The Possibilities of Y2K
One other thing is true about Y2K: It is no longer merely a technical problem. Whether it was ever capable of being solved technically, we have run out of time and resources. It has transformed itself into a social and political issue. How we respond to the year 2000 in our communities and organizations offers us the possibility of real transformation in our relationships and capacities. And we do need to learn how to deal with Y2K, because it represents a new type of issue: the failure of complex systems. In the 21st century we can expect to be confronted with more and more of these increasingly complex problems.
The Nature of the Failure of Complex Systems
Complex-system failures share a set of distinguishing features:
--The longer they unravel, the more extensive their
--Costs always far exceed what has been budgeted for fixing them.
--As effects materialize, unknown interdependencies become visible.
--The more that problems come into focus, the fuzzier they appear.
--Past experiences with simple systems don't apply.
--Cause and effect are impossible to track; consequently, there is no one to blame.
These features describe the most frightening realization about problems with complex systems: They are inherently uncontrollable. Since prediction and control are impossible, traditional approaches to solve them simply don't work.
Each of these characteristics has become increasingly evident with the year 2000 problem. Initially, Y2K was thought to affect only software; it seemed to be a relatively simple problem. But then we learned that embedded microprocessors were vulnerable to the date change. These chips are so prevalent in modern life--in cars, satellites, home appliances, utilities, oil rigs, transportation systems, telecommunications, manufacturing, and medical equipment--that the average American is in contact with seventy microprocessors before noon each day. Failures in these chips will occur throughout the infrastructures that make modern life possible, threatening the functioning of all major systems: health care, utilities, governments, transportation, food supplies, public safety, finance, telecommunications, and defense.
And what was first seen as a problem for each organization (or country) to solve individually has become a problem that can't be solved alone. What does it matter how compliant and ready you are if your suppliers lag behind, or if your employees can't get to work or don't have food, or if power plants fail? What good does it do you to be prepared if your neighbors aren't?
Complex Systems Require New Collaborations
Complex systems require new approaches to dealing with their entangled interdependencies and inherent fuzziness. Complex-system failures cannot be solved alone. They require collaboration, participation, openness, and inclusion. These new problems force us to dissolve our past practices of hierarchies, boundaries, secrecy, and competition. In a systems crisis, the more we cling to these past practices, the more we deepen the crisis and prevent solutions. Y2K insists that we come together in new ways, that we turn to one another.
We already know how to be together in transforming and effective ways--we see it on TV every time there's a disaster. Disasters often illuminate what is best in humans: our heart-opening willingness to come together, to use whatever is available to rescue and save other human beings.
Whenever disaster strikes, we read many stories of extraordinary, superhuman responses. Those who have been in these relief efforts speak about the importance of trusting relationships. Just a few weeks prior to the Oklahoma City bombing, community agencies had been together in a civil defense preparedness drill. No one was practicing for a bombing, but as they worked on other contingencies, they developed good relationships that facilitated working together when confronted with the bombing horror. However, one key player had not participated in the drill, the FBI. Many people in Oklahoma City still speak with resentment about being pushed around by 'the Feds,' who excluded them from rescue operations. As Elizabeth Dole, president of the Red Cross, has said, 'The midst of a disaster is the poorest possible time to establish new relationships. . . . When you have taken the time to build rapport, then you can make a call at 2 a.m. . . . and expect to launch a well-planned, smoothly conducted response.'
It is important to note that past practices of leaders, where we rely on secrecy or evasion, create more risk rather than less. Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine has written about his experiences with crises and gives one rule for information: Tell the truth and tell it fast. Secrecy feeds the problem, not the solution. And secrecy sets in motion some powerful dynamics that end up destroying capacity. People who learn they've been kept in the dark, or fed misleading information, quickly lose confidence in others. In the absence of real information, they fill the vacuum with rumors and fear. And whenever people feel excluded from involvement, they withdraw and focus on self-protection. They no longer believe anything or anybody. As the veil of secrecy thickens, the capacity for collective solution-finding disappears.
When Complex Systems Fail
--Engage the whole system. Frequently ask, 'Who else should be
--Create abundant information, circulate it through existing and new channels.
--Develop quality relationships; trust is the greatest asset.
--Support only collaboration; competition destroys capacity.
--Forget boundaries and territories; push for openness everywhere.
--Focus on creating new, sustainable systems. There is no going back.
