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Tending the Fires of 21st Century Organizations

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All these other factors influence the nature and impact of the ripples we have produced. They also have something to say about whether our ripples are doing good or harm. We would suggest that it is not so much a matter of recognizing that water in our bowl may have lost all memory of the ripple, and that there might be an impact when a broader, deep time perspective is taken. It is ultimately, a matter of recognizing that our actions are rarely themselves solely determinative of their impact when we are operating in a complex system (as is always the case). The embers remain. We can sift through them, spread them (and the animus spirit embedded in them) as fertilizer in our flower garden. It is up to us to decide what is to be done with what remains from the fire we have tended. And it is up to us, as transcendent beings, to review and reflect on the pebbles impact elsewhere on our lake.

Finding the Perfect Fire

We can now leave the lake and turn back in time when reflecting on the fire we have tended. What exactly am I striving for when I build and tend a fire? What does the perfect fire look like and how often do I achieve it? Whether in California or in Maine, I try to create and maintain a fire that is generating flames at three levels—four is too many (confusing) while one or two levels just aren’t quite enough (though I often have to put up with a two-level fire). I recognize that I am looking for a pattern: the first level can be quite large (California) or somewhat smaller (Maine). Still, I look for three levels. I find that it is not, ultimately, a matter of size. For me, it is a matter of pattern that serves as the primary criterion for determining the quality of a fire (or an organization). The fire (or organization) needed be big to be impressive. I am impressed with the dynamic process operating in the first or organization. For me there is a wonderful feeling I experience –a “Flow”—when I am watching a three-tiered fire with the lights out, listening to a bit of Mozart, Faure or (more recently) Florence Price. I suspect that there is a similar experience of Flow when I observe or participate in a well-functioning organization (such as my favorite restaurants in San Francisco and New York).

The single-tier fire is easy to tend. It needs just an occasional poke; however, this fire is quite vulnerable – often the single-tiered fire is near the end of its life. The multi-tiered fire is much harder to tend. It often requires some repositions of burning logs. A simple poke is rarely sufficient. This might be a good time for fireplace tongs, rather than just a simple andiron. Logs might have to lifted and moved somewhere less in the fire. A major challenge concerns the nature of learning that must attend perfect multi-tiered fires. When the fire is “simple” then a simple poke will suffice. This requires what Chris Argyris and Don Schön (1978) call “single-loop learning”. It is not hard to give a couple of logs a poke and then see what happens regarding new or intensified flames.

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