Deming Communities
Profound Knowledge
English Articles

Bubbles in a Pot of Boiling Soup - Complexity and Creativity in Organizations(1999/06)

by Frank Voehl

*In a dynamic system there are interactions between people, equipment, environment, methods, and materials that come and go like bubbles in a pot of boiling soup. The condition appears and then disappears. Another related question might be: "Can we re-create/discover the conditions under which the interaction of these forces causes a plane to crash, so as to find a way to avoid those interactions again*? --Dan Swart, Manager and Statistican

A number of years ago, I had a conversation with Dr. Deming about a client organization of mine--a publishing company--and one of their teams of people working in the editorial department. At the time, they didn't have the expensive computer and accompanying communications technology that would have simplified their work considerably. The overarching bureaucracy of the organization did not seem to allow them to go out and choose what they felt they would need to simplify time-consuming strokes at the touch of a keystroke.

Whatever communications equipment they had was chosen for them. Yet the bureaucracy produced evidence in the boardroom that it had saved a great deal of money on the equipment that it did buy that year. Dr. Deming's comment was that it had the effect of a dead hand on the innovation and imagination of the team and was acting at a great cost, expense, and stress to all involved, including the many authors who tried to supply them with product manuscripts. The solution: given the need for profit and clear ethical constraints and guidelines, why not allow people to realize their goals according to their own inner images of what is right and good, especially if they are members of communities (teams) within the organization? In other words, why not have faith in the complexity that arises from their interacting individual images--their imaginations!

The timeframe of this discussion was early 1990 and it was the first occasion that I had to discuss *dynamic systems and the science of complexity* in relation to the Deming philosophy. Dr. Deming's point was that given certain clear parameters, the communities or teams will become self-organizing. They will be attracted to certain flowing states of organization natural to people who make them up. In chaos theory, these flowing states--these bubbles in a pot of boiling soup--are poetically called strange attractors.

A strange attractor is a pattern that traces the swirling evolution of a system, for example a pendulum, given slightly irregular laps in a circle. The system is both dynamic and chaotic because it is impossible to know exactly where the pendulum will be next. However, charting the system over time will begin to show an overall pattern to which it returns again and again. Even the most chaotic of pendulum swings will never overstep certain boundaries. It will move within a shape that we come to recognize as the pendulum's *strange attractor.*

The application to the work system is that the work team made up of collaborating individuals would have--if we could measure and plot creativity, failure, and success--it's own strange attractor that depicted the edges and patterns of the team's behavior. This pattern would be constrained by the forces operating within the company system and outside in the global marketplace (the extended enterprise of Dr. Deming), but it would be most affected by the focus and vision of the team. A strong purpose and vision--the AIM-- acts as a kind of strange attractor, allowing natural creativity while acting as a natural constraint to behavior that is detrimental to the team and to the system.

Dr. Deming and I concluded that without repressive rules, my publishing team-- which was a cohesive team with strong AIM, sense of ethics, and task behavior-- could be allowed a great deal of leeway to develop its own approach to problems.

From a creativity and innovation standpoint, I have been looking at the application of complexity to organizations for some time. One very good book I have found is Ralph Stacey, Complexity and Creativity in Organizations. (ISBN 1-881052-89-3). I found the book challenged my understanding of systems and to some extent undermined my belief that Deming and the other Quality Gurus were on the right track:principally in the area of standardisation and reduction of variation being contrary to the development of creativity in the organisation and the dangers of producing a too comfortable legitimate system in the organization, thus limiting the pressure in the shadow system for emergent change.

The suggestion is that there are two main aspects to the meta system that contains the organization--that which is managed (legitimate), and that which is not, or more correctly, cannot (shadow). That skills learned in the legitimate system are carried over into the shadow system for use in play, and hence in creativity. Real metanoia only occours in the shadow system, and when this occours, its paradigm can become the legitimate system and the old legitimate paradigm may become the shadow; hence occilations in social paradigms, or a new shadow may emerge.

Some one recently described managers as using linear language to describe complex systems. I am not sure if this is just, but a development of an understanding of complexity and its impact on organizations forces us to view systems as poly-dimentic rather than as (metaphorically) linear or 3 dimensional, and to realize the arbitaryness of any system limits. The organization is much more than the legitimate system and any attempt to make sustainable change to it has to address these aspects as well.

I plan to continue this topic in the future under the heading of *AIM as a Strange Attractor* in order to bridge Dynamic Systems and Chaos Theory into an advancement of the innovation and creativity aspects of Dr. Deming's System of Profound Knowledge.

Frank Voehl (

June 1999

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