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EMERGENCE, 1(4), 5–19
Copyright © 1999, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
a Worldview Shift
Eric B. Dent
ne of the frustrations of working in the exciting area of
“complexity science in organizations” is that there is no
commonly accepted definition of what this term means
(White et al., 1997). Definitions have been offered, such as
“complexity is a watchword for a new way of thinking about the collective
behavior of many basic but interacting units ... complexity is the study of
the behavior of macroscopic collections of such units that are endowed
with the potential to evolve in time” (Coveney and Highfield, 1995: 7).
Although this definition is very descriptive, it still seems general and
unfocused. The purpose of this article is to offer a simple definition for
complexity science and to demonstrate the shift in worldview necessary
for complexity science to become second nature to people as traditional
science now is.
Simply put, complexity science is an approach to research, study, and
perspective that makes the philosophical assumptions of the emerging
worldview (EWV)—these include holism, perspectival observation,
mutual causation, relationship as unit of analysis, and others; see Table 1.
Classical science, as practiced in the twentieth century, for the most part
makes the philosophical assumptions that will be labeled here the tradi-
tional worldview (TWV)—which include underlying assumptions of
reductionism, objective observation, linear causation, entity as unit of
analysis, and others.
This TWV, which has allowed people to make significant achieve-
ments in many fields, is no longer serving as a reliable guide. Several
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brief examples illustrate the dysfunctional nature of TWV assumptions
◆ Rent control laws that were intended to maintain a stock of low-cost
housing have resulted in a shortage of low-cost housing.
◆ The demise of the Saturday Evening Post and the Curtis Publishing
Company has been attributed to “management essentially look[ing]
for short and direct cause and effect linkages” (Jacobs and Jaques,
1987: 34). Computer simulations have suggested that this company
could have been saved if a strategy incorporating complex, indirect
linkages had been employed.
◆ “The largest building in the world, the space vehicle preparation shed
at Cape Kennedy, generates its own weather, including clouds and
rains. Designed to protect space rockets from the elements, it pelts
them with storms of its own” (Gall, 1977: 20).
◆ Sick people go to the hospital to be made well. Twenty percent of all
patients, however, acquire illness in the hospital as a result of their
diagnostic procedures and treatments prescribed (Illich, 1977: 23).
The rise of complexity science has paralleled an increase in dissatisfaction
with the TWV. Capra (1982: 15) labels this dissatisfaction a crisis of per-
ception and says that it occurs when people hold to a mental model that
no longer achieves their standards of accuracy. Other writers have called
this same phenomenon a period of dislocation (Ackoff, 1981) or a time
when we are between “stories” (Schwartz and Ogilvy, 1979). We do not
yet know exactly what the new story will be. It is easier to see where we
have been than where we are going. Consequently, the problems and
dilemmas that have arisen are easier to critique than the specific details
of a new worldview are to provide. Examples of these difficulties are
TWV assumptions that work within a range of conditions, but beyond that
range they no longer work.
Many have written about the change in worldview (Wishard, 1995;
Dooley, 1997; Slife and Williams, 1995; Smith, 1982; Ackoff, 1994; Dent,
1995). In contrast to these works, however, the focus of this article is on
the change in thinking that is required for organizational members to
function effectively in postmodern organizations. I will suggest that if we
are to continue to grow, develop, and thrive in this world we must adjust
some of our most deeply held mental models about the world and our
interactions with it. At the same time, I acknowledge that there is some
suggestion (Wilber, 1998) and evidence (Dent and Powley, 1999) that the
worldview shift may not be progressing as rapidly as some writers have
claimed. The article will attempt to describe the most necessary shifts in
thinking so that complexity science will be seen as “normal.”
Some of the underlying assumptions of the shift in worldview are
becoming clearer. A difficulty in capturing the TWV and EWV under-
lying assumptions, though, is that the worldviews cannot be simply
stated. One can use simple metaphors like the clock and the waterfall, but
these do not capture the full essence of the worldviews. Table 1 contains
a list of a number of differences in underlying assumption gathered from
a variety of sources.
Most readers of this article will have been taught in a learning para-
digm so that they will be more comfortable with the information pre-
sented in the form of Table 1 (Vaill, 1996). However, Figure 1, which still
has limitations, is a more accurate visual representation of the differences
in TWV and EWV underlying assumptions, for reasons discussed below.
