Looping and Leaping:
Quantum Mechanics and the Stages of an Enterprise

Bryan S. Coffman

second edition, 03/17/1998 based on an original document dated 08/11/1997

[Editor's Note: This piece was originally included in the Straw Dog design for the 7 Domains® Workshop held in the
knOwhere® Store in Cambridge, MA, in August, 1997.]

 

It's a Metaphor!
All of you physicists who worry about how laymen misunderstand theoretical physics, misappropriate concepts regarding the sub-atomic universe, and apply them wholesale to the world of human and organizational behavior may relax. This article is a "what if." In MG Taylor terms, it's a S'poze. Suppose that some of the principles of quantum mechanics (as best as can be understood without the mathematics) were applied to organizations. How might organizations appear through that metaphorical lens, and might this slanted vantage point offer some insight merely by connecting two diverse sets of principles, thereby making the familiar strange and the strange familiar? The following investigation does not imply that these two very different worlds are identical or similar. However, there may be phenomenon that are perhaps analogous. Great ideas have found purchase on more precarious slopes before.

 

Stages of an Enterprise
This paper ties quantum mechanics and the Stages of an Enterprise model together metaphorically. You can find an excellent, introductory discussion on quantum mechanics in Bohm's book Unfolding Meaning. The Stages of an Enterprise model, developed by MG Taylor Corporation, consists of seven, eight or nine stages (depending on how you count them).

Living systems begin in conception, within the envelope of other living systems. They grow and change rapidly, and in the case of organizations, may experience a looping phenomenon. Looping results from an organization's repeated attempts to discover and embody the practices, habits or methodologies that allow them to create success with consistent reliability. Once they solve this riddle, the path of growth becomes less rocky. This smoothing out of the path, however, can lead to an overshoot and collapse phenomenon. Unbridled growth may intersect with a fluctuation, fundamental environmental envelope, causing the system to collapse upon itself without hope of recovery. Many organizations have bred a capacity for doing work only to find that a shift in the market place attenuated the demand for their products. The excess capacity places strains on the organization's viability from which it may not recover.

In other circumstances, an enterprise may consciously embrace the overshoot phenomenon in a race to outdistance other competitors in a new but finite market. If the company succeeds in generating increasing returns, it must then avoid shattering envelopes of viability. For example, in its eagerness to capture market share, the company may overwhelm its ability to deliver on its promises (AOL's race for members and consequent overburdening of its capacity comes to mind). If it breaks an envelope, it will begin a freefall, and must maintain its composure to bring the organization out of its nose dive before final collapse. If the enterprise consciously embraces overshoot as a strategy, it must be prepared to act calmly in the subsequent collapse phase and push the entrepreneurial button early (more on the button below).

Once the enterprise clears the hump--either by emerging gently from the looping process or recovering from an overshoot and collapse sequence--it attains success and enters a mature maintenance period during which it may amass the resources necessary to recreate itself. This recreation phase is a deliberate act and we call it "pushing the entrepreneurial button."

From the day the enterprise opened its doors for business, chances are its founders, associates, customers, and investors have cherished a myriad of ideas for new products or new services. Commitment of resources to the current idea precludes investment in new ones until a measure of success is achieved. This success informs the investment community and the company's own associates and customers that it has "come of age" and can handle itself well enough to be entrusted with additional resources (at least that's how it works in theory ;-). But many entrepreneurs have worked on these new, unresourced ideas for a long time before the resources become available. The entrepreneurial button represents the act of bringing these new ideas through the existing organizational culture (which may or may not be happy about their appearance) into reality, and managing the resulting increase in complexity.

The mature phase of the enterprise may last a period of months or centuries. The many rebirths the organization has had may continue to feed and support its original manifestation, but chances are that the enterprise, at some point, begins a final collapse which leads to its demise. Sometimes the final collapse denotes simply the age of the enterprise, or the wearing out of an idea or set of processes. Other times, however, organizational stubborness or blindness will precipitate the fall, and in such cases there lies opportunity for a turnaround, leading the enterprise back to the entrepreneurial button and new life.

 

Quantum Mechanics and the Enterprise Model
What happens if we take four properties from Quantum Mechanics and overlay them on the Stages of an Enterprise model? Let's consider the quantum nature of particles, the phenomenon of instantaneous action at a distance, and the duality of photons of light as waves or particles, depending upon the observer's vantage point. (For information on the radical growth part of the model, which is not derived from quantum mechanics, click here.)

