If an Indonesian Volcano Hadn’t Erupted, Frankenstein Wouldn’t Have Been Created
In April 1815, Mount Tambora, in what is now Indonesia, erupted. It was one of the most massive eruptions in history. Some scientists believe it was, in fact, the largest ever. Over a year later, that eruption created the conditions the led Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.
How could that be? Well, it’s a classic example of how complex adaptive systems work. The year 1816 is known as the year without a summer, resulting from the Tambora eruption the previous year. Shelley was with a group of friends on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, including Percy Bysshe Shelley (whom she would marry later that year) and Lord Byron. The weather was terrible and the group forced to stay indoors. One day they told each other ghost stories to pass the time. Mary dreamed about her story that night and then began to write what would become the novel Frankenstein.
There was so much more. The “Mini Ice Age” that had begun in the 14th. Century worsened following the eruption. Crops failed in North America, Europe, and Asia. Thousands of people died of starvation. People began to go to church more. Most likely connected, people in the UK and Ireland began a large scale movement westward, to North America, while people in America moved westward on that continent. The Mormon Church was established in the west. Some places in Europe had ice on rivers in late summer, others had brown snow, and some people in the US experienced permanent fog so great they could look at the sun and see sunspots with the naked eye. Europe was just recovering from the Napoleonic Wars, and the outcomes of the eruption exacerbated the misery resulting from the war.
The world is a complex adaptive system and, as the Tambora eruption showed, all kinds of elements and variables within that system interacted in response the change in the volcano. No-one could have predicted all the interactions and the outcomes of those interactions. Who could have predicted the creation of Frankenstein? Perhaps Shelley would have written the novel anyway, but it seems unlikely.
Your organization is a complex adaptive system. Whether you are an entry level employee, the CEO, or anything in between, you cannot predict everything that will happen in your system when you make changes. You cannot control those events. Other events in the external environment will influence those change outcomes, just as the Napoleonic Wars influenced the outcomes of the Tambora eruption. You cannot find a single cause of the results and address it. Even if you know the eruption was a root cause of crop failure, you can’t change the eruption, or even predict what would happen if Tambora erupted again. That’s because every change in a complex adaptive system is a unique event, with myriad variables, and those myriad variables will never interact in exactly the same way again. Your version of the Napoleonic Wars would be absent or different the next time.
So what can you do? Does this means you are leading a system that is out of control? Not necessarily, but it can seem that way and can, in fact happen, without strong and effective leadership. Systems thinking is an essential ability today of all leaders at all levels of an organization, but particularly those in senior roles. Standard problems solving approaches, continuous improvement processes, and focusing on fixing challenges and weaknesses cannot begin to address the needs in an organization that is a complex adaptive system – and every organization is such a system.
Systems thinking as a leader means looking at strategy and change from a whole organization perspective, and using tools and processes such as Appreciative Inquiry and organizational design that work at that whole organization/system level. While, as noted, you cannot possibly predict all the results and outcomes of change, by being aware of how complex adaptive systems work, you are far more likely to recognize seemingly disparate events as part of the overall changes in the system and thus far more likely to respond effectively to them. Even more importantly, you can predict some of the results and outcomes of change and prepare for them. I’ll explore these concepts in future articles.
Lee, S. K. (2019) If an Indonesian Volcano Hadn’t Erupted, Frankenstein Wouldn’t Have Been Created. Being Better Matters 20 January. Available at https://www.beingbettermatters.net/if-an-indonesian-volcano-hadnt-erupted-frankenstein-wouldnt-have-been-created/ (accessed: date of your access)
Sylvia K. Lee
I work with leaders, supporting them in becoming great leaders who can engage their people, generate high performance, and develop enduring and productive cultures. I do this by helping leaders to first discover and leverage their leadership strengths and then recognize and amplify the strengths of others. At the organization level, I help leaders purposefully and intentionally design strengths-based organizationfor for high performance. www.facebook.com/groups/StrengthsOfLeadership