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A Look at Natural Law #24

It's all complex


Toni Morrison, who was born in 1931 about two hours east of Ann Arbor in Lorain, Ohio wrote, “This is the time for every artist in every genre to do what he or she does loudly and consistently. It doesn’t matter to me what your position is. You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.” With Ms. Morrison’s charge in mind, I’m going to move forward to write about what I believe will become #24 on the list of Natural Laws. While I have much more to study about the subject, it has become increasingly clear to me over the years that—whether we like it or not—the world, our organizations, and we ourselves are all complex entities.

In the spirit of all that follows, the statement is simple. But the reality behind it (and how we handle that reality) is anything but. Honoring the complexity of our lives, without creating unnecessary complications, is the charge for any of us who want to lead in ways that are in harmony with nature and that work well in the day-to-day doings of our organizations. The thought of complexity, I know, can cause anxiety. And yet, I know too, that complexity, like gravity, is simply the way of the world. Whether we want to admit it, our work will always be infinitely complex. Seemingly small and almost insignificant actions can have immeasurable implications. Leading our lives and organizations well, as Wendell Berry writes, will require “work that honors, not only the known complexity, but also the unknown, the mystery of the nature of any place.” We all have much to learn about the complexity of who we are—both individually and collectively—and, in the process, to build on that to enhance the health of our organizational ecosystems and everyone who is a part of them.

As is so often the case, I’m reluctant to write about this subject right now. At the same time I remind myself, as per Natural Law #19, everything is imperfect. Walking willingly into the complexity of the subject, without letting the realities of my own emotional swings intrude on the work at hand, is part of the challenge. When Toni Morrison told us to “assert the complexity and originality of life,” she didn’t say anything about waiting until we’d first figured it all out. Embracing the unknown, the holistic reality that the world is far wider and infinitely bigger than any of us on our own, may be scary but it’s super important. I regularly tell myself to breathe deeply and get grounded again, because as Duke Ellington once advised, “There are mysteries you don’t know anything about at all. But they are there, or you wouldn’t be here.”

Margaret Wheatley, who’s written extensively about complexity and the principle of self-organization, says, “Whatever your personal beliefs and experiences, I invite you to consider that we need a new worldview to navigate this chaotic time. We cannot hope to make sense using our old maps. It won’t help to dust them off or reprint them in bold colors. The more we rely on them, the more disoriented we become. They cause us to focus on the wrong things and blind us to what’s significant.” The Natural Laws of Business have given me that “new worldview,” and also a new way to navigate. They have provided me with a holistic framework with which to approach my work, and a lens through which I can more clearly see why some organizations are struggling when others doing similar work are surviving, or even thriving. As the years pass, I continue to “discover” other Natural Laws that I didn’t know about when I wrote the original essay back in 2008. The understanding that the world, our organizations, and we ourselves are all complex entities is one of those more recent “revelations.”

This embracing of complexity is not, I know, a particularly popular view in the industrial era. People in the mainstream work world regularly lash out at increased complexity, lamenting how hard it’s making their lives, and longing for a “simpler past” that I’m not sure ever existed. I would suggest, instead, that complexity is neither good nor bad. Like gravity, it just is. And while we can’t change that reality, we can alter how we look at it. As John O’Donohue said, “When we beautify our gaze, the grace of hidden beauty becomes our joy and our sanctuary.” Embracing the natural complexity of the world has helped me calm my nerves, and at the same time, to notice more of the “hidden beauty” of which O’Donohue wrote. My stress level is lowered, and the frequency with which I experience joy increases. While some believe the complexity of the world is a catastrophe in the making, I’ve come to see it as something of a magical kaleidoscope; when I use it well I can suddenly see wonderful things that I’d otherwise have completely missed out on.

