"'Living systems' isn't a metaphor for how human institutions operate. It's the way it is." The book is built on this point. Living systems work much more rapidly and effectively than most human ones do. By using the most successful living systems as models, we can make great strides in improving our human organizations. Think of this as a best practice book based on the ants and the bees.
Surfing the Edge of Chaos is an unusually good book on applying the lessons of complexity science about the biological world to business progress. The material is aimed at continuous renewal of the large existing organization, but will be valuable to organizations of all ages and sizes. The explanations of the key principles are well documented with many interesting animal and business examples. Based on experience by the authors as advisors to most of the businesses cited, the stories have a depth and a resonance that is missing in many books about how to apply the lessons of "complex adaptive systems" to human organizations.
The book also strongly and effectively challenges the existing engineering and reengineering models of how to improve organizations. If you are about to put a lot of effort into these areas, hold up until you have a chance to read this book. You may well change your mind.
Many people tell me that they still do not understand what they need to do in order to apply the lessons of complexity science to their business after reading books on this subject. Few will have that problem after reading this excellent work.
The authors help make the transition between the mechanical model of organizations to a biological one by synthesizing four new principles:
(1) "Equilibrium is a precursor to death."
(2) "In the face of threat, or when galvanized by a compelling opportunity, living things move toward the edge of chaos. This condition evokes higher levels of mutation and experimentation, and fresh solutions are likely to be found."
(3) "When this excitation takes place, the components of living systems self-organize and new forms and repertoires emerge from the turmoil."
(4) "Living systems cannot be directed along a linear path. Unforeseen consequences are inevitable. The challenge is to disturb them in a manner that approximates the desired outcome."
Fascinating examples are drawn from the exploration unit of British Petroleum, Hewlett-Packard, Monsanto's refocus into biotechnology, Royal Dutch/Shell's downstream activities, Sears' refocus of its store activities, and the U.S. Army's approach to war gaming to illustrate these principles. One of the things I liked about the examples is that they pointed out the errors that the organizations made, as well as the successes. In most cases, the companies only partially converted to following these principles. You will also learn about African termites, South American fire ants, North American coyotes, and fires at Yellowstone as examples of these principles, as well. The book is also strengthened by many mini-examples of applying complexity science such as Cemex dispatching roving cement trucks and British Telecom doing the same with service trucks to emulate ant pheromone track models in order to provide better service at lower cost.
The book's strength though lies in its proposition of 7 core disciplines of how to use complexity science. These disciplines will help many to begin applying complexity science lessons for the first time. There is also a good discussion of what leaders need to do to assist in supporting the needed revolutions and evolutions for maximum development. It would be unfair to the book to attempt to summarize these ideas here, but I certainly endorse them based on my consulting experience.
After you finish reading this book, I strongly urge you to follow the example of the town meetings described in the book to launch an assessment and begin a process of adaptive leadership in your organization. You will learn much more by practicing with what is in the book than by just thinking about the material.
I also leave you with a challenge. After you have been applying this approach for a while, how can you change your company's orientation so that these organizational processes will constantly emerge in highly effective ways? In other ways, how can you place yourself in the center of the wave's curl where the ride is best all the time? For when you do, your progress will be irresistible.