Because of its complex nature, Y2K demands that we transform the ways we work together, that we forego traditional boundaries and competitive behaviors, that we let go of past conflicts and injuries. We must turn to one another to solve the unsolvable, we must depend on one another to find solutions. We simply cannot get through whatever disruptions or breakdowns occur by remaining isolated or indifferent.
How we come together now will give us the capacity to face the unknown of the year 2000. We don't have to know the future in order to be prepared for it. Organizations and communities that learn to work together, that trust one another, and that become more expansive and inclusive develop the capacity to deal with whatever happens. They have created a capacity for working and thinking together that enables them to respond quickly and intelligently to surprise and distress.
This paradoxical truth was well illustrated a few years ago when major chemical plants in West Virginia engaged with the community to develop worst-case scenarios. Living with 14 large chemical manufacturing facilities, the citizens around Charleston exercised their EPA-mandated right to know how a failure in any one of these plants could affect their lives. What would be the worst that could happen to them, given the worst conditions and the worst dysfunctions? (For one plant, a leak from their anhydrous ammonia storage tank during high winds would create a deadly plume that would destroy all life within 30 miles.)
Early in the process the plant managers took an enormous risk and decided to involve the community in developing the necessary information. Every committee was chaired by a member of the community. Together with plant personnel, they gathered information about the deadliest events that could occur. When they were ready to present their scenarios--28 scenes of terror and destruction--they set up booths in a popular shopping mall on a Saturday. (This choice of venue was suggested by a woman in the community.) As summarized by Dick Knowles, then plant manager of the Belle DuPont facility, 'We presented 28 ways we could kill the community, and trust went up.'
This is a familiar lesson from participative processes. As people engage with one another--even as they develop terrorizing information--they develop relationships that enable them to encounter the unknown together, and they develop much greater collective intelligence. Old divisions and problems fade in importance; people learn that in working together they are capable of achieving surprising results that benefit everybody. And people develop trust in themselves as a coherent collective. They have learned to think well together, and they have made decisions that they're proud of. They have realized that they hold in common enough concerns and desires so they can work well, even brilliantly, together.
The year 2000 problem requires just such participation from all of us. We cannot leave Y2K to the technology experts, or to the consultants, or to leaders. We are all affected, we all have essential perspectives to contribute, and we all must be involved.
What's Possible and Who Cares?
In the past few years, more and more people have expressed a great longing for community and autonomy. Can we use Y2K to transform these longings into new ways of being together? The year 2000 requires that communities, regions, nations, and the planetary community work together to develop scenarios and make contingency plans. But it is how we choose to engage in that planning that offers the real opportunity for deep and meaningful change. Let's all begin our planning from the place of possibility, not fear.
Consultants from the University of Washington's program on sustainable community have learned that the first critical question to ask of any community is: 'What's worth sustaining?' If we can begin Y2K planning from this essential question, we will evoke our best creative energies. Years ago, consultant and organizer Marvin Weisbord learned that he had been asking the wrong question. He had gone into troubled systems asking 'What's wrong and how can I fix it?' He came to understand that the critical question was, 'What's possible, and who cares?'
If we begin our planning from 'What's possible?' we will avoid attempts to patch together the old system, or to frantically re-create systems that have resulted in isolation and dissatisfaction. People do want to be together differently. In a recent survey on Y2K, 89 percent of respondents wanted simpler, more decentralized systems so that their communities could be more self-reliant and independent.
The nature and complexity of Y2K leads us to invite back those we've excluded from current society. Our elders knew how to function before computers became substitutes for human activity. Our poor and disenfranchised long ago learned how to pull together in the face of need, or failed delivery of services. Our youth want to reconnect with us, their energy could be focused on the many assessment and information-gathering activities required. Our churches can provide both physical and emotional centers for this work.
The sweet irony of Y2K is that if we use it now as an opportunity to re-create our communities and culture, whatever technological failures materialize won't have the same negative impact. If we have worked together to discover what's possible, we will have developed the collective capacity and compassion to go through whatever trials Y2K presents to us. If we begin in earnest now to call ourselves together, the millennial sun can provide its energy to those dreams of community held by many of us.
Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers collaborate in writing, speaking, and thinking about new organizational processes and forms. Together they lead the work of The Berkana Institute, a nonprofit foundation, and consult to a broad range of organizations through their firm, Kellner-Rogers