I do understand the anxiety that this acceptance of complexity can cause. If I start to fixate on how many variables are at play with even a single artisan product we sell, it’s easy for me to start to feel overwhelmed. The exceptional deliciousness of the new crop 2021 First Flush Darjeeling (see below for more on this terrific tea) I’m drinking as I write, in a sense, is simple; to the casual observer it’s just a spoonful of dried tea leaves with hot water poured over top. And yet, as simple as it is, everything about this terrific tea is lovably complex. (As scientist Eric Berlow points out, “Complex does not mean it is complicated.”) Tea, which is native to China, had to be brought to India in the 1830s by British colonialists driving to make money. Nearly 200 years later, people need to do the hard hand work of maintaining high quality tea gardens, in this case, organically. We need farmers willing to do all the extra little things (Natural Law #7) that make tea at this exceptional level of quality possible. All the tea leaves are handpicked—just the last two leaves on the branch and the bud at its tip—and hand rolled. The tea needs to be portioned properly and the water for brewing has to be heated to just right (205°F is the recommended temperature). There are so many moving pieces it’s mind boggling. So much could go wrong. It’s not hard to understand why so many turn back to tea bags. And yet, the flavor is so good I can’t stop drinking it. There’s a whole world playing out in this one wonderful cup. As scientist Stephen Harrod Buhner writes, “There are webs of complexity that tie everything together, and they are more numerous than the stars in the night sky.”

What I’ve been realizing is that when I choose positive beliefs about this complexity, that’s where I start to see—and in our case, taste—the sort of beauty I get sipping this new crop Darjeeling. In small ways and unexpected places, amazing things appear. As Roald Dahl wrote, “Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” I’ve come to believe that if we lean into the complexity and learn to love it, we will find more magic. There are always problems, but the French baguette I got from the Bakehouse this morning was marvelous. And this afternoon a staff member sent me a beautiful poem.

English scientist Timothy Lenton teaches that complexity comes “from the Greek pleko meaning to plait or twine. Thus a complex system is literally one consisting of interwoven parts.” We are all, whether we know it or not, woven together in the world, and as John O’Donohue said, “Every life is braided with luminous moments.” Robin Wall Kimmerer’s wonderful book, Braiding Sweetgrass, brings some beautiful perspectives to the complexity of the world, braiding together, as she says, indigenous ways of knowing and her formal studies of science, all of which helped my own understanding of the natural complexities and nuances of our world.

If we change our beliefs, things do look a lot different. Instead of experiencing complexity as a problem, we can see the acceptance of it as progress. As I wrote in Part 4:

Nature, it turns out—people, plants, animals, the environment—is beautiful, but it’s not simple. It’s the opposite. As psychologist Carl Rogers writes, “there is a natural tendency towards a more complex and complete development.” Complexity—not simplicity—is the natural state of our existence. The more we evolve, as Rogers explains, the more complex both we and our world will become. Human beings are the most complex life forms on the planet. Put a bunch of them together in a business, add in a lot of customers, the community, the country, and the influence of the rest of the world, and that complexity is multiplied many times over.

As [permaculturist] Toby Hemenway writes, healthy ecosystems are “not merely flowery showplaces or ruler-straight arrays of row crops.” Monocropping won’t work in business either. Although key numbers, job titles, org charts, and strategic initiatives can help us hold short-term focus, it’s my strongly held belief that no human being can fully comprehend or effectively orchestrate all that is happening (let alone what will happen) within our workplaces. Mind you, complexity doesn’t need to be confusing. In the same way snowflakes or sunflowers have their own elegance, so too can our organizations and our lives. Each forms its own kind of complex order, in harmony with the ecosystem of which it’s a part.

So, what would it mean to honor our natural complexity at work? Here are seven pieces we can use to start putting together the puzzle:

1. Engage with the beauty and nuance of the natural world — This is a choice we each get to make: we can accentuate what the people around us do badly, or quietly correct mistakes while still actively celebrating the beauty that’s always present. As John O’Donohue wrote, “To evoke an awareness of beauty in another is to give them a precious gift they will never lose. … It is a recognition and invocation of the dignity, grandeur and grace of their spirit.” Human beings—starting with me—are subject to mood swings; we make mistakes; we get triggered and suffer from memory lapses, all of which leads much of the business world to negative beliefs. I hear things like, “Business would be great if it wasn’t for the people.”

