Organizations can never be like machines. They are dynamic, self-organizing, living systems – like the rainforest, or soil, or the human body. So in order for organizations to thrive, they must align with life’s underlying patterns.
This article offers a sweeping meditation on the patterns and relationships that make up “living systems.” In The Age of Thrivability, Michelle Holliday develops an applicable framework to help organizations thrive.
In an interview, Holliday elaborates on how industrial-age command-and-control structures kill creativity, what healthy soil can teach organizations about sustainability, and why embracing the messiness of life will pay off for organizations in the long term.
Consultant Michelle Holliday brings wisdom, compassion, and joy to a discussion of business practices, and she shows how nurturing those attributes can enliven your organization. She explains that the people in a business are its living system – and give it “thrivability.” Holliday’s work is both abstract and practical, a meditation at the intersection of philosophy and management theory. She illustrates her thesis with case studies, though a few more nuts and bolts might make the book more helpful to managers. Still, this is a welcome, positive blueprint for those seeking a way forward in complex times.
- Modern thinking recognizes “living systems” on a basis of patterns and relationships.
- Living systems don’t merely react to their environment’s information, physical nature, and energy. They act, choose, self-regenerate, evolve, and create.
- Complexity forces people to harmonize the two hemispheres of the neocortex. This sparks “divergent behavior.”
- Psychologist Carl Jung suggested that a “collective unconscious” connects everyone. To access it, develop an “integrative worldview.”
- “Living organizations” – from small shops to giant companies – share similar patterns.
- A thriving systems perspective offers three lenses: “instrumental and transactional,” “intellectual” and “heart-centered.”
- Successful projects need the participation of the archetypes that embody the thoughts and behaviors of living systems: “Warrior,” “Magician,” “Sovereign” and “Enchanter.”
- Measure your organization’s “vital signs” for insight into its health.
- Death, as part of all-natural processes, has a place in thrivability.
Modern thinking recognizes “living systems” on a basis of patterns and relationships.
In the Newtonian view, the universe is predictable, machine-like, and controllable. Industrial manufacturing cast people as cogs in production lines. Business standardized laborers so it could replace them more easily.
“Business schools have taught us that an organization is nothing more than a processing machine – like some kind of old-fashioned meat grinder – with people and other resources fed into one end of the mechanism and products and services spilling out the other and into the arms of waiting customers.”
Companies separated employees by specialty, divided their tasks and focused on increasing efficiency. But Newton’s neat laws don’t apply to dynamic systems like a workforce, the weather or the economy. Organizations found that when they maximized efficiency, they became less creative and flexible.
Living systems don’t merely react to their environment’s information, physical nature, and energy. They act, choose, self-regenerate, evolve, and create.
Consider a new narrative to describe how life thrives in living systems that steward “life’s processes” to generate more life. These complex systems have many parts, but you can understand them with analysis.
“Generally, the more open and free-flowing the interactions between parts, the more resilient, adaptive and creative the living system is likely to be.”
Complex living systems, from rainforests to organizations, require four “fertile conditions” for resilience and innovation:
- Divergent parts: Systems have multiple, discrete parts, such as the cells in a body or the people in a community. The more these parts express themselves, the more resilient and creative the system becomes. To be agile, a system needs sufficient diversity to generate new combinations. Divergent parts connect by relationships – through “emergence” – and become a whole that develops new traits.
- A pattern of relationships: Business processes and structures create relationship patterns that define an organization. These patterns contain the different parts of a living system, including infrastructure and feedback.
- A convergent whole: The combination of a system’s divergent parts and its relationships forms a whole, with a distinct identity and order. A “shared purpose” establishes convergence, which channels an organization’s parts toward a common cause. Too much convergence makes a system rigid, while too little causes chaos.
- Self-integration: When divergent parts work in a pattern of relationships to form a convergent whole, the living system organizes for adaptability and innovation, thus creating more complexity. Leaders steward this self-integration.
The living systems model enables organizations to respond to ever-changing contexts. Companies such as Google and Apple, for example, opened their mobile platforms to outside app developers. Clever developers, mostly small companies or even individuals, then created apps for the whole world. This exemplifies a collaborative, “living economy.”
Complexity forces people to harmonize the two hemispheres of the neocortex. This sparks “divergent behavior.”
The modern human brain is identical to the Cro-Magnon brain, but with different areas working together to guide different functions. What changed was not the brain itself, but humanity’s ability to use it in the face of increasing complexity, not because of genetics, but due to cultural innovation.
In addition to your brain, your heart has a neural network that resembles a “brain,” with several kinds of neurons. Your gut, too, has a neural network. Effective leaders integrate these three “brains,” to harmonize their thinking, compassion, and courage.
“Movement that is playful, expressive, delightful, sensorial and engaging with beauty and nature [helps] us connect with our fullest sense of aliveness.”
A “whole-body brain” contributes to intelligence. The “head brain” informs an understanding of divergent identities and a recognition of patterns and context. The “heart brain” guides the process of forging relationships. The “gut-brain” connects you to your instincts, passions, and courage, and to the motivation to work toward a larger convergent purpose. Combining these systems, the entire body “self-integrates” to enable wisdom.
Psychologist Carl Jung suggested that a “collective unconscious” connects everyone. To access it, develop an “integrative worldview.”
Individual consciousness stems from the beliefs and assumptions a person uses to make decisions and form relationships. Essentially, people and social structures progress through “convergence, relationships and divergence” to a transcending “integration.”
“Unlike earlier conformist worldviews, the integrative view has little to do with organized religion; it is informed by rigorous and open (even scientific) inquiry…”
Wisdom comes with the full integration of the range of consciousness. Wise people live more joyful lives. Nothing guarantees that every adult will complete this journey. Most people get stuck in their individualism. Carl Jung described life’s purpose as fulfilling never-ending cycles of “differentiation and integration,” motivated by the spirit or soul. An “integrative” consciousness allows people to view things from multiple perspectives. They synthesize superior ideas from various sources or choices, even though these ideas sometimes oppose each other. People with an integrative worldview recognize the dynamic processes and relationships that characterize human life.
Leaders at this level check their gut and their intuition when making decisions. This integrative worldview offers humankind’s best chance of solving the world’s problems.
“Living organizations” – from small shops to giant companies – share similar patterns.
Think of an organization as a tree. The broader the root base, the greater the tree’s access to nutrients and the greater the roots’ ability to support the entire tree. Life enters a tree through its roots as life enters an organization through its people. To cultivate that life, organizations nourish the passion people bring to their work. The tree’s branches and fruit represent an organization’s offerings to the world.
Sunlight sustains trees, while relationships and money sustain organizations. The tree trunk is analogous to a company’s organizational infrastructure, connecting people to purpose, and providing material support and processes to accomplish tasks. In this mechanistic view, people serve processes and organizations bogged down in bureaucracy. Infrastructure offers necessary support, but the living parts of the organization are its passions and purpose. Organizations can remