The Unshackled Organization

Jeffrey Goldstein (Productivity Press, 1994)

Jeff Goldstein’s 1994 book, The Unshackled Organization, is considered one of the “must reads” by complexity folk who are in the organizational development business, and it is easy to see why. Little new has been said about the actual practice of facilitating organizational change and development since Kurt Lewin’s work in the 1940s, save for perhaps Chris Argryis’ and Peter Senge’s works. Goldstein’s prescriptions for facilitating change tap into the energy of the organizational system itself, and its natural transformational qualities, leading to self-organization.

Goldstein is a business professor at Adelphi University, and serves on the editorial boards of Emergence and Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Science. He has been at the forefront of applications of chaos and complexity in business and management for 15 years. He was one of the founding members of the Chaos Network, the first formal professional society to devote itself to these ends, and was one of first presidents of the academic group Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences. His current work is focused on the history of the concept of emergence, and its implications.

Goldstein states: “This book presents a practical approach to organizational change derived from state-of-the-art scientific research on how systems change.” The book is “practical” in that, while it does draw heavily from complexity theory, it does so in a user-friendly yet scientifically valid way. Each chapter introduces the theory behind the concept, and then discusses specific approaches and activities that the leader or facilitator could use to implement the concept; the chapter also has numerous short stories to make application of the concepts clear, and cartoons by Hannah Bonner that ground the concepts in everyday life.

Goldstein’s work theoretically draws most heavily on Prigogine’s concepts of self-organization, and Maturana and Varela’s concept of autopoiesis. He describes the characteristics of self-organization as:

radical reorganization of the structure of a system; the spontaneous emergence of novel patterns and configurations; the amplification and incorporation of random events; the discovery of creative alternatives for functioning; and the arising of new coherence and coordination amongst the parts of the system.

Self-organization is induced by pushing the system to a state far from equilibrium; at such a state, the system can be nudged into a different mode (attractor pattern) of behavior by small, random fluctuations from the environment. The environment does not change the system, and the system does not unilaterally change the environment; rather, the environment triggers an organization’s internal mechanisms that are the source for transformation.

Goldstein demonstrates how self-fulfilling prophecies are commonplace in today’s organizations, and how such expectations act as equilibrium enhancers—barriers to change. He then makes explicit the different ways in which leaders and facilitators can bring about far-from-equilibrium conditions: work with organizational boundaries, connect systems to their environment, difference questioning, purpose contrasting, breaking self-fulfilling prophecies, challenge assumptions, represent the system nonverbally, take advantage of chance and serendipity, and use absurdity.

Let me momentarily step out of the typical role of a book reviewer to give some further credence to Goldstein’s contributions. Having been basically mentored into this subject area by Goldstein, I have had the opportunity to “practice” what is being preached here. I have had dozens of opportunities over the past decade to facilitate organizational change efforts, and the list above has quite literally emerged as my strategic game plan. Every one of my successes in facilitating change can be traced to the application of one of these concepts.

Especially noteworthy is Goldstein’s method of “difference questioning,” which draws on a tradition in family systems therapy. Difference questioning seeks nonconsensus by highlighting where differences exist in group attitude and perception; it seeks to “generate differences that make a difference.” In the hands of a skillful facilitator, it can be an enormously effective tool for instigating far-from-equilibrium conditions. As an example, I reflect on one situation where I was facilitating a quality improvement team and we were in our very first session. I asked the group to verbalize what “project success” meant for them—what were the end conditions that would be achieved if we were to be successful in our efforts. Everyone went around and chimed in what might be considered a “standard” response. I noted, however, slight discrepancies between two members’ responses. Intuiting that such a difference might make a real difference, I “exploded” the viewpoints of the two to a point where a heated discussion ensued about why the team was put together in the first place. After a tumultuous two hours, the group was in consensus about their mission and purpose and what it meant to “succeed.”

In summary, I can only give this book my highest recommendation, as it has very personally and positively affected the way I practice organizational development. Equally important as a scholar, it has shown me the way in which we can transform the physical science of complexity into social science and practice.


Jeffrey Goldstein’s book is a carefully crafted introduction to some of the key concepts of organizational complexity and the new approaches to organic change. Although published in 1994, this book is already a “classic” introduction. It has been supplemented by a score of more recent books on this and related subjects.

Goldstein describes the concepts of nonlinearity, self-organization, and far-from-equilibrium conditions, as the new dimensions of organizational analysis. This new mode of analysis applies to planned change, but describes the evolving, “organic” and self-organizing processes of the future organization. According to Goldstein, spontaneous reorganization occurs in systems when the appropriate conditions are present. Instead of resistance to the changes in the system’s environment, there is attraction by members of the organization to the positive aspects of the change, hence to self-organization.

