As a political activist I frequently contemplate how activist organizations pursue strategies over long periods of time, even when the situations they seek to rectify or reform become increasingly dire. One key to the puzzle is the dynamic of self-organization, a phenomenon of complex adaptive systems. Applied to social experience, self-organization is expressed through the tenacious integration of individual capacities with social organizational needs.
Here’s the conundrum in personal terms. You have a leadership role in an advocacy organization that engages your talents and gives you great satisfaction…. Your colleagues appreciate your contributions, you receive recognition for your work, either through gratifying personal relationships and/or monetary compensation and your efforts are your personal, intellectual, political and/or spiritual investments in what you believe.
In these circumstances there are limited if any incentives for you or the organization to change course…even if the strategies are not bringing about the change envisioned in the mission. This example of self-organization resonates with Einstein’s remark, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results….”
Self-organization is the sine qua non of ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ The challenge is where to find the levers to reconfigure the parts that a newly formed whole can emerge.
Under what conditions can the values, interests and skills of individual participants be tapped to contribute to a modified vision, new set of strategies and/or a different tactical approach? Or, at what point do reflection and discomfort among participants provide the stimulus for rethinking organizational direction? And, how open are participants to acknowledging that what they know best is not good enough and to unlearning what they know best as they learn new best ways?
Bifurcation points and gaps are concepts from complex systems theory that depict moments where a system is hovering between directions, where the current situation is not tenable, but a new direction or configuration has yet to emerge. Our capacity for self-reflection enables us to be both witness and participant in these adaptive processes.
The symmetry of individual reflection and personal challenge with organizational effectiveness is a common experience in tumultuous times. Bifurcation points, individual and organizational, social and cultural are moments of intense ambiguity, ambivalence, uncertainty, anxiety and fear. In such times we are particularly vulnerable to manipulation and easy answers to assuage the discomfort of knowing the status quo is not holding and where we are going is not clear and pretty much beyond our control.