Last week I read an interesting journal article on how the scientific revolution started by Isaac Newton was not just constrained in the scientific domain, but became a cultural revolution as well. What started with Newton in the 17th century–the belief that the mysteries of the natural world can be conquered by rationality and reasoning–has guided much of human endeavours ever since, and continues to influence our lives even today.
By unraveling the mysteries of the universe, Newton became a shining example of our thinking prowess. With his work on the natural laws governing the universe, our culture adopted the idea that we have the brainpower to eventually understand all of nature. And soon it was not just the natural domain, but social sciences as well became enthralled by the Newtonian paradigm: that we can understand society and human behaviour by using a Newtonian, reductionist approach.
Eventually Albert Einstein and others demonstrated that Newton’s mechanics fail in the realm of subatomic particles. He did not refute Newton’s work, but rather complemented it. Complexity theory should be seen in a similar manner. It does not refute the validity of reductionist and deterministic approaches in the context of non-complex systems. But like Newton’s mechanics not being able to explain the behaviour of subatomic particles, we should acknowledge that complex systems present a context where the reductionist and deterministic approaches are bound to fail.
This is a paradigm shift that is slowly taking place. Yet when talking about human organisations and institutions, its impact has not really even started to show itself. The few companies (e.g. W.L. Gore and Semco come to mind) that seem to have intrinsic understanding of complexity, and how to take advantage of it, are seen as oddballs and exceptions. That is because you cannot simply copy what Gore or Semco are doing and expect it to work in your organisation, but by using complexity principles you can create your own working model.
Being in its infancy, the application of complexity theory–and the complex adaptive systems framework–in organisation design represents a huge opportunity for those who have the courage to move first, and to abandon the century-old model of industrial organisation.
If Gary Hamel claims that “…your company has 21st century, internet-enabled business processes, mid-20th century management processes, all built atop 19th century management principles,” what remains unsaid is that those 19th century management principles are grounded on 17th century natural science, and traceable specifically to Isaac Newton and René Descartes.
If this article has piqued your interest and you would be keen on doing something together in the area of Organisation Design or Innovation Management, please send a message! I am currently on the lookout for new work and consulting opportunities, as the research project I am heading in Aalto University is nearing its end.
Louth, Jonathon (2011). From Newton To Newtonianism: Reductionism And The Development Of The Social Sciences. Emergence: Complexity & Organization, Vol. 13, No. 4, 63-83.