Permanent Whitewater

The phrase “Permanent White Water” was coined by Peter Vaill. He wrote these thoughts in the early 1990’s. Today we know that Permanent Whitewater is an untenable state to live in. This fact accounts for all the fundamentalism, political turmoil and backlash at a global level we experience today. If anything, what we need more than ever is to keep developing our ability to learn new things and be able to tolerate ambiguity and anxiety.

Here are quotes from his two books (Learning as a Way of Being: Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water and Managing as a Performing Art: New Ideas for a World of Chaotic Change), as well as some of his talks.

Permanent white water conditions are full of surprises…the continual occurrence of problems that are not ‘supposed’ to happen.

Complex systems tend to produce novel problem never even imagined by those involved.

Permanent white water conditions feature events that are ‘messy’ and ill-structured, and have ramifications far and wide.

White water events are often extremely costly, both in terms of dollars and effort to cope with the problem and deal with the damage.

Permanent white water conditions raise the problem of recurrence, along with the realization that no number of anticipatory mechanisms can forestall the next surprising novel wave in the permanent white water.

Permanent white water puts organizations and their members in the position of continually doing things they have little experience with or have never done before at all. The feeling of ‘playing a whole new ball game’ thoroughly pervades organizational life.

The longer I have reflected on what permanent white water calls for, the more I think the ability to let go and move with the energy of the system is key. We say “don’t push the river.”

We aren’t comfortable letting things happen, adopting the Chinese notion of “wu-wei” (no action). But amid the complex turbulences and contingencies of the present world, our impulse to crush a problem with a rational analysis isn’t serving us so well either [!!!]

We have barely begun to grasp what a world of continuous surprise means for planning, for structuring the organization, for devising and administering reward systems, for operating career development systems and so forth.

Teamwork doesn’t happen automatically, and it doesn’t result just from the exhortations of a single leader. It results from members paying attention to how they are working together, and consciously developing patterns of working together that all members find challenging and satisfying. Team members have to talk to each other about how they are working as team; they have to process their group actions. This calls for a collective self-awareness, openness, and maturity that are still not widely found in very many teams in our culture.

Reflection is the capacity to “notice oneself noticing”…reflection’s greatest enemies are dogma and pressure, and neither is in short supply in the contemporary organization. Authoritarian systems, which modern organizations still tend to be, do not want too much free thinking going on. The truth is that not enough free thinking is going on.

In the world of permanent whitewater, one cannot know where the next opportunity or threat is going to come from. Yet when it comes, a great deal depends on possessing or being able rapidly to acquire a useful way of thinking about it so that courses of action on has under way will not be shattered. This job that calls for the whole person is enormously absorbing.

The modern organization is a “values-muddled” place – indeed a “values-anguished” place.

We are indeed in a deep crisis of leadership, management, and organizational effectiveness.

Peter Vaill coined this term in 1990 in his book Managing as a Performing Art. The term ‘Globalization’ wasn’t even in the index of that edition!