I like to look at it the other way. People are amazing. In the right settings, they often rise to incredible heights. Their ability to collaborate and to come up with creative, out-of-the-box solutions blows me away. They consistently come together time and again to make great things happen. They push past pandemics and overcome obstacles and traverse travails. When I stop to think about it, the fact that all of the pieces of what we know as the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses work as well as they do is nigh on a miracle. As O’Donohue said, “Each of us is responsible for how we see, and how we see determines what we see.” When we end every meeting with appreciations, when we begin our visioning work by reviewing past “prouds,” when we write up positive customer comments as “Code Greens,” all of these and more help to bring the naturally complex beauty of our world to the fore.

2. Design organizational processes that honor complexity — As I wrote in Part 1:

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” The truth is that as our organizations grow they are going to get more complex. It’s impossible not to—the more we grow, the more people we interact with, the more food, customers, product lines, and space we have, the more complex our lives are going to become.”

Karl Weick, one of the University of Michigan’s best-known business professors, breaks learning and solutions out into three stages of development:

  1. 1. Superficial Simplicity
  2. 2. Confused Complexity
  3. 3. Profound Simplicity

If we can lean into the complexity, learn to love it, and gently feel our way through to emerge on the other side with the sort of profound simplicity that Dr. Weick writes about, I believe our lives and organizations will both feel and do better. Our approach to what we call “Organizational Recipes” (see Secret #3) is, I’ve come to realize, all about this. They provide us with positive, helpful, and healthy ways to work that honor complexity. They guide us towards good decisions, but still allow for the creative intelligence of individuals to adapt to the situation at hand. We have a wealth of them: 3 Steps to Great Service, 5 Steps to Handling a Customer Complaint, Lean, 6 Elements of Servant Leadership, 3 kinds of beliefs (positive, neutral, negative), 4 Elements of an Effective Vision, and many more. Daily journaling is a practice that helps me do the same on a personal level (see “Working Through Hard Times” for more on how and why). Our new Statement of Beliefs that we formally put forward into our world a few weeks ago is another still. None of these recipes guarantee good outcomes every time, but they will almost always get anyone who uses them close to a series of reasonably good decisions, while simultaneously encouraging everyone to think like leaders, ask for help, and do the right thing for the organization.

3. Give people the freedom to make decisions — There are few things more frustrating as a customer than getting caught in a Kafka-esque bit of bureaucracy. It’s happened to me too many times and it’s likely happened to you as well. You know the situation—“the right answer” is obvious, but the staff member who’s serving you insists on following rules that clearly aren’t helpful in the situation. I don’t blame the service staff—they’re pretty surely following scripts written for them by a handful of upper-level managers, often halfway across the country, who couldn’t be much more removed from the reality at hand.

We can reverse that energetic flow by freeing people to think for themselves and encouraging them—after considering our organizational mission, vision, values, and now beliefs—to do the right thing. I’m firmly of the belief that the more we encourage everyone to think like a leader, the better things are going to go. No, teaching everyone to lead does not create chaos. While it may look that way to someone used to more typical 20th century management thinking, I believe it leads us towards greatness. As Gary Snyder says: “Nature is orderly. That which appears to be chaotic in nature is only a more complex kind of order.” When we teach people how to work collaboratively, when they begin with positive beliefs, when they practice teamwork together, and then encourage them to use their naturally occurring creativity, I believe that good things will come. Fritjof Capra describes it from a scientific standpoint: “Complex and seemingly chaotic behavior can give rise to ordered structures, to subtle and beautiful patterns. Indeed, the term ‘chaos’ has acquired a new technical meaning. The behavior of chaotic systems is not merely random but shows a deeper level of patterned order.”

4. Embrace diversity — If we begin with the acceptance of the natural complexity of the world, it will quickly become clear that none of us will have all the answers. Since each of us will, by definition, see only our own parts of any picture, the more we weave diverse perspectives into what we do, the healthier our ecosystems and the better our decision making is likely to be. In nature, the healthiest ecosystems are also the most diverse. I will write about it later this summer, since it too is on my list of additional Natural Laws. As anarchist Murray Bookchin writes, “The capacity of an ecosystem to retain its integrity depends not on the uniformity of the environment but on its diversity.”

