Review: Wave Rider: Leadership for High Performance in a Self-Organizing World

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4.0 out of 5 stars Some Warts But If You Buy Only One Book, Try This One….

September 3, 2009

Harrison Owen

The author (developer of the modern Open Space Technology) that revives the Native American open circle)  tells us the book will inevitably be a repetition of his past books in different form, but I do not deduct for that because for me this is the first and only book, and may therefore prove his point: you have to keep telling the story in different forms to reach different segments of the public. I put the book down feeling it was an excellent overview, and feeling no need to acquire and read the other books.

I identify with the author when he notes (without complaint) that his insights that are so mainstream today (at least among the avant guarde) caused him to be labeled as totally lacking in credibility. Been there, done that–called a lunatic by CIA in 1992 for pointing out the urgency of getting a grip on open sources of information.

The author, the founder of the “Open Space” protocol that elicits boundless creativity in very short times by NOT seeking to structure, lead, or control, spends a lot of time on the concept of self-organization, concluding at the very end of the book that EVERYTHING is self-organizing, and all systems that seek to command & control are, by and large, part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I cannot help but read into this book (the author never mentions any political party or ideology) the raw correlation with the Libertarian Party, the Constitution Party, and Ron Paul’s constant focus on how the federal government is both broken and out of control.

His early discussion focuses on the importance of:

INVITE instead of command

CIRCLE instead of pyramid

PASSION instead of control

HELPLESS is good; trying to “be” in charge is bad

He stresses that organizational performance is now about global survival, and no organization can carry on as we have in the Industrial Era. He feels that all of our institutions are stretched to the breaking point (see my online piece about “Paradigms of Failure” also in the Preface to Election 2008: Lipstick on the Pig (Substance of Governance; Legitimate Grievances; Candidates on the Issues; Balanced Budget 101; Call to Arms: Fund We Not Them; Annotated Bibliography)).

The author concludes that most deliberate organizing and planning is a waste and also destructive of the natural adaptation that complex systems have inherent in themselves.

I take away one star for the author’s believing that Peter Senge is the father of Systems Thinking, neglecting Buckminster Fuller and many others over many generations prior to Fuller.

I have a note that Doug Englebart is the author’s counterpart on the technology side, both of them focusing on High Performance Organizations, the author by empowering how people relate to one another, Doug empowering how people relate to information.

The author talks about surfing the wave in terms that make it clear that one cannot “plan” the wave’s origin, force, or timing; nor can one “control” the wave when it approaches the beach. One can only “engage” the wave, “surf” the wave, accepting the wave “as is.” All very good stuff, and especially in sharp distinction to those who like to say that “We are an Empire, we make our own reality.”

The author concludes that “high performance” organizations are those that thrive in and overcome, are the opposite of chaos, confusion, and conflict, using clarity and diversity to achieve wholeness, health, and harmony.

I like the author’s focus on how “problem/solution” is too narrow, and am reminded of Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West as well as everything by Charles Perrow and especially most recently, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters. In this context, I see the author’s point when he suggests that systemic thinking calls for the aggregate of all Average men and NOT for a “Great” Man all alone with dictatorial powers.

I absolutely love his observation that Anomalies are NOT anomalies–the fact that we think they are reveals our flawed perceptions and lack of understanding.

As the book draws to a conclusion the bottom line emerges: most breakthroughs are NOT part of any “plan” and indeed do not emerge within the context of the formal organization. Instead they are catalyzed by information interaction that is outside the plan, outside the organization, of the organization but not by the organization.

Open Space Technology (OST) is not really a technology but rather a human process with four principles (who, what, when start and when end is always right), and the law of two feet, encouraging “random” access until “stickiness” leads to congregation.

The author urges the use of OST on real issues, with volunteers rather than “assigned personnel,” and lauds its applicability to problems that are very high in complexity and that demand very high diversity of inputs and outputs.

OST produces, and I find the author completely credible on this having been a participant in two events in which Peggy Holman [The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource on Today's Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems nurtured OST, four things- high learning (instead of role learning), high play (instead of no play), appropriate structure (instead of overbearing non-essential control), and authentic leadership (instead of rankism).

The author points out, and I find this VITALLY IMPORTANT to the emerging meme of multinational multifunctional information sharing and sense-making, that OST works everywhere, "regardless of culture, religion, ethnicity, economics, education, or any other ....variable."

The author points out that "leadership" is NOT the same as control and should not be confused with control. A "leader" can invite others to understand and to act, but compelling them is NOT leadership. Such leadership, all too characteristic of the top-down hierarchical and stove-pipe systems we have across the US Government and in most corporations today, is actually anti-thetical to self-organization and complex adaptation to rapidly-changing circumstances that our secret intelligence community simply cannot "see" much less "understand."

The final bits of the book that matter to me:

The lifeblood of self-organizing is accurate free-flowing information.

The mental model being applied to that information MATTERS.

The Internet is shifting power from formal to informal [i.e. from state to non-state]. This is one reason I strongly oppose efforts by Congress to legalize the federal take-over of the Internet “in an emergency” (the White House gets to define the emergency).

I remove one star for the author’s touting Peter Senge as the inventor of Whole Systems thinking, in modern times it was Buckminster Fuller and in the ancient era Confusious among many others. HOWEVER, on my own web site (Public Intelligence Blog) where I can control stuff without Amazon censoring and distorting, this book will be rated as Beyond 6 Stars for its fundamental insights and easy to grasp wisdom.

See also:
All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (BK Currents (Hardcover))
The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World That Works for All
Society’s Breakthrough!: Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People
Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace

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