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Surfing the Edge of Chaos: The Laws of Nature and the New Laws of Business Hardcover – 1 Oct 2000


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Crown Business; 1 edition (1 Oct. 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812933168
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812933161
  • Product Dimensions: 24.4 x 16.4 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,242,694 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 18 May 2004
Format: Hardcover
"'Living systems' isn't a metaphor for how human institutions operate. It's the way it is." The book is built on this point. Living systems work much more rapidly and effectively than most human ones do. By using the most successful living systems as models, we can make great strides in improving our human organizations. Think of this as a best practice book based on the ants and the bees.
Surfing the Edge of Chaos is an unusually good book on applying the lessons of complexity science about the biological world to business progress. The material is aimed at continuous renewal of the large existing organization, but will be valuable to organizations of all ages and sizes. The explanations of the key principles are well documented with many interesting animal and business examples. Based on experience by the authors as advisors to most of the businesses cited, the stories have a depth and a resonance that is missing in many books about how to apply the lessons of "complex adaptive systems" to human organizations.
The book also strongly and effectively challenges the existing engineering and reengineering models of how to improve organizations. If you are about to put a lot of effort into these areas, hold up until you have a chance to read this book. You may well change your mind.
Many people tell me that they still do not understand what they need to do in order to apply the lessons of complexity science to their business after reading books on this subject. Few will have that problem after reading this excellent work.
The authors help make the transition between the mechanical model of organizations to a biological one by synthesizing four new principles:
(1) "Equilibrium is a precursor to death.
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By Rolf Dobelli TOP 500 REVIEWER on 30 Mar. 2007
Format: Hardcover
Managers should closely watch new discoveries in biology, especially the study of self-organization and emergence, particularly as the old hierarchical model of corporate organization becomes seemingly obsolete. Richard T. Pascale, Mark Millemann and Linda Gioja present case histories showing how corporate leaders executed turnarounds and solved critical problems by tapping the insight and intelligence of their organizations' members. In many cases, however, their success was only partial. It is to the authors' credit that they do not flinch from describing failures, even as they support the approach. They particularly note that stress can have the positive effect of forcing an organization to change its behavior. Though they first published their observations in 2000, some of their insights seem likely to endure the test of time. We recommend this book in confidence that executives can learn from its concepts about how natural systems can inform management.
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By Pauline9 on 31 Mar. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was really delighted getting this book earlier than expected. Plus it was supposed to be an acceptable used book...
I got a perfectly untouched book!! Excellent service.
Excellent book to read.
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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Ms. M. Montanaro on 13 Jun. 2011
Format: Paperback
I received this book within the range of days I was given and it was in perfect condition...I actually think I received this and 2 other books faster that what I was supposed to!!! and I don't live in UK!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 16 reviews
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
A Must Read 1 Mar. 2001
By J. Michael Gallipo - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Surfing the Edge of Chaos does a marvelous job of taking many of the ideas being developed in complexity theory and applying them to the business world. In contrast say to Garrett Ralls who tried to do much the same thing, this book succeeds. I found myself continually thinking about not only the examples they provide, but also on my own work experiences and other companies that I have analyzed.
The authors do an excellent job of contrasting their approach (adaptive leadership) with more traditional reorganization (operational leadership). But refreshingly, they also acknowledge that in some cases, the more traditional approach might be more appropriate. There are many interesting concepts being developed by complexity theorists and this book manages to capture many, if not most, of them.
They show repeatedly the need to increase the stress on an organization in order to break past patterns of behavior. Their use of fitness landscapes (the idea that a successful company rests on a peak, and that in order to reach a new higher peak, often you must go down into the valley) is very powerful and at least partially explains why so many successful companies subsequently struggle, or fail, to adapt. Importantly though, the authors also spend a great deal of time talking about the unintended (or second and third order) effects of change. The point is not that you will be able to predict all of them (which is what chaos theory explicity says you cannot do), but rather that you must be flexible enough to roll with those unanticipated consequences.
Does that mean that every idea in this book is new? Of course not, but to be successful, a new theory often must combine the old with the new. And this book does a masterful of applying the ideas of Chaos/Complexity theory to business, of providing a new framework to think about both old and new problems. You may not agree with everything that appears in this book, but you will certainly come away with much food for thought.
