Just over twenty years ago, Meg Wheatley and I were camped in a friend's cabin in Vermont as a blizzard raged outside. We were there to begin writing what became A Simpler Way--a brief meditation on organizations as living systems. The book was born from our years long deepening exploration into the implications of living systems theory for social systems. If our organisations are not machines, but alive and subject to the same dynamics as all life, what would be possible? How would we understand what we are seeing and experiencing in institutional life? What would we do if we were working with the dynamics of life, rather than against them?
At the time, this was a passionate exploration that involved many teachers and contributors, endless research, and plenty of rich arguments, as we struggled to get to the essence of our thinking, beliefs and knowledge. In the end, a book emerged centred on a brilliant poem by A.R. Ammons. The book is a meditation on possibilities. It's a book almost wholly without application, and doesn't answer the question "How?", except for how to think differently about our collective work and lives. We also tried to make a beautiful book, and I think it is, due to a brilliant designer and a courageous publisher.
Twenty years on, the book still sells, and still inspires passionate agreement or dissent. As I say, simple ain't easy. I think the book might have been too early, and the world is more aware of the ideas within it now, though I still find I'm introducing the concepts as if for the first time. A true shift in thinking can take ages. Twenty years on, the book has been cited in hundreds of publications, recently by the Frederic Laloux, who described it as "a prophetic book about what organizations could be." I think it also provides a way of understand what they are and why they are that way.
People often approach me with a dog-eared and endlessly underlined copies of ASW, which is beautiful and humbling. I was leading a session last week, and person I hold in high regard said to me: "I keep coming back to A Simpler Way. I read a chapter and say, "Oh no, that can't be." But then I go work with the idea, and slowly it becomes clear that yes, this can be." She and others like her continue to breathe life into A Simpler Way. Brilliant.
26 February 2017