problem hurting others to get what they want. (Ronson, 2011).
I find it important to recognize this reality in companies. It is not true to say everyone will be a good, collaborative person if given the right environment. There are malevolent people in the world, who are not guided by ethical codes, but by their own wants.
I agree with her premises throughout the essay. It makes sense that innovation comes when people are free to be creative. I can see how different worldview will lead to different innovations. In order for knowledge and experience to be applied, it must exist in the first place. A metaphor that makes sense regarding why diversity is important is the difference between a library of books on multiple topics, and a library of books on the same topic.
Personally, when I am free of anxiety is when I am most creative. It is when I believe in something that I am willing to fight for it. Sometimes the best ideas come subconsciously. In my own life I sometimes dream up solutions at night while thinking. This is likely the reason that many people have flashes of inspiration during their morning shower. If something does not matter to me, it is not going to be something that I am going to be subconsciously turning over in my mind. But if it does mean something to me, I will be thinking about it quite constantly, and the creative subconscious will play a role in dreaming up solutions.
This is why it is important not just to “involve everyone who cares,” but to hire people who care so that everyone will be involved. In the hiring process, it is important to hire people who are ideologically driven, while also open to differences of opinion and culture. Passion is something that you can bring out in people, but it is something very difficult to instill in someone without it. When hiring, managers should look for people that are seeking more than just a paycheck. This is done by offering people a job instead of a career.
People will always surprise us, and this goes both ways. There are negative and positive surprises in life, and positive people are those you want to have on your team and in your work place. It is the job of a manager to anticipate surprises both positive and negative that could potentially occur within a work place.
Advocating a certain style of leadership style must be result based. Following Wheatley’s advice would create a great working environment for employees, but it also has to produce the results that it claims it will. Having held jobs and leadership roles, having had bad bosses and good bosses, and having been at different times in my life a good leader and a “bad” leader, my experience confirms the truth of the essay.
When I’ve worked under a leader who clearly did not care about me, it destroyed the incentive to do well. The focus of this essay is that organizations must be treated as living organism and that the components of that organism—people—must be treated with dignity. When managers look at their departments and employees under this lens, it can help them understand reasons for failings. Often it is easier to place the blame on a worker, instead of attributing it to the culture of a workplace.
When someone screws up, the blame could very well rest with the individual, but it is also true that the individual could be the victim of an environment. Having this worldview is important for managers. If different employees keep making the same mistake, it would beg the question as to if the blame rests with the organization and not these individuals.
This focus of the essay, could help improve the effectiveness of leadership because it Wheatley offers a novel take on leadership. A paradigm for leadership would be someone “leading” a group of people. Wheatley breaks from this and create the image of a leader arranging furniture around a room in order to maximize an environment where innovation can thrive. Wheatley understands that external environment defines our internal environment and she wants workplaces to be creative, diversified places where people can work together in the spirit of togetherness.
Share All of us fill roles within our families, work and communities. In different ways we assume leadership roles. Leaders should not see those positions as having power, or even seek power. What they should do though is see those positions as carrying with it responsibilities. Everyone has responsibilities to their family, to their job and to their community.
Leaders should not view themselves as “better” than those he or she leads. Wheatley mentions compassion a lot in her essay. This should be the starting point for leadership. Compassion is about understanding. In families, we have the advantage of having known those people our entire lives. But that can sometimes work against compassion. Wheatley cautions against putting people in a box. People can surprise us, and members in our families can too. In families it is easy to hold past failings against people, but doing this could stifle a family member’s future success.
A good rule of thumb would be “compassion first, blame later.” Sometimes disciplinary actions need to be taken, but rather than seeing the world as black and white, and right in wrong, it is important to have a more dynamic perspective. Rather than instantly punishing someone for breaking a rule, it is important to try to understand why that rule was broken.
In my family the same rules apply. If people feel that their opinion matters, they will be more likely to put in their input. How this applies to a community is making everyone feel like equal members of the community. I think that people who come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds often feel like not as important members of the community. But in a democracy, solutions to matters like poverty are most likely to come from insight from people in those conditions.
In today’s corporate world, people’s careers sometimes exist in a vacuum. It is common for people to stomp on others to get ahead. Leadership is not just a top down paradigm. We can be leaders among our peers and set good examples that include not using others as a means to our own ends.
While the 2008 presidential election seemed to inspire a spirit of togetherness all over the world, that energy has since been lost. It seems that people are running into the same ruts that they always have. People are upset that leaders are not reflecting their needs. Civil society runs the risk of having a jaded perspective towards society.
What we need in our world just as much as good leaders following the sort of principles that Wheatley advocates is recognition of the good leaders we do have. The media seems to spend more time criticizing bad leaders than it does reporting on good leaders. Doing this is not an easy battle. Often times it is people who make bad leaders who seek positions of power and authority. A good leader is a humble leader, who leads people out of a sense of responsibility. A bad leader enjoys power for powers sake. Power must always be wielded responsibly. Otherwise it becomes a tool of coercion rather than a deserved authority. Wheatley believes in the goodness of human beings, but at the same time one cannot forget that not everyone cares about improving the world. Some people have selfish bents and will use others as means rather than ends.
Positivity is contagious, and good examples spread further than sometimes can even be imagined. We all can only control our own individual corner of the world. Personally, I plan to share this essay with friends and colleagues in management conditions. I also plan to send the link to my future bosses in life. Workers can help advocate good leadership by not allowing bad leaders to get away with degrading their dignity. Leaders as well as the led should have standards that are not flexible. In our voting system, we have a way to punish bad leaders—to vote them out of office. In our own lives, we can decide not to work in work environments where bad leadership thrives. If innovative and talented workers opt out of working for bad leaders, businesses led by less than desirable leaders will justly suffer in productivity and innovation.
Ronson, J. (2011). The psychopath test: a journey through the madness industry. New York: Riverhead Books.
Wheatley, M. (n.d.). Margaret J. Wheatley: Innovation Means Relying on Everyone's Creativity. Margaret J. Wheatley: Innovation Means Relying on Everyone's Creativity. Retrieved February 21, 2014, from http://www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/innovationmeans.html