Leading into the Future III: From the Pendulum to the Fire
I am reminded of an early childhood experience. My cousin and I were debating about the “fundamental” issues of life. In this instance we were arguing about whether or not anything is impossible. I argued that anything is possible. My cousin argued that some things are impossible and offered an example: “you can’t return the toothpaste to a tube once you have squeezed it out!” I had no good rebuttal to that argument and was very impressed with this evidence. Until recently I had no category in which to place this example of impossibility—or more accurately irreversibility.
Many changes in organizations operate like toothpaste that has just been squeezed from the tube. I suppose you could get it back in the tube—but what a mess! And would the tube of toothpaste ever really be the same again? We squeeze out organizational truths in moments of frustration or anger and can never cover them up again (a variation on Pandora’s box). We tentatively consider a change in organizational structure, but the word gets out and we are soon stuck with this change whether we like it or not. We become bound up in complex and paradoxical relationships and can’t undo them—except by divorce. The equilibrium has been disturbed, chaos often follows, and there is no returning home as the same person we were when we left. Time moves in one direction and can’t be reversed.
A second remarkable characteristic of fire is its ephemeral nature. It is all process and not much substance. As Prigogine notes, the Newtonian sciences concentrated on substances and the ways in which forces operated on various substances. It became the “science of being.” Fire, by contrast, is a “science of becoming.” (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984, p. 209) A science of being, Prigogine suggests, focuses on the states of a system, whereas a science of becoming focused on temporal changes—such as the flickering of a flame. (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984, p. 310) Fire demands a focus not on the outcomes of a production process, but on the nature of the process itself.