Including all of the information in Table 1 in Figure 1 would overwhelm
the visual representation, so only the three constructs that best differen-
tiate worldview (Dent, 1997) are presented. For clarity of understanding,
the word “construct” is used to denote a phenomenon such as causality.
The word “assumption” is used to indicate a selection within a construct.
So, for the construct causality, the two assumptions labeled are mutual
TAKING THE TRADITIONAL WORLDVIEW
“OUT OF RANGE”
It is important to note that theorists are not suggesting that the traditional
underlying assumptions are wrong. In fact, many of them seem to be use-
ful in localized settings. For example, Prigogine and Stengers (1984: xxiii)
see determinism and indeterminism not as irreconcilable opposites but
“each playing its role as a partner in destiny.” Between bifurcation points,
determinism is operative. At a bifurcation point, however, indeterminism
takes over. Consequently, indeterminism (which doesn’t dismiss localized
determinism) and the other emerging assumptions seem to be more use-
ful abstract concepts. They reflect reality more accurately in a larger
number of instances. Capra (1982) nicely captures the distinction:
Modern science has come to realize that all scientific theories are approx-
imations to the true nature of reality; and that each theory is valid for a
certain range of phenomenon. Beyond this range it no longer gives a
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Observer in the observation
Equal focus on exteriors and interiors
Focus on relationship between entities
Dialogical research methods
— Critical mass thresholds
Focus on feedback
Quantum physics perspectives
— influence occurs through iterative
— the world is novel and probabilistic
Focus on heterarchy (within level)
Language as action (Gergen and
Based on biology
— structure, pattern, self-organization,
Focus on patterns
Focus on variation
Behavior emerges from bottom up
Metaphor of morphogenesis
Focus on ongoing behavior
Little or no transference of models
Theory is narrowly applicable
Generation of symbols
Mind creates matter
Observer outside the observation
Primary focus on exteriors (Wilber, 1998)
“Survival of the fittest”
“Lead or seed” (Resnick, 1994)
Focus on discrete entities
Monological research methods (Wilber, 1998)
— Marginal increases
Either/or thinking (Johnson, 1992)
Focus on directives
Newtonian physics perspectives
— influence occurs as direct result of force
exerted from one person to another
— expecting the world to be predictable
Focus on hierarchy (between levels)
Yang dominance (Fondas, 1997)
Language as representation
Based on nineteenth-century physics
— equilibrium, stability, deterministic
Focus on pace (Bailey, 1996)
Focus on averages
Behavior specified from top down
Metaphor of assembly
Focus on results or outcomes
Easy transference of models
Theory is widely applicable
Transmission of symbols
Matter creates mind (Harman, 1998)
Table 1 Emerging and traditional worldview descriptors
satisfactory description of nature, and new theories have to be found to
replace the old one, or, rather, to extend it by improving the approxima-
tion. (Capra, 1982: 101)
A clear example is the set of equations that Newton developed for the
movement of celestial bodies (Briggs and Peat, 1989: 27). Newton’s work
results in precise solutions when only two bodies are involved, for exam-
ple the moon and the earth. If a third body, such as the sun, is added, the
equations become unsolvable. Even if the third body is extremely small,
its minute gravitational pull “might cause a planet to wobble and weave
drunkenly in its orbit and even fly out of the solar system altogether”
(Briggs and Peat, 1989: 28). To determine accurate planetary movements,
the researcher is left to develop a series of approximations using heuris-
Ken Wilber (1995) uses the term “fractured worldview” to describe
the part-right, part-wrong feature of the TWV:
The problem was not that these early conceptions were simply wrong.
Aspects of the physiosphere do indeed act in a deterministic and
mechanistic-like fashion, and some of them are definitely running down.
Rather it was that these conceptions were partial. They covered some of
the most obvious aspects of the physiosphere, but because of the
VOLUME #1, ISSUE #4
primitive means and instruments available at the time, the subtler (and
more significant) aspects of the physiosphere were overlooked. (
Wilber’s primary complaint is that the TWV ignores the internal world of
prehensions, sensations, perceptions, impulses, emotions, images, sym-
bols, and other similar phenomena that many would argue constitute as
important, if not more important, a part of life.
