Quotations From Chairman Kelly


A friend and colleague of mine recently did something amazing. After more than a decade of reporting on the shifting edge of the sciences of change, he popped out with a book, Out Of Control (Addison Wesley 1994) which steps well beyond reportage to attempt a broad and deep synthesis of these new ideas. Kevin Kelly, former editor of Whole Earth Review, and one of the founders of the WELL, is now executive editor of Wired. The book takes a deep cut at the nature of biological intelligence, and at the theories of complex, adaptive, organic systems that underly what we talk about in these pages. Since Kelly has a tendency toward aphorism, I have extracted some of these "quotations from Chairman Kelly," and have provided a little commentary to show how they apply to people and organizations.
. . . . . . . . - Joe Flower


You may also want to read a full interview with Kelly.


1 Turn to biology

Kevin Kelly: The world of our own making has become so complicated that we must turn to the world of the born to understand how to manage it.

Change Project: We have long thought about the way we manage organizations by making analogies to machines (divisions, hierarchies, zero defects), to Newtonian physics (momentum, weight, speed) and human games (teams, moves). As the systems which we manage, and of which we are part, approach the complexity of the organic world, these analogies are no longer as helpful. We must learn from the organic world.

2 Build on what works

KK: Complexity must be grown from simple systems that already work.

CP: Top-down change (such as re-engineering and right-sizing) often fails because it disturbs all the smaller systems that make up the larger system. In the name of simplifying and streamlining, top-down change actually introduces turbulence in the form of work-arounds, passive aggression and re-invented wheels. Complex systems build complexity from the bottom up (as an airline that works is built from competent pilots, cabin attendants who can deliver a hot meal or administer CPR, and robust baggage-handling systems.) Change imposed on a complex system will only work if each level is given the time, information, permission, and capacity to re-build itself for the changed environment.

3 Become network-like

KK: The only organization capable of unprejudiced growth, or unguided learning, is a network.

CP: An organization that moves toward the ability to change must become more like a network and less like a hierarchy.

4 Imagine networks

KK: One can imagine the future shape of companies by stretching them until they are pure network. It will be hard at times to tell who is working for whom.

CP: This is rapidly becoming real in many industries, with the avalanche of out-sourcing, consulting, contract relationships, temporary and permanent alliances, even between competitors, and within companies with ad-hocracies built around the needs of the moment.

5 Eliminate blame

KK: An event is not triggered by a chain of being, but by a field of causes spreading horizontally, like a creeping tide.

CP: When something happens to us, we say, "Who did that to me?" We look for a culprit, as if that would change the event. It is more fruitful to ask, "What can I do, here, with what I have? What are my resources? What is my goal?"

6 Recognize the system

KK:A system is anything that talks to itself.

CP: Your organization is a living system. Your family is, too. So are you.

7 Rely on local knowledge

KK: The work of managing a natural environment is inescapably a work of local knowledge.

CP: In an organization, it is possible to escape this only by tightly and narrowly defining the organization's mission and purpose, and designing each job within it with machine-like precision, ignoring the individual capacities and needs of employees, customers, suppliers and neighbors alike. Like McDonald's, such an organization will survive as long as its design manages to fill that narrow need - and as long as the environment remains stable.

8 Become a teaching organization

KK: We don't have a word for learning and teaching at the same time, but our schooling would improve if we did. . . . A company cannot be a learning company without being a teaching company.

CP: The same is true of individuals. Who is learning from you? What are they learning? What are they learning that you did not mean to teach them?

9 Learn to let go

KK: What little time is left us in this century is rehearsal time for the chief psychological chore of the 21st Century: letting go, with dignity.

CP: Letting go is a basic skill of our times, a prerequisite to all skills in mastering change. Few practice it well, and even fewer teach it.

10 Expect turbulence

KK: In turbulence is the preservation of the world.

CP: Turbulence allows the system to learn to adapt. Stasis is not normal for a living system. If the system you are in appears to stay the same for a period of time, that only means that changes are happening out of your vision, in a way that your particular radar doesn't pick up. A static living system is one that has been dead so long it is no longer even effective as carrion.

11 Don't depend on rules

KK: The nature of life is to delight in all possible loopholes. Every creature is in some way hacking a living by reinterpreting the rules.

CP: So, in an organization, rule-making is not the most productive management tool.

12 Give it away to get more

KK: In network economics, more brings more.

CP: Like a reef, a flock, or the Internet, a networked system does not become full. It is not a zero-sum game. The more you give away (information, money, power) the more you get back, often through unexpected paths.

13 Respect the genes

KK: Hereditary information does not exist independently of its embodiment. . . . The genes harbor their own wisdom and their own inertia.

CP: Your organization has genes - its story, its "self-talk," its history, its particular relationship with the environment. Those genes are embodied in the organization's members, customers, suppliers, payers, and neighbors. You cannot hack away at any of those genetic sources without damage to the life prospects of the organism.

14 Exchange control for learning

KK: We cannot import evolution and learning without exporting control.

CP: To learn something new, as an organization or as an individual, I have to let go of what I think I know now. To evolve, I have to let go of who I believe that I am now.

15 Look for the power to change at each level

KK: We are all steering.

CP: Every central authority knows how hard it is to initiate change from above. The true power to change, or to resist change, is distributed throughout all levels of the organism. This is true whether or not the central authority acknowledges it, or the lower levels realize it.

16 Settle in

KK: The hardest lesson for humans to learn: that organic complexity will entail organic time.

CP: Intentional change that works, whether personal and organizational, takes a long time.

17 Connect at all levels

KK: When everything happens at once, wide and fast-moving problems simply route around any central authority. Therefore overall governance must arise from the most humble interdependent acts done locally in parallel, and not from a central command.

CP: In turbulent times, the old command-and-control methods fail. Any management that works must be intimately connected with, and interactive with, all levels of the organism.

18 Spread the power

KK: The only way for a system to evolve into something new is to have a flexible structure. . . . A decentralized, redundant organization can flex without distorting its function, and thus it can adapt.

CP: In an organization under pressure, you need the adaptive intelligence, the learning ability, of each piece of the organization, and each individual. To get that adaptive intelligence, you must give away the power to make decisions about what happens in their neighborhood.

19 Nurture your seers

KK: Adaptation - at its core - requires a sense of the future. In a changing environment, systems that anticipate the future are more likely to persist.

CP: Your organization has more ways of sensing what's coming than you now know or use. We typically limit who we ask about the future. And we limit our visions of the future to those that fit our past, like generals well-schooled in fighting the last war. Sony learned a great deal from its difficulties introducing Beta and CD. It applied those lessons vigorously to introducing MD, but they didn't work in a changed environment.

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