In Search of Disequilibrium

Organizations that want to stay vital must search out surprise, looking for what is startling, uncomfortable, maybe even shocking.

— Margaret Wheatley from Leadership and the New Science

Equilibrium is another word for balance—where forces of equal weight come together and form stability, symmetry, and evenness. Margaret Wheatley, in her book Leadership and the New Science, reminds us that, as children, we are constantly seeking out disequilibrium—to be knocked off balance. We aspire to swing as high and far away from the earth as we can; we love the bounce on the see-saw; we can’t get enough of hanging upside down on the jungle gym.

As we grow up, we find ourselves discarding the delights of disequilibrium for “balance”. We seek predictability, and control. Yet, in nature and in science, equilibrium is considered the last phase of evolution, as Wheatley states, “the point at which the system has exhausted all of its capacity for change, done its work, and dissipated its productive capacity into useless entropy.”

So you can imagine, if it is a choice between equilibrium and disequilibrium… I choose disequilibrium.

In my mind, THIS is the “place” where innovation is born. I believe that by creating and maintaining a culture that prizes the “startling, uncomfortable, and maybe even shocking,” we thrive.

What does disequilibrium look like in a business such as ours? It looks like challenging the status quo—flipping orthodoxies that we assume are firmly in place. It means not being afraid to question the logic of how systems that serve our most vulnerable are structured.

Here’s an example: until recently, the assumption—the orthodoxy—was that individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities could not effectively work in the community—and that it was better for them to work in sheltered workshops. This system of workshops represented equilibrium. And then came the disturbing question: What if those with intellectual/developmental disabilities were to integrate more broadly into the community by working in jobs within community businesses? This question caused disruption of an entire system. And yet, we now know that employment of people with intellectual/developmental disabilities works—and it is expanding and improving their lives as well as those in the community working alongside them.

I suggest that if we seek equilibrium as an organization, we will atrophy. It is imperative that we continue to seek disequilibrium— that we seek the discomfort that comes from asking questions, challenging assumptions and not accepting status quo.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.