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Belongs on your list of books on chaos 29 Jan. 2001
By Glenn A. Carleton - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In the process of reading a number of related books on chaos and complex adaptive systems, Surfing in the Edge is one on my current list. It compliments well other readings, and in many cases quotes meaningfully from them (e.g., Haeckel's - Adaptive Enterprises; Kelly - New Rules for the New Economy; McMaster - Intelligence Advantage).
I found this book an easy read, constantly underlining sentences and putting the book down to reflect on what was said and my own past experiences. I could see why my past approaches to management and motivation (especially reward systems which the book discusses in depth), described here as being used even by management considered open and progressive, was not successful, or if successful, not sustainable.
Anyone looking for specific answers on what organizational approaches should be used to take advantage of the concepts behind chaos should perhaps focus on this book's emphasis of things being messy, emerging in ways we cannot predict, and the experience of generating change not being straight forward (Herding Butterflies). If one can have faith that in the designed sloppiness, good things can be emerging, that faith could help one and other true believers stay the course without returning to command-and-control methods. It takes a whole new mindset to create the kind of change described in this book, and it takes a degree of critical mass in gaining converts who will in good faith implement the precepts over what could be a long period of time. The need for patience is well explained in the book.
The book is clearly not into the biology view of allowing just anything to emerge on its own. Boundaries and interventions are clearly proscribed here as needing to be taken, something very difficult to judge what they should be in a particular situation, but the guiding principles should generate dialogue and reflection from those attempting to design organizations for emergence.
This book does an outstanding job of continually discussing our tendencies to go for optimization as the end goal. In many cases, as described in this book, what we focus on to optimize eventually causes the problem because there are so many ways the efforts can be sabotaged. Those who tend to continually optimize tend to take the traditional approach of assuming predictability of future events (thus assuming few changes will take place as plans are implemented), and as managers having the answers to be imposed on an organization waiting for guidance. This book gives wonderful advice on just what management can and cannot do without the eyes and ears of the masses on the front line where the real change is taking place; it is truly humbling but exhilarating to think of the potential that can be unleashed in organizations if managers will see themselves as designers for emergence.
Wonderful case studies. Normally I tend to gloss over case studies, but those in this book are important, in part because assumed successes later deteriorated and returned to poor results of the past. This awareness alone makes the book worth reading; no organization can assume whatever it is doing right is sustainable. Gains can be reversed much faster than the time it took to get the initial gains.
On page 202, a diagram/framework is proposed, and then described. Harnessing Complexity, by Axelrod, has its own framework. I think the importance is to read these books, take what inspires, and let them all merge into your way of thinking about organizations and motivating people to change how they work together. For those who agree, this book clearly belongs on the list of references where the author has does the homework, and is attempting to clarify a subject that is highly abstract, and one where most organizations will not willingly allocate time to consider or apply its principles. Some organizations have no chance of applying these concepts; some organization only need a worthy sponsor. Sponsors need meaty material to study so they can speak within their organization with credibility, and have references that can direct others to read.
In my view, this book reflects a whole new paradigm gaining momentum of how to best create organizations capable of adapting to the fast changing new economy. It make take a number of years before the wisdom becomes commonplace in practice, and then we move on to the next level of sophistication. One day we will likely be looking back and marveling how, as we do today with Fredrick Taylor, we could have for generations tapped human talent by deploying the command-and-control techniques that still dominate the corporate landscape. I cannot imagine the concepts in these books being one day written as another fad that died.
32 of 42 people found the following review helpful
"Exhilerating, rewarding, and crucial" 20 Oct. 2000
By Donald Mitchell - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
"'Living systems' isn't a metaphor for how human institutions operate. It's the way it is." The book is built on this point. Living systems work much more rapidly and effectively than most human ones do. By using the most successful living systems as models, we can make great strides in improving our human organizations. Think of this as a best practice book based on the ants and the bees.
Surfing the Edge of Chaos is an unusually good book on applying the lessons of complexity science about the biological world to business progress. The material is aimed at continuous renewal of the large existing organization, but will be valuable to organizations of all ages and sizes. The explanations of the key principles are well documented with many interesting animal and business examples. Based on experience by the authors as advisors to most of the businesses cited, the stories have a depth and a resonance that is missing in many books about how to apply the lessons of "complex adaptive systems" to human organizations.
