Her Simpler Way
A review of “Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future,” by Margaret J. Wheatley (Berrett-Kohler, 2002)
By Bruce A. Waltuck
In 1993, Meg Wheatley’s inspired vision paved the way for countless change agents to see the world anew. Her best-selling book “Leadership and the New Science” was among the very first to recognize the connections between the new sciences of chaos and complexity, and the work of leaders in organizations. The book was the best selling business book of that year, and has been hailed as one of the most important of the last 50 years.
Since then, Meg Wheatley has herself undergone a complex journey. The former business school professor worked as an organizational consultant throughout the world. Her writings reflected a passage through the Newtonian methods of TQM, or Six Sigma, and to a deeper understanding of the complexities of human endeavors. Her 1998 book, “A Simpler Way” was more of a poetic essay, raising more questions than it provided answers or methods. During the past few years, Meg’s work with her own Berkana Institute, and especially her global call to those who would make a difference, an initiative called From the Four Directions, have inspired thousands of people to heed the call, and experience real leadership for themselves.
Sometime in 2001, Meg must have finished the work on her book, “Turning to One Another.” But the events of 9/11 drove Meg Wheatley back to the keyboard. The book was finally published in early 2002. It reflects on the uncertainty of these times, and offers a very simple, yet rich and powerful method for engaging people in the work of positive change. For this work, Meg has turned to one of humankind’s earliest forms of communication – talking, and especially listening – together. As she says on page 3, “I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again. Simple, honest, human conversation . . . . where we each have a chance to speak, we each feel heard, and we each listen well.”
In the pages and chapters that follow, Meg Wheatley notes her inspiration in nature, and complexity: “Nature organizes much more effectively than we humans do, and quite differently. For example, life works cooperatively, not competitively. . . “ (pg. 6). She also sets out the beliefs that support her conversational approach. Reflecting an understanding of the quantum nature of our universe, Meg notes “Relationships are all there is” (pg. 19).
To establish these positive relationships, and enable people to work together for improvement in their futures, Meg Wheatley suggests a small number of foundational principles. These include acknowledging “one another as equals,” and remembering that “conversation is the natural way humans think together.” (pg. 29). Using examples from many cultures and experiences throughout history, and around the world, Meg reminds us both of our own humanity, and of a way to build a future together. She echoes her own earlier work with complexity, noting the variety and richness that a diversity of opinion can bring to a conversation: “We have to be . . . curious about the diversity of experiences and ideas. . . . The deeper order that unifies our experience will show itself, but only if we allow chaos early on.” (pg. 33).
Meg Wheatley encourages us to act, and to take responsibility for the world we want: “If we want a different future, we have to take responsibility for what we are doing in the present.” (pg. 64). But in her hopefulness, Meg also chides us for the organizational errors she has observed in the past. She states that “when obedience and compliance are the primary values, then creativity, commitment, and generosity are destroyed.” These are the words of a person who has witnessed much in the world, both good and bad.
Ultimately, Meg Wheatley’s hope for the power of simple conversation relies on her understanding of nature. In living systems, she observes, it is not competition that breeds vitality. Rather, “it is always cooperation that increases over time” (pg. 106).
This is a book for, and about, people willing to cooperate; willing to listen and work together. It offers a wealth of practical and simple principles and methods. For those of us attuned to the applicability of complexity science to human and organizational behaviors, Meg Wheatley offers a first step away from the center of a dark and foreboding forest. I have been privileged to meet Meg Wheatley several times over the past few years. She has been gracious and generous in her advice. I traveled to Washington, D.C., to see, and listen to her speak about this book in January, 2002. Her counsel is summed up in the inscription she wrote in my copy of the book: “May courage be your guide.”