If you are familiar with my blog then you will know that I am an avid reader, life-long learner and love business books. I have featured quite a few on Take It Personel-ly and I am excited about a new digital online subscription service from Berrett-Koelher called BKpedia.
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This post is an excerpt from the book Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley. This book is included in BKpedia, You can sign up for a free trial now here.
Searching for a Simpler Way to Lead Organizations
I am not alone in wondering why organizations aren’t working well. Many of us are troubled by questions that haunt our work. Why do so many organizations feel lifeless? Why do projects take so long, develop evergreater complexity, yet too often fail to achieve any truly significant results? Why does progress, when it appears, so often come from unexpected places, or as a result of surprises or synchronistic events that our planning had not considered? Why does change itself, that event we’re all supposed to be “managing,” keep drowning us, relentlessly making us feel less capable and more confused? And why have our expectations for success diminished to the point that often the best we hope for is endurance and patience to survive the frequent disruptive forces in our organizations and lives?
These questions had been growing within me for several years, gnawing away at my work and diminishing my sense of competency. The busier I became with work and the more projects I took on, the greater my questions grew. Until I began a journey.
Like most important journeys, mine began in a mundane place—a Boeing 757, flying soundlessly above America. High in the air as a weekly commuter between Boston and Salt Lake City, with long stretches of reading time broken only by occasional offers of soda and peanuts, I opened my first book on the new science—Fritjof Capra’s The Turning Point, which describes the new world view emerging from quantum physics. This provided my first glimpse of a new way of perceiving the world, one that comprehended its processes of change, its deeply patterned nature, and its dense webs of connections.
I don’t think it accidental that I was introduced to a new way of seeing at 37,000 feet. The altitude only reinforced the message that what was needed was a larger perspective, one that took in more of the whole of things. From that first book, I took off, reading as many new science books as I could find in biology, evolution, chaos theory, and quantum physics. Discoveries and theories of new science called me away from the details of my own field of management and raised me up to a vision of the inherent orderliness of the universe, of creative processes and dynamic, continuous change that still maintained order. This was a world where order and change, autonomy and control were not the great opposites that we had thought them to be. It was a world where change and constant creation were ways of sustaining order and capacity.
I don’t believe I could have grasped these ideas if I had stayed on the ground.
During the past several decades, books that relate new science findings for lay readers have proliferated, some more reputable and scientific than others. Of the many I read, some were too challenging, some were too bizarre, but others contained images and information that were breathtaking. I became aware that I was wandering in a realm that created new visions of freedom and possibility, giving me new ways to think about my work. I couldn’t always draw immediate connections between science and my dilemmas, but I noticed myself developing a new serenity in response to the questions that surrounded me. I was reading of chaos that contained order; of information as an essential, nourishing element; of systems that fell apart so they could reorganize themselves; and of invisible influences that permeate space and affect change at a distance. These were compelling, evocative ideas, and they gave me hope, even if they did not reveal immediate solutions.
Somewhere—I knew then and believe even more firmly now—there is a simpler way to lead organizations, one that requires less effort and produces less stress than our current practices. For me, this new knowledge is now crystallizing into applications even as I realize that this exploration will take many years. But I no longer believe that organizations are inherently unmanageable in this world of constant flux and unpredictability. Rather, I believe that our present ways of organizing are outmoded, and that the longer we remain entrenched in our old ways, the further we move from those wonderful breakthroughs in understanding that the world of science calls “elegant.” The layers of complexity, the sense of things being beyond our control and out of control, are but signals of our failure to understand a deeper reality of organizational life, and of life in general.
We are all searching for this simpler way. In every academic discipline and institution, we live today with questions for which our expertise provides no answers.
I believe that we have only just begun the process of discovering and inventing the new organizational forms that will inhabit the twenty-first century. To be responsible inventors and discoverers, we need the courage to let go of the old world, to relinquish most of what we have cherished, to abandon our interpretations about what does and doesn’t work. We must learn to see the world anew. As Einstein is often quoted as saying: No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.
Margaret J. Wheatley, EdD, writes, teaches and speaks about how to restore hope and sanity to organizations. She has been a management professor and consultant since 1973. She travels the world willingly in support of life-affirming leaders everywhere. Ms. Wheatley cofounded and led the Berkana Institute, a global foundation that partners with people developing healthy and resilient communities. Margaret is the author of five other books, including Leadership and the New Science and Perseverance.
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