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Towards WE & BEYOND - Impressions from a shared journey Part XII

Is it a paradox that we talked about prioritization in our last blog and now advocate that ‘the times of either / or’ are over? The almost funny thing is, it is not an ‘either / or’ either!

Though we knew it was on our agenda - and Bettina had written a number of short articles for the Guardian on “Today’s Leadership Challenges: Embracing Paradoxes”, ie the ‘and’, it has taken a while to get into the topic of this blog. Three thoughts helped to finally get a handle on it:

  • When washing out a plastic bottle the other morning, watching the flow out of the bottle turn from ordered and linear to turbulent and chaotic, a realisation occurred as to why the ‘and’ has become more important now: as long as the pace of the flow (or change) is slow, things seem to happen in an orderly, linear fashion. Then, when the flow rate is increased - something changes in the equation of quantity (more), space (less) and time (less) - things start to happen simultaneously, becoming first complex, then chaotic.

  • A second picture came to mind, that of a pendulum. Most organisations go through phases of expansion and growth, followed by consolidation and streamlining - in some way like the waxing and waning of the moon or flooding and ebbing of the seas - ‘either / or’. 


  • When looking at the two above it also became clear that the ‘either / or’ seems to work at the level of smaller systems: if we look at the sea at the north Norfolk coast, it is either ‘in’ or ‘out’. Looking at the wider system of the North Sea, it will be ‘in’ and ‘out’ at the same time, depending on which parts of the system you are looking at. Or think about organisations. In a small organisation we might be able to say whether it is expanding or consolidating. For a large organisation such a statement will be much more difficult! It might be consolidating in one part of the business, in one geographical or market segment, and expanding in another!

So what does all of this mean for our discussion on ‘either / or’ - or rather ‘and’? Why do we feel the ‘and’ is becoming more relevant and more important?

Whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, over the past decade or so the pace of change has been accelerating significantly (we had already mentioned in a previous blog that every day 2.5 quintillion byes of data are being added). One important driver behind the escalation of change is of course digital technology, especially the internet. Through its connectivity and the fact that anything uploaded is available instantaneously around the world the internet has increased the speed and volume of the flow of data and information dramatically. Other technological advances, including increased processing power and miniaturization, have led to convergence - just think about smart phones, washer-dryers, multi-functional tools. And it is not only products where we can observe convergence, it is happening for services too (as well as product and services merging!). All of this leads to an increase in complexity (again a topic that keeps cropping up…) of the 'man-made' world, our living context our current culture. Nature has obviously always been complex, something we humans seem to be uncovering and understanding only slowly.

butterfly effect.jpg

So the short answer as to why we need a shift from ‘either / or’ to ‘and’ is: the cultural context has changed dramatically and we no longer have the luxury of the ‘either / or’. Instead of living in a linear, two-dimensional world of a pendulum we have created a complex, multi-dimensional world of fractals. It is a world where the sheer number of possibility drives us from order towards chaos, and it is at the edge of chaos that we can observe the Butterfly Effect, first described by Edward Lorenz in 1963. 

There is a short video that explains Lorenz' Butterfly Effect very nicely. The bit we like best is the last sentence and this is what we present as our twelves insight:

“Why has the butterfly effect become so popular? Perhaps because it gives us back our freedom. The legacy of Newton’s cold determinism sometimes leads to a kind of fatalism. The Lorenz Butterfly claims that, small that we are, we can have an influence on the world - good news for us!"

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