Every few years a book changes the way people think about a field. In psychology there is Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence. In science, James Gleick's Chaos. In economics and finance, Burton Malkiel's A Random Walk Down Wall Street. And in business there is now Surfing the Edge of Chaos by Richard T. Pascale, Mark Millemann, and Linda Gioja.
Surfing the Edge of Chaos is a brilliant, powerful, and practical book about the parallels between business and nature—two fields that feature nonstop battles between the forces of tradition and the forces of transformation. It offers a bold new way of thinking about and responding to the personal and strategic challenges everyone in business faces these days.
Pascale, Millemann, and Gioja argue that because every business is a living system (not just as metaphor but in reality), the four cornerstone principles of the life sciences are just as true for organizations as they are for species. These principles are:
Equilibrium is death.
Innovation usually takes place on the edge of chaos.
Self-organization and emergence occur naturally.
Organizations can only be disturbed, not directed.
Using intriguing, in-depth case studies (Sears Roebuck, Monsanto, Royal Dutch Shell, the U.S. Army, British Petroleum, Hewlett Packard, Sun Microsystems), Surfing the Edge of Chaos shows that in business, as in nature, there are no permanent winners. There are just companies and species that either react to change and evolve, or get left behind and become extinct.
Parallels between Yellowstone National Park and Sears show why equilibrium is a dangerous place in both nature and business.
How Monsanto used a "strange attractor" to move to the edge of chaos to alter its identity and transform its culture.
The unlikely story of how the U.S. Army embraced the ideas of self-organization and emergence.
Why the misapplication of linear logic (reengineering a business or attempting to eradicate predators in nature) will inevitably fail.
The stories in Surfing the Edge of Chaos are of pioneering efforts that show how the principles of living systems produce bottom-line impact and profound transformational change. What's really striking about them, though, is their reality. They are about success and failure, breakthroughs and dead-ends. In short, they are like the business you are in and the challenges you face.