The book also strongly and effectively challenges the existing engineering and reengineering models of how to improve organizations. If you are about to put a lot of effort into these areas, hold up until you have a chance to read this book. You may well change your mind.
Many people tell me that they still do not understand what they need to do in order to apply the lessons of complexity science to their business after reading books on this subject. Few will have that problem after reading this excellent work.
The authors help make the transition between the mechanical model of organizations to a biological one by synthesizing four new principles:
(1) "Equilibrium is a precursor to death."
(2) "In the face of threat, or when galvanized by a compelling opportunity, living things move toward the edge of chaos. This condition evokes higher levels of mutation and experimentation, and fresh solutions are likely to be found."
(3) "When this excitation takes place, the components of living systems self-organize and new forms and repertoires emerge from the turmoil."
(4) "Living systems cannot be directed along a linear path. Unforeseen consequences are inevitable. The challenge is to disturb them in a manner that approximates the desired outcome."
Fascinating examples are drawn from the exploration unit of British Petroleum, Hewlett-Packard, Monsanto's refocus into biotechnology, Royal Dutch/Shell's downstream activities, Sears' refocus of its store activities, and the U.S. Army's approach to war gaming to illustrate these principles. One of the things I liked about the examples is that they pointed out the errors that the organizations made, as well as the successes. In most cases, the companies only partially converted to following these principles. You will also learn about African termites, South American fire ants, North American coyotes, and fires at Yellowstone as examples of these principles, as well. The book is also strengthened by many mini-examples of applying complexity science such as Cemex dispatching roving cement trucks and British Telecom doing the same with service trucks to emulate ant pheromone track models in order to provide better service at lower cost.
The book's strength though lies in its proposition of 7 core disciplines of how to use complexity science. These disciplines will help many to begin applying complexity science lessons for the first time. There is also a good discussion of what leaders need to do to assist in supporting the needed revolutions and evolutions for maximum development. It would be unfair to the book to attempt to summarize these ideas here, but I certainly endorse them based on my consulting experience.
After you finish reading this book, I strongly urge you to follow the example of the town meetings described in the book to launch an assessment and begin a process of adaptive leadership in your organization. You will learn much more by practicing with what is in the book than by just thinking about the material.
I also leave you with a challenge. After you have been applying this approach for a while, how can you change your company's orientation so that these organizational processes will constantly emerge in highly effective ways? In other ways, how can you place yourself in the center of the wave's curl where the ride is best all the time? For when you do, your progress will be irresistible.
18 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Shoddy science research 1 Oct. 2003
By Jeff Runyan - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
"Businesses...can learn a great deal from nature (p 3)". I wholeheartedly agree, but unfortunately this book does not deliver.
The business research appears well done, but the science reserach that is supposedly it backing up is abysmal. The impression this book has left me is that the writers started with their theories and then handpicked some scientific anecdotes and (sometimes erroneous) generalities to support some of their claims, while other claims (like the Law of Requisite Variety) have no substantiation from the life sciences attempted. This is a backwards approach; I would have liked to see the authors examine the scientific research and then see what the business implications are.
Three examples of erroneous generalities:
1. Endemic island organisms just "tweaking the status quo" (in reality, this is where the greatest diversity happens; its the 'weedy' organisms like starlings and dandelions that adapt by just 'tweaking'). (And I will try to ignore the goof about the dodo being from the South Pacific).
2. The idea that cooperation and altruism are major forces that organisms "seek" (in reality, these have been discovered to be incidental effects).
3. Equating the idea that 'every molecule in the human body replaces itself via genetic instructions' with the idea that 'human and corporate bodies are rejuvenated by fresh and varied genetic material'. Those are two very opposed statements.
There is so much biological research that has major implications for organizational research that is lacking here: Memetics and primate social systems are two in particular.
To conclude: The authors apparently have a poor grasp of the biological sciences, so that means their attempts at backing up their claims with biological reserach is suspect at best.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Chaos and order are at the edge 5 May 2008
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I read this book two years ago after being fascinated by the Chaos Theory and the butterfly effect on nature and mathematics. It gave me good insight on how the Chaos Theory is related to management studies. The topic came back to me when I saw recently a summary at Book Summaries Online of the CSTDI Cyber Learning Centre. The 10-page summary is quite comprehensive and gives a very good description of the main points of the book.

