A Review of Margaret Wheatley’s A Simpler Way

And an answer to a question I have been asking myself for a long time.

I have been a fan of Margaret Wheatley for almost ten years. However, it took me a few years to move A Simpler Way off of my reference tool list and to my read list.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the book; however, the experience was a bizarre one. It is my predilection to mark up and underline passages with which I both agree and disagree, so it is odd that there are chapters were I did not take a single note in the margin, nor was a word underlined. Other chapters are filled with notes to the point where I almost use up all of the copious margin space.

I almost did not get past the first chapter, and then on the first page of the second chapter, this gem appears. “Life often feels like a series of tests presented to us by hostile teachers. But this isn’t true. Life isn’t concealing solutions to problems; were not being tested to see if we get the right answer. Instead, life is exploring to see what works, to experience the pleasure of the unexpected and the unique.”

The book is a great testament to the belief that organizations are more like organisms than they are like machines. They are born, grow, mature, decline, and even die. Wheatley points out the absurdity of us asking about and caring what others have done. Again from chapter two, “Observing others’ success can show us new possibilities, expand our thinking, trigger our creativity. But their experiences can never provide models that will work the same for us. It is good to be inquisitive; it is hopeless to believe that they have discovered our answers.” Boldface mine.

She has something deep to tell us. It is better and far more successful to explore continuously than to try to become efficient at what we already do. Forget the efficiency experts, explore effectiveness! “Every act of observation loses more information than it gains.” Ouch, that’s gonna leave a mark on David Connell.

Toward the middle of the book, I began to think about how often I have forced organization on a project. I wondered what a project would look like if I just trusted the team to evolve on its own rather than make it fit my thinking. I realized that this is all about trust. The less trusting I am of a colleague, customer, or other collaborator, the less willing I am to let the process flow and the more I am certain I need to force a process. I am not sure what this means for me going forward, but it is something I will be thinking about for quite some time.

On page 40, the spotlights are turned on those who ask “How to” about pricing on purpose, or any learning worth doing. “We want to generate more capacity but approach it through prescriptions and designs. We try to engineer human contribution. In the self-organizing world, this type of engineering can be described only as lunacy. Stability is found in freedom — not in conformity and compliance.” WOW!

In the end, I am grateful to Margaret Wheatley because she has given me the answer to the question of why most professional service firms will never make the leap to become professional knowledge firms. In short, it is because they do not encourage freedom! They will never encourage freedom!

“In fear, we stop the energy available to us — the energy that wants to create affiliations, systems, efficacy. We restrict freedom to assert control. We choose control over effectiveness. But living systems cannot be effective if they cannot exercise autonomy. Freedom is essential to the movements of life. It is just as essential to us and our organizations.”


  1. Great thoughts, Ed.

    > We restrict freedom to assert control.

    I believe to create freedom, firms need to hire special kind of people (working for self-actualisation) that are attracted by a certain culture. But it’s not easy to create such a culture.

    So, firms have to put up with average people (working for a paycheque), and create watertight control systems to keep these people on very short leash.

    But even circus animals are taken off leash to perform, so what’s the logic to expect people to give their best and brightest while limiting their freedom.

    And I believe this is one of the reasons why professional service firms can’t transform to professional knowledge firm.

    The PKF requires passionate and enthusiastic with lots of freedom. The PSF requires people who are willing to trade time for money and perform activities for money.



  2. Right on, Tom.

  3. Tom Tucker says:

    This concept of allowing groups to evolve is new to me, but seems right. Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki said that to control a horse, give it a large field to run in.

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