The One-Sentence Summary

There are significant parallels between business and nature, particularly in the nonstop battles between the forces of tradition and transformation.

 Can’t be bothered to read it? Listen to the 5-minute summary in two parts.


  • This book came out in the year 2000. The authors argue that because every business is a living system (not just as a metaphor but in reality), the four cornerstone principles of the life sciences are just as true for organizations as they are for natural species. The four principles are:
  1. Equilibrium is a precursor to death. A living system in a state of equilibrium is less responsive to changes occurring around it and therefore at maximum risk.
  2. Innovation or mutation takes place on the edge of chaos, where experimentation and fresh solutions are galvanised by a compelling opportunity.
  3. Self-organization and emergence occur naturally when excitation takes place and new forms emerge from the turmoil.
  4. Organizations can only be disturbed, not directed along a linear path. The misapplication of linear logic when reengineering a business, for example, will inevitably fail.
  • These principles produce bottom line impact and profound transformational change and can be both about success and failure. The challenge is to disturb systems and organizations in a manner that approximates the desired outcome.
  • Looking at complex adaptive systems grapples with the mysteries of life itself and is propelled by breakthrough discoveries in the life sciences, insights of the social sciences and new developments in the hard sciences.
  • Problems arise when a species or organization misapplies a traditional solution to an adaptive problem. Meanwhile adaptive leadership makes happen what isn’t going to happen otherwise. This is achieved by:
  1. Communicating the urgency of the adaptive challenge.
  2. Creating an understanding of the problem and why a traditional solution won’t work.
  3. Holding the stress in play until guerilla leaders come forward with solutions.
  • All of this of course generates anxiety and tension. Guidelines for harnessing self-organization and emergence include:
  1. Decide whether it is needed
  2. Analyze the health of your network
  3. Remember the Goldilocks Principle – neither too many nor too few rules.
  4. Look for preconditions of emergence such as noise or heat in the system.


  • Complexity and chaos are frequently used interchangeably, even though they have almost nothing in common. The world is not chaotic, it is complex. Chaos is that unlikely occurrence in which patterns cannot be found nor interrelationships understood. The edge of chaos is a condition, not a location. It is a permeable, intermediate state. The edge is not the abyss, it’s the sweet spot for productive change.
  • Analogies include swarms, jungles and a mad scientist’s lab, in which there is a lot of buzzing around, messy connections and lots of half-finished ideas and projects.
  • Navigating this state is helped by three things:
  1. Attractors – some sort of compass that provides impetus and direction to move out of a comfort zone.
  2. Amplifying and damping feedback – this is like the throttle of a propulsion system, causing a process of change to either accelerate or slow down.
  3. Fitness landscapes – these are 3-dimensional and map the relative competitive advantage of species, which can be gradual, rugged or random.
  • Frozen accidents are coincidences that become locked in.
  • Mature adults are more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than think their way into a new way of acting. You can’t start with a blank sheet of paper and design a brave new world – you need to jump in, disturb things enough to allow for new possibilities, and figure the rest out as it unfolds.
  • Ironically, it takes discipline to sustain disequilibrium. Seven things can help.
  1. Intricate understanding creates the basis for urgency and evokes action.
  2. Uncompromising straight talk becomes essential to spur disequilibrium.
  3. A powerful future, well-articulated, creates an overarching purpose.
  4. Inventive accountability should be rewarded – that’s blending reliable performance with improvisation.
  5. Harnessing adversity means learning from prior mistakes.
  6. Fostering relentless discomfort sharpens action and further possibilities.
  7. Cultivating reciprocity between individuals and the organization keeps the living system together in the face of competing tensions.
  • There are 3 stages of mastery.
  1. Superficial understanding: “I get the idea, let’s give it a try.”
  2. New protocols and routines evoke stress and apprehension: “I didn’t realize the implications, I’m not sure we’re up to it.”
  3. Introspection leads to personal stress and/or inner change: “This new way of working is not about the organization, it’s about me.”
  • Organizations succeed when they have clear corporate vision, strong values, and a great deal of consistency among other elements – known as organizational fit – a phrase coined by Peters and Waterman in their book, In Search of Excellence.


  • Because the book was written 25 years ago, the case studies are out of date and some of the companies have since been ridiculed or fallen by the wayside, but the principles are as valid as ever.