Quanta
Quantum mechanics says that sub-atomic particles (electrons for example) can inhabit certain energy levels and only these levels--nothing in-between. The electrons "jump" from level to level, without crossing intermediate gradations of energy. It would be like climbing a flight of stairs, except instead of your foot lifting from one tread to the next, it would suddenly appear on each successive tread without traversing the intervening distance. Kind of miraculous if you ask me ;-). Organizations are like that. During periods of start-up and rapid growth, the enterprise expands and its capabilities get stretched. Perhaps it was easy dealing with a company of five or six, but now with fourteen, new human relations issues crop up that weren't there before. Unfortunately there isn't sufficient internal expertise to handle the change, but there might not be sufficient resources to shift the burden by either outsourcing the condition or adding a new professional to the mix. The organization gets more complicated but it bogs down. Even with more people, no more work gets done. Hiring continues, the problem seems exacerbated. Then all of a sudden it "clicks" and the enterprise finds itself operating at a new level. I don't imply that this click happens without effort, but suggest that a "critical mass" exists, which when attained, allows the organization to function with a new productivity which may be an order of magnitude greater than it can express with anything short of the critical mass. If the enterprise can't maintain operations at the new level of energy, it falls back to the previous one. We interpret this latter phenomenon as "looping."

Instantaneous Action at a Distance
Quantum mechanics also says that particles are known to influence each other across time and space (both are the same thing seen from different vantage points) instantaneously. This applies specifically to particles or events that have a common cause or intersection (see John Gribbin's book, In Search of Schrodinger's Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality for an in-depth discussion of the Bell experiment and the EPR effect). The future states of two particles that shared a common cause or origin are related and remain related as part of a common system as they move through time.

I'll stretch this principle now a bit (well, perhaps beyond recognition). Imagine that the life cycle or path of a business can be fully mapped out so that it looks like the Stages of an Enterprise model. The model shows all of the states of the organization at once, at once moment in time. Wherever you position yourself on the model there exists a past and a future that are interrelated causally because they are both merely vantage points from which to view the rest of the model. There is a wholeness implied across the duration of the model. The whole model is enfolded into every part. Future informs past and visa versa.

We all believe that past events influence the future. Some also believe that future events engage with the present and the past in a kind of simultaneity--perhaps related to synchronicity. F. David Peat talks about the relationship between the eye of an observer and a distant star. From the vantage point of the photon of light traveling at the speed of light from the star to the observer, no time has passed (because at the speed of light, time slows down to a full stop) and the observer and star, through the photon, are linked. From the observer's vantage point, however, it may take millenia for the light from the star to reach his eye. In a way, "here" and "there" are both occurring with mutual influence on each other. This would turn our axiom into a sort of a pun because you can't get here or there, but here and there--from one vantage point at least--are the same thing. The vision has already been. It's merely calling us from the past up to meet it.

Whether you believe that vision exists only in the mind or that vision is some future event, already formed and calling to us, it is worth charting the connection between that vision and today's work in an enterprise. Does the vision inform us of what should be done and how it should be done? Or is the vision lost in the mileu of daily tasks? What the question boils down to is this: how much of your vision of yourself and your enterprise is daydreaming fantasy, and how much of it is something that you can actually SEE and bring into being as a consequence of that solid perception?

Dual Nature
Finally, quantum mechanics says that matter behaves differently depending on how you are set up to observe it. If you set up an experiment to see if it's a wave, it will act like a wave. If the experiment is set up to see if it's a particle, it will act like a particle.

This has several ramifications for business. From a spiritual level, once we set up an "experiment" to "see" our enterprises and other people from a particular way of work or thinking, they will behave that way. Period. This has been demonstrated so many times over yet seemingly without lasting impression or influence upon our culture. One teacher sees a roomful of miscreants and they behave accordingly, while another sees a room full of curious individuals thirsting for knowledge and seeking challenge, and so they are.

Do we really desire to coerce others to fulfill our basest expectations of humanity? Modern management classifies employees as "resources", and so they are treated, and so they behave (if they are indeed caught up in that definition of their professional life). Do any of you really see yourselves as a resource? Is your life distilled into a walking sack of raw materials to be mined? Neither people, nor their organizations are resources. They are living systems engaged in a sometimes fierce, but always passionate collaboration, and their mutual influence and interdependency creates effects that cannot be predicted by any level of examination of the parts or the interactions. Organizations that have predictable workforces have sold the soul of creativity, stripped the spirit from life, and duped their employees into squandering their existence. Such organizations are mere machines, and more enlightened enterprises, composed of people who relish life and think for themselves are engendering organic collective behaviors that will make them so flexible as to be invincible by comparison. If you mistrust individuals, you may expect to spend a good portion of your days here pouring energy into systems around you to create, feed and support that world view.

As a further example of duality applied to the enterprise, we can view enterprises as sets of processes generated by the mutual influence of past and future events upon each other along a space-time continuum, or we can see enterprises as sets of snapshot relationships and nodes. It's of value to have many, many models and lenses through which to see the enterprises we work with. An enterprise is a process, a product, a vision, a mission, a proforma, a cybernetic system, etc. A single model, or a comfortable model is inadequate.

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