Leaders Let Go of Control

At the heart of the conventional mental map is the assumption of knowing. An expert solves a technical problem by applying knowledge. At the heart of the positive mental map is the assumption of collective learning. People pursue a purpose they do not yet know how to accomplish. As they move forward, they learn and adapt, eventually producing a new level of understanding and order. For someone living from the conventional mental map, emergence is difficult to comprehend, and trusting the process is nearly impossible. Consider an illustration from the book Life at the Edge of Chaos: Creating the Quantum Organization (4).

In the book, author Mark Youngblood tells the story of a warehouse in Dallas that was being inventoried for the first time. Youngblood was a consultant leading the initiative. Sally was the manager representing the client organization. Youngblood knew that the process of counting and reconciliation would border on chaos. He expected the individual team members to think for themselves. He expected the team to move forward—improvising and learning constantly.

The process started well, but then a very uncomfortable Sally stepped in and took control. She became the centralizing mechanism demanding that each person report to her and follow her direction. At first this caused things to go smoother. But then, the number of problems began to expand. Each one was unique and took considerable time to resolve. People began waiting around while Sally solved their problems. Soon she was overwhelmed and then she collapsed in exhaustion.

When she was no longer in control, team members returned to the original approach. Empowered actors combined in the process of collective learning. By morning, the project was complete.

In the story, Sally comes off as a kind of villain. Uncomfortable with what she perceives as chaos, she seizes control. In fact, what she did is what the viceroy would have done, it is what Dan would have done, and it is what almost all of us would have done. Her behavior is a reflection of the conventional mental map. She could not conceive or trust the process of self-organization.

The Positive Organization – p.94-95

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