The scene is organizations being regarded as living organisms instead of machines. Thus four laws of nature from Chaos Theory are applied:

1. Equilibrium is death -When a living system is in a state of equilibrium, it is less responsive to changes occurring around it. This places it at maximum risk. There is also a well proven law of cybernetics - Requisite Variety - which states that when a system fails to cultivate (not just tolerate) variety in its internal operations, it will fail to deal with variety that challenges it externally.

2. Innovation takes place at the edge of chaos -In the face of threat, or when galvanized by a compelling opportunity, living things move toward the edge of chaos. This condition evokes higher levels of mutation and experimentation. The result is that fresh new solutions are more likely to be found.

3. Self organization and emergence occur naturally -When the right kind of excitation takes place, independent agents move toward what has been popularized as the "tipping point." New forms and repertoires emerge from the turmoil.

4. Organization can only be disturbed, not directed -Living systems cannot be directed along a linear path. Unforeseen consequences are inevitable. The challenge is to disturb them in a manner that moves directionally toward the desired state, then course-correct as the outcome unfolds.

The authors draw reference to Darwin. They go further to propose that the natural selection process come from selection pressure, that species do not evolve of their own accord. Rather, they change because of the forces, indeed threats, imposed on them from the environment. Such selection pressures intensify during periods of radical upheaval. The bottom line is that nature is more dedicated to proliferating life in general than to the perpetuation of any particular species. In a fair competitive environment, no organization has the ability to stay in a equilibrium. Change is the only way to stay alive.

The edge of chaos is a condition, not a location. It is a permeable, intermediate state through which order and disorder flow, not a finite line of demarcation. Moving to the edge of chaos creates upheaval but not dissolution. That's why the edge of chaos is so important. The edge is not the abyss. It's the sweet spot for productive change. But moving over the edge is to avoided.

The book extends the concept of fitness landscape from ecologists to the management area. The great plain is chaotic with customer defections, low margins, undifferentiated products, etc., while fit and successful organizations with their niches are represented as hills in the landscape. An organization grows and climbs a small hill to reach its summit. But in order to achieve greater height at another hill, it must first descend to the plain of chaos, get rid of its culture and build afresh. The journey is a sequence of disturbances and adjustments, not a lock-step march along a predetermined path.

One main point that defies traditional management theory is the trouble with optimization. Management likes to take the classic "blank sheet of paper" approach and optimize the inefficient system. This approach cannot anticipate every twist and turn in the execution phase. The law of unintended consequences reminds us that optimization seldom yields radical innovation. At best, it only maximizes the pre-existing model. It founders because efforts to direct living systems, beyond very general goals, are counterproductive. This seldom conforms to the linear path that we have in mind. This is why the misapplication of linear logic, i.e. re-engineering business processes, will inevitably fail.

The book proposes some guidelines in surfing the edge of chaos by disturbing but not directing the system.

1. Design, don't engineer.

2. Discover, don't presuppose.

3. Amplify, don't dictate.

There are more interesting points in the book. I recommend you to read it.
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