Surfing On the Edge of Chaos: A Book About Corporate Leadership

I expected great things from this book. Richard T. Pascale had been a co-author on two other books that I thought were simply among the best business books I had read. The first of those was The Art of Japanese Management, published in 1981. That book preceded In Search of Excellence by about a year and said many of the things that it said, only better.

Pascale’s other book was Managing on the Edge, published in 1990. It was a book filled with lots of insight as well as understanding of emerging chaos theory and how it applied to organizations. Both books were exceptionally well written.

By 2000, the publication date for Surfing on the Edge of Chaos, there had already been several books that did a reasonably good job at looking at some combination of a natural or biological model for organizations and chaos theory as ways of making sense of corporations in the 21st Century. My hope was that Pascale and his co-authors would build on that with the kind of insight and clear writing that I’d seen him produce before. I was disappointed.

The book starts well enough. The chapter on Management and the Scientific Renaissance is excellent. I found the insight and synthesis and good phrasing that I expected. The synthesis was broad – ranging and coherent. Some phrasing was memorable.

For example, there was the comment that “Living Systems isn’t a metaphor for how human institutions operate. It’s the way it is.% That phrase does an excellent job of summing up paragraphs of analysis. After the first chapter, though, the value of the book begins to vaporize.

The plan is that the book will offer a chapter of scientific principles and management application, followed by a case study for each of the key points. Here’s how it works.

Chapter Two has the title “Equilibrium is Death.” The authors do a pretty good job of making their case that this is true for biological systems. They never quite make the case that the statement is true for human organizations. Chapter Three on “Disturbing Equilibrium at Sears” should help here, but it really doesn’t

This chapter turns out mostly to be a description of some recent history at Sears viewed through the lens of “equilibrium.” Whatever problems Sears had, the authors find a way to tie them in some way to “equilibrium.” Problems that might be culture problems in another book become equilibrium problems here. Problems that might be failures of strategy elsewhere are seen as functions of equilibrium at work.

I wouldn’t have a problem with this if all we were offered was a different perspective. Lots of different perspectives can really help us understand business problems. Here, though, there seems to be an awful lot of “force-fitting” the situation being described to make have it fit the authors’ thinking on equilibrium.

As the book went on, that pattern repeated and got more and more tiresome. Stuck in amongst the explications of science and the case studies were a couple of management platitudes in case you’d missed them in any recent books. We’re told, for example, that “to talk only to oneself as a company will lead to strategic vulnerability.% That is almost certainly true, but dropping it into this book doesn’t make the book any better.

There was a problem with writing style, too. The book began with energy spawned by insight. As the book went on the advice got more and more ethereal and less and less practical. The authors began to drone. I got the impression that they’d been real excited about the book proposal that won them the contract to write the book, but that by the end they were just glad to be done with the whole thing.

My final judgment on the book is this. If you’re looking for some good explanations of chaos theory and the biological view of organizations, youÃ?¢ll find that in this book, especially in the opening chapter. If you’re looking for some interesting case studies dealing with recent companies and change issues, youÃ?¢ll find those in this book as well. What you won’t find is a well-written book that brings all of this together insightfully and powerfully. Maybe next time.

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