Problems also arise when people assume that the TWV is accurate in
all settings. Although it is inappropriate, and potentially inaccurate,
researchers frequently use linear regression on non-linear phenomena,
calculus on discontinuous functions, or chi square when data points are
interdependent (Dent, 1994). Priesmeyer (1992: 30) has speculated that
traditional statistical methods remain useful for systems that are nearly
stable. Classic problem-solving techniques make perfect sense when
reductionism can be assumed. If a single problem can be solved
completely independently of everything else in the system and its envi-
ronment, problem solving is an ideal strategy. However, when inter-
dependencies are present, problem solving becomes less effective.
The comprehension and control model of management makes perfect
sense in a relatively stable environment. However, the Relaxation Time
Principle has shown that “system stability is possible only if the system’s
relaxation time is shorter than the mean time between disturbances”
(Clemson, 1984: 213). In other words, if an organization experiences
changes more rapidly than it can comprehend and control them, then it
is not possible to keep the system stable. A similar example is provided
by Karl Weick (1985: 110). He describes the decision-making style of the
TWV as rational. Rational decision making is effective in organizations in
environments that change slowly, have few social groups, and have cen-
tralized authority that works reasonably well. Weick observes that these
conditions are now relatively rare in organizations.
Consequently, some aspects of the EWV are simply “enlargements” of
the TWV. McKelvey (1999) notes that
since the [EWV] does not require axiomatic reduction, it tolerates multi-
ple models. Thus, “truth” is not defined in terms of reduction to a single
model. ... That they also have different theoretical explanations is not con-
sidered a failure. Each is an isolated, idealized physical system repre-
senting different aspects of real-world phenomena. (McKelvey, 1999: 19)
Perhaps the most useful mental model for thinking about the TWV and
EWV is that of a polarity (Johnson, 1992). Polarities are sets of opposites
that cannot function well independently. The two sides of a polarity are
interdependent, so one side cannot be “right” or the “solution” at the
expense of the other. Johnson contends that “many of the current trends
in business and industry are polarities to manage, not problems to solve”
(p. xi). An example of a polarity in worldview is that, rather than replac-
ing yang dominance with yin dominance, the EWV includes a balance of
yin and yang, not subordinating the yang. Likewise, the example pro-
vided earlier suggests that indeterminism and determinism form a polar-
ity. The question of behavior emerging from the bottom up or being
imposed from the top down form a polarity.
Each side of the pole has upsides and downsides. A “figure 8” pattern
often develops between the upsides and downsides of the two assump-
tions. People often identify the downside pole as the “problem” and
therefore want to abandon it. The upside of the opposite pole is seen as
the “solution.” When one pole has been emphasized for too long, the
result is the downside of both poles. In terms of polarities, the shift called
for in this article is from a focus on a single pole (the TWV) to a focus on
both poles (the EWV). A graphical representation of a polarity is depicted
in Figure 2.
Although a juxtaposition listing such as Table 1 earlier may create this
implication, because of instances of synthesis and polarities, these differ-
ences should not be pictured as a continuum with the TWV at one end
and the EWV at the other. It is more accurate to say that there is a com-
plementarity in the items. In some cases, one is an enlargement of the
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Autonomy, creativity, initiative,
care for the part
Equality, synergy, creativity,
cohesion, care for the whole
Selfishness, neglect of whole,
loss of: equality, synergy, support
Selfishness, neglect of part, excessive
conformity, loss of initiative
other, in some they are primarily distinct, and in others there is some
It is also important to recognize that a breakdown in the TWV does
not automatically mean the ascendance of the EWV. A manager, for exam-
ple, could be totally frustrated by hierarchical structure but not know
with what to replace it. And, if we give up a belief in survival of the fittest,
we do not necessarily embrace adaptive self-organization. In this case,
there are other alternative concepts about structure.
ORGANIZATIONAL PHENOMENA BASED ON
In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge (1990) includes mental modeling as
one of the five disciplines. He suggests that people must be able to sur-
face mental models by sharing the assumptions they make in a situation.
This task is not trivial. Most mental models are so deeply imbedded that
people do not even realize they are simply models; we believe that they
Mental models are critically important. How we see things deter-
mines much of what we see. Consequently, a change in worldview from
TWV to EWV would result in major changes in how organizational activ-
ity occurs. In this section we will include three examples, one for each of
the underlying assumptions that best differentiate worldview: mutual
causality in strategic planning, holism in mess management, and per-
spectival observation in performance appraisal.