The description of the concepts and their impacts on the organization are the subject matter of the first five chapters of the book. In the four remaining chapters, Goldstein provides a broad discussion of how managers could use the new concepts. First, he argues for encouraging far- from-equilibrium conditions. Managers should be able to identify these conditions and work in the direction of their establishment throughout the organization. Second, he supports the managerial application of nonlinear thinking, playing with “strange attractors”, and generally making unpredictable and seemingly illogical decisions that depart from the normally acceptable, “towing the line” executive handling of change. The key argument is the “freeing” of the spirit of members of the organization, to take risks, and to channel their positive reactions, rather than their negativity that coalesces in resistance to the changing environment.

Complexity science is not a visible topic in this book. In fact, complexity cannot be found in the index. Chaos, however, is a key component of the book’s explanation of the emergence of the concepts that it describes. Goldstein argues that he is applying key elements of chaos theory to organizational analysis, particularly with respect to nonlinearity. This link between chaos and the remainder of the conceptual framework of the book is less than convincing. For readers who are familiar with chaos theory and complexity science, the link is almost self-evident. To the occasional reader the link is still a mystery, since the explanation of the application of chaos theory to organizational analysis is at best superficial and fragmented.

Yet, the book describes the key concepts of complexity science, in a manner that can be considered as a basic introduction. Since its publication, Goldstein’s book has been supplemented by, among others, Marion (1999), who explains the role of chaos and complexity theories in the new analysis of organizations, and Reeves (1996), who links complexity to critical thinking and heuristics. Uri Merry (1995) offers a much more profound description of how chaos, self-organization and complexity science interact to provide a new approach to transformation and resolution of crisis and change. Mainzer (1997) provides a detailed explanation of the link between nonlinear thinking and complexity theory. He describes the relationship between complex systems and such phenomena as the evolution of artificial intelligence and the evolution of human society.

Similar detailed expositions of complexity science can be found in Bovet and Crescenzi (1994), and in Rice (1997). Other scholars since Goldstein have contributed to our improved understanding of the impact of complexity on, for example, creativity (Stacey, 1996), and innovation (Sherman and Schultz, 1998).

Although Goldstein appeals to managers in the second half of the book and offers some general ideas for the application of the concepts that he introduces, he stops short of proposing a managerial procedure implementing these concepts. This is the main shortcoming of the book. Goldstein heralds the new approach to organizational change and analysis, but fails to advise managers on how to create the conditions that will promote nonlinearity, and how to make nonlinearity work. By contrast, the Price Waterhouse Change Integration team uses what it calls the Paradox Principle to advise managers on the application of chaos, complexity, and contradiction in the management of change (Price Waterhouse, 1995). The team proposes 15 rules on how to manage the five paradox principles. Similarly, Kelly and Allison (1999), for example, offer 14 steps to successful management of change that are anchored in the principles of complexity and self-organization.

So, if Goldstein’s book fails to explain the key concepts incisively, and fails to offer a workable structure for managerial action, what are its strengths? The Unshackled Organization is a relatively very early attempt to describe the application of the new sciences of chaos and complexity to organizational and managerial contexts. Although it is very basic, the book nevertheless is well crafted in a simple and quite absorbing language. It may hold a special appeal for managers who may wish to gain an introductory view of the recent developments in chaos and complexity sciences—as they are translated into organizational and managerial situations. For the more curious manager, and for scholars who are now exploring these issues, I would suggest that Goldstein’s book be supplemented by reading Bak (1996), which is a primer on the science of complex systems and self-organization, and Sanders (1998), who connects chaos and complexity with strategic analysis.



Bak, P. (1996) How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality, New York: Springer-Verlag.

Bovet,D. and Crescenzi, P. (1994) Introduction to the Theory of Complexity, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kelly, S. and Allison, M. (1999) The Complexity Advantage: How the Science of Complexity Can Help Your Business Achieve Peak Performance, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mainzer, K. (1997) Thinking in Complexity, 3rd edn, New York: Springer-Verlag.

Marion, R. (1999) The Edge of Organization: Chaos and Complexity Theories of Formal Social Systems, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Merry, U. (1995) Coping with Uncertainty: Insights from the New Sciences of Chaos, Self-Organization, and Complexity, Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Price Waterhouse Change Integration Team (1995) The Paradox Principles: How High-Performance Companies Manage Chaos, Complexity, and Contradiction to Achieve Superior Results, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Reeves, W. (1996) Cognition and Complexity: The Cognitive Science of Managing Complexity, Scarecrow.

Rice, T (1997) Joyce, Chaos and Complexity, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Sanders, T. (1998) Strategic Thinking and The New Sciences: Planning in the Midst of Chaos, Complexity, and Change, New York: Free Press.

Sherman, H. and Schultz, R. (1998) Open Boundaries: Creating Business Innovation Through Complexity, Perseus Books.

Stacey, R. (1996) Complexity and Creativity in Organizations, Berrett-Koehler.