We have much to do to get better at this work. At the same time, I can see how recipes like our Bottom-Line Change process, Lean, visioning, adding Staff Partners, using consensus decision making at the partner level, Open Book Management, and open meetings help us. I can see too how using multiple approaches rather than relying on one singular philosophical approach encourages more diversity in our thinking. All of these and more help us avoid what Robert Greenleaf wrote about: “To be a lone chief atop a pyramid is abnormal and corrupting. None of us are perfect by ourselves, and all of us need the help and correcting influence of close colleagues.” Simply having an outside visitor ask a question at a huddle last month led us to make a small but significant positive shift.

5. Steer clear of superficial simplicity — The recipes I referenced above all guide us towards a good place, but they honor complexity by being flexible—the content in each case (what goes in the vision, how we greet the guest, etc.) will always be “local.” On the other hand, tight service scripts and rote memorization instead of thinking about what’s really right, I’ve come to believe, are the intellectual equivalent of fast food; quick and seemingly low cost, but in the long run dangerous, demeaning, and damaging to all involved. Superficial simplicity reduces what ought to be art, to an anesthetized and unimaginative existence. It dehumanizes the people we work with and turns customers into categories. Secret #10 in Part 1, “A Question of Systems,” addresses this issue in greater depth. We need to stay away from the reductionist desire to isolate and assess everything only on its own, at the expense of understanding the whole. Masanobu Fukuoka writes, “Nature is one. There is no starting point or destination, only an unending flux, a continuous metamorphosis of all things.”

The attraction to superficial simplicity manifests itself in the appeal of “heroic” or charismatic leaders, in authoritarianism, hierarchical thinking, a belief in binary choices, etc. Industrial thinking has taught us to “straighten out” the rough edges of society, when the truth is, as Jane Jacobs says, “A living thing is never built of straight lines.” The more we can teach ourselves to think broadly, to enhance sensitivity, and to lean into and learn about the natural complexity of our worlds, the better we’re going to do.

6. Use the ecosystem approach — This is about thinking big and small at the same time, paying close attention to each detail while keeping in mind the impact our actions will have on others in our community and beyond. This is a huge subject for another day, but suffice it to say here that I’ve learned over the years that everything we say or do, every change we make, every initiative we undertake will impact others far beyond what I can conceive of on my own. Whole-systems thinking is embedded in Bottom-Line Change, visioning, Open Book Management, Lean, permaculture, etc. Empathy, diversity, encouraging connection, and good listening skills help as well. Scientist Eric Berlow explains, “The more you can zoom out and embrace complexity, the better chance you have of zooming in on the simple details that matter most.”

7. Honor emotion, energy, and intuition — One of the most commonly ignored elements of the complexity inherent in any organizational ecosystem is the interplay of human emotion. As Stephen Harrod Buhner writes, “Many people have also lost their capacity to empathize with other life forms of any sort; this is especially true of people in any position of power.” The mainstream work world lashes out at anyone who’s “not being logical” or “sticking to the facts.” This lashing out conveniently ignores the reality that our feelings, our energy, our emotion, and our spirit are as much a part of the ecosystem as statistical “data.” It’s not a coincidence that respect for the natural world offers us the alternative to opt for a holistic and eco-logic-al approach. As Dr. Buhner says, “How much of life have I wasted by believing the thing I was taught, that thinking is what makes us better, that the brain is superior to heart.”

Teaching emotional intelligence, energy management, mindfulness, compassion, and kindness are all business skills of high value. Without them we will be hard pressed to do as well as we want. As poet William Stafford writes:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

When we lean into the complexity, cool stuff happens. As comedian George Carlin said, “A lot of this is discovery. A lot of things are lying around waiting to be discovered and that’s our job is to just notice them and bring them to life.” The thought of this makes me smile. I can’t be sure what the impact of that smile will be as I go out into the world and get back to work, but I believe it will be positive. Embracing the complexity of the greater ecosystem, it turns out, can help us to do a better job with the daily details that keep customers and coworkers coming back. It’s not easy, but it is energizing, and it encourages us to put our creative abilities to work. As Peter Block puts it:

What makes community building so complex is that it occurs in an infinite number of small steps, sometimes in quiet moments that we notice out of the corner of our eye. It calls for us to treat as important many things that we thought were incidental. An afterthought becomes the point; a comment made in passing defines who we are more than all that came before. If the artist is one who captures the nuance of experience, then this is whom each of us must become.

For more on the Natural Laws of Business see Part 1, Building a Great Business


*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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