Turning to One Another

The year 2000 problem (Y2K) sits in our midst, terrifying some,
boring others. No one knows for certain how we will be affected by
worldwide failures in computers and computerized equipment when the
calendar shifts to a four-digit year. But we do know some things
for certain. Y2K is a powerful teacher about our modern life. It
makes visible the interconnections by which we have woven the world
together through technology. It illuminates the extent to which
both local and global systems are computer dependent. It displays
the limitations of traditional approaches to leadership and
planning. It reveals our very human tendency to deny and hide from
issues when they are too complex to comprehend. And it exposes our
dissatisfactions with our hectic and lonely lives.

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

–The longer they unravel, the more extensive their
–Costs always far exceed what has been budgeted for fixing
–As effects materialize, unknown interdependencies become
–The more that problems come into focus, the fuzzier they
–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

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
–Focus on creating new, sustainable systems. There is no going

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

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

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

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