MUTUAL CAUSALITY IN STRATEGIC PLANNING
Organizations often assume linear causality. For example, a housing
organization that institutes rent control expects the direct result to be
low-cost housing. Such officials have not realized the feedback from such
a policy. This feedback consists of developers who will refuse to build
additional housing units subject to rent control, landlords who are forced
to allow properties to deteriorate because of below-market compensation,
and apartment dwellers who may refuse to move to a location with better
job opportunities because of the desirability of such low-cost rent. As in
this example, when organizations unrealistically assume linear causality,
their policies often bring about exactly the effects against which they
were trying to guard (Begun, 1994: 330).
An organization that fully comprehends the effects of mutual causal-
ity will engage in strategic planning in a way completely different from
traditional approaches. Mark Michaels (1994: 17) has pointed out that the
strategic planning process as typically implemented “involves predictions
about future events, predictions which the dynamic of sensitivity to ini-
tial conditions—the butterfly effect—prove unreliable.” Karl Weick
advocates “real-time” (or just-in-time) strategic planning. He argues that
acting should precede planning because by acting we take part in con-
structing the environment. The environment is not “out there,” separate
from us. We can help to create the environment. Weick contends that “we
create the environment through our own strong intentions” (Weick,
1995). The Spanish have a phrase which nicely captures this connotation:
“Compañero, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.” A suitable trans-
lation is: “My friend, there is no road. You make the road as you walk.”
Michaels incorporates the idea of feedback by noting that a strategic
plan should be a statement of purpose, “of the company’s moral response
to its broadly defined responsibilities, not an amoral plan for exploiting
commercial opportunity” (1994: 17). This perspective honors the multi-
ple sources of interconnections that develop over the lifetime of an organ-
ization. Weick and Michaels place much more of an emphasis on the
present than traditional strategic planners do. Michaels even highlights
the importance of the past. His three-step process of strategic planning is
(1) creating a shared past; (2) defining the present; and (3) steering into
This view of strategic planning is very
different from the traditional process that
includes developing a vision, a mission,
identifying stakeholders, and doing a
SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportu-
nities, and threats) analysis. This type of analysis assumes that the envi-
ronment presents opportunities and threats, not that the organization is
an active player in creating opportunities and/or threats. Priesmeyer
(1992) adds that the traditional strategic planning model is inaccurately
simplistic because it “suggests that one can understand the state of the
system by assessing current conditions, when in fact an understanding of
evolving conditions is important” (Priesmeyer, 1992: 195).
HOLISM IN MESS MANAGEMENT
Perhaps the most radical example of holism in practice in organizations is
Ackoff’s call for an end to problem solving. Ackoff contends that many of
the problem-solving approaches used in organizations are not effective.
His argument is similar to that of Senge’s designer role for leaders. Senge
VOLUME #1, ISSUE #4
MODEL IS INACCURATELY
(1990) believes that problems should be prevented by proper design.
Ackoff would not argue with that, but would add that when anomalies do
occur, they should be managed as part of the regular course of things,
rather than having a taskforce convened, or an employee assigned to work
on a particular problem. According to Ackoff:
this whole way of thinking encourages us to focus attention upon bits and
pieces of our organizations and thereby leads us to adopt policies and
carry out actions that as often as not make the original situation worse.
(Clemson, 1984: 171)
It is rare in organizations that a problem can be isolated so that a fix can
be implemented without also altering something else in the organization.
Ackoff advocates “mess management,” his term for the continuous bal-
ancing and navigating of complex, interrelated messes, rather than prob-
lems, that most people in organizations face.
Ackoff lists several problems with problem solving. For example, in
many cases the complexity of the problem exceeds the problem-solving
expertise of lower-level employees often assigned to “tiger” teams, task-
forces, or other-named ad hoc problem-solving groups. Also, assigning a
taskforce to study a problem and recommend a solution assumes that
while the taskforce is spending time working on the problem, the prob-
lem is not changing (Ackoff, 1981: 4–5). Anyone who has worked in an
organization has had the experience of a tiger team coming up with a rec-
ommended solution that is not ultimately implemented. Ackoff would
suggest that the primary reason is that the tiger team did not take into
account the whole—the complete set of interdependent relationships
within a given executive’s purview. Mess management requires the
executive, who has the responsibility for handling all of these inter-
dependencies, to manage any problems that arise within his or her natu-
ral, normal processes.
PERSPECTIVAL OBSERVATION IN PERFORMANCE APPRAISAL
In our research, we have discovered that the English language contains a
number of rich expressions that convey an appreciation of perspectival
observation. These include: where you stand depends on where you sit,
beauty is in the eye of the beholder, everyone looks at the world through
his own glasses, the glass is half-empty or half-full, a self-fulfilling
prophecy, it’s the blind man and the elephant, the Rashomon phenome-
non, the umpire training school joke about “the pitch ain’t nothin’ until I
call it,” and that there are two sides to every story. Such a broad set of
common expressions would lead one to believe that perspectival obser-
vation is a widely held assumption in society. Paradoxically, our research
and experience within organizations has been the opposite. We have
interviewed individuals, for example, who were perfectly willing to
accept perspectival observation about what happened at an extended
family Thanksgiving dinner, but who would insist that at work there is
only one true story of what really happened.
The prevailing view of performance appraisals in organizations is
based on the assumption of objective observation. This dominant TWV is
expressed in statements such as “performance measurement is typically
the source of many problems in appraisal because it is seen as subjective”
(Cummings and Worley, 1993: 403). Subjectivity is assumed to be
problematic. An entire industry, led by the Hay Group, is devoted to
instituting objective performance appraisal systems into organizations. In
summary, the two forms of objective performance appraisal predominant
in organizations today site the objectivity either within the manager
alone, or in quantifiable metrics such as number of lines of computer
code written, number of academic papers published, or projects com-
pleted on schedule and within budget.
Those who assume perspectival observation contend that perform-
ance appraisal cannot be objective. For example, for only the simplest of
jobs can individuals be given performance objectives that are completely
within their control. If the workplace is interdependent, employees are
often independently held accountable for the functioning of inter-
dependencies that are operative in the completion of their work. Deming
(1986) and the quality experts question objective performance appraisal
from another perspective. They argue that it is impossible to define a sub-
set of performance measures that can encompass the full set of behaviors
that an organization wants from its employees. (For example, the 1985
and 1986 Florida Teacher of the Year recipients were both denied merit
increases under the merit pay program in place at the time. The awards
were given because of the teachers’ enthusiasm, dedication, involvement
with students, and innovation in the classroom. The merit pay formula
heavily emphasized factors such as how promptly a teacher begins and
ends class.) Empirical research suggests that managers are not capable of
reliably evaluating performance over time (Atwater and Yammarino,
A technique for incorporating the assumption of perspectival obser-
vation into the performance appraisal process has recently come in to
VOLUME #1, ISSUE #4
vogue. This technique has been labelled 360-degree job evaluation,
multirater performance appraisal, team-based pay, and others. It is based
on the assumption that no single person or collection of metrics can best
reflect an employee’s performance. Many organizations are using this
technique only as a way of providing feedback to an employee. The
employee’s subordinates, however, do not have a say in his or her salary
increase or promotion (Antonioni, 1996). Many other organizations do
use subordinate appraisals to determine a manager’s raises and
promotions (McEvoy, 1987). Motorola bases 20 percent of an employee’s
pay on input obtained from peers. It intends to increase this percentage
to 50, and contends that peer review for pay has been a major factor in a
productivity boost of 126 percent over seven years (Swoboda, 1994).
These multirater techniques suggest that “reality” is best articulated as a
collection of a number of different viewpoints.
An individual’s worldview may be a significant determinant in their suc-
cess as a practicing manager. Complexity science opens up a whole new
vista of perspectives, approaches, and techniques, because it is based on
a set of underlying assumptions that differ from classical science.
Managers need to adjust their mental models to ones that are more use-
ful in accomplishing work. People have been operating with mental mod-
els that have not allowed them to achieve the results they have desired.
We as inquirers are changing as observing systems. Just as the telescope
and microscope revolutionized the way people constructed reality, the
computer is having a similar effect today. These tools of intervention are
our new sensory organs. Our reality changes as our ability to detect phe-
While the nearly exclusive emphasis of measurement and quantifica-
tion has resulted in phenomenal knowledge in the past several centuries,
we may be near the peak of the mountain represented by the natural phe-
nomena that can be explained by separate and distant inquiry. We may
have passed the peak for organizational phenomena. Research is being
conducted to determine whether or not worldview distinguishes between
successful and less successful managers. Many management education
programs need to be changed to teach more holistic, perspectival, and
mutually causal mindsets. Although changing mental models is often dif-
ficult, such flexibility is necessary in the demanding, global marketplace
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