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  • Faramarz Maghsoodlou (faramarz@ieee.org)

The Unshackled Organization

Updated: Jun 28, 2020


I read Jefferey Goldstein's "The Unshackled Organization" many years ago but it is still one of my favorites when it comes to the topic of self-organization as a response to unpredictable change in the business environment. Goldstein contrasts his approach with the traditional planned approach for change management. His observations and recommendations for organizational autonomy are poigmant and remain true to this day. I summarize his points in this review from the perspective of resilience and response to change, especially the kind that is not predictable!


According to Goldstein the traditional top down planned change model hinges on the following factors:

  • Extensive planning and design

  • Precise assessment of the current situation

  • Accurate anticipation of resistance to change

  • Adeptness at overcoming this resistance

In reality, however, no matter how sound the original plans and designs are, they usually need to be scrapped early on due to unexpected contingencies and unplanned conflicts. This explains many of the usual top down changes that fail to realize the inherent shortcomings of a centralized hierarchical system to affect change.


Goldstein contrasts this approach with an alternative view of the change process in physical systems, based on the the following principles of self-organization.


  • Self-generated change - Not hierarchically driven. Self-organization is a self-generated and self-guided process. Change is neither hierarchically controlled nor an externally driven process.

  • Nonlinearity, an inherent tendency for change - Not resistance. Self-organization moves beyond the idea of a system as an inert mass characterized by an innate resistance to change. Instead, change is the activation of a system's inherent potential for transformation, i.e., its "nonlinearity."

  • Transformation out of Chaos - Not control strategies. Self-organization results from the utilization, even enhancement of random, accidental, and unexpected events. Change, then, is not the suppression of chaos; it is order emerging out of chaos.

  • Far-from-equilibrium conditions - Not mere shift in equilibrium. Self-organization represents a system undergoing a revolution prompted by far-from-equilibrium conditions. This is vastly different from the traditional model where change is perceived to be nothing more than a mere shift in system operating condition and a subsequent return to equilibrium.


Based on these principles, Goldstein suggests a new set of assumptions to guide the change process:


  1. Instead of resisting change, organizations tend toward change and development

  2. Instead of hierarchically imposing change, the potential for change is unleashed and activated

  3. As the system undergoes change, a spontaneous reorganization emerges representing a more effective way to accomplish the organization's objectives

  4. Instead of large changes requiring large efforts, small-scale efforts can facilitate large scale changes over time

  5. Instead of emphasizing planning, change is an evolving strategy to utilize chance and accidental events

  6. Instead of focusing on what is internal to the organization, the self-organization approach includes the paradoxical work in firming up and traversing the boundaries between a work group or organization and its environment

  7. Instead of relying only on a rational and cognitive perspective, change needs to incorporate elements of play and with what may even appear absurd

  8. Instead of consensus-seeking as the means toward participation, non-consensus-seeking can lead to spontaneous participatory structures


Self-organization takes place when the right kind of system is placed under the right set of circumstances: the right type of system is a nonlinear system and the right set of circumstances are far-from-equilibrium conditions.


Here are the takeaways in a mindmap:


Read Jefferey Goldstein's "The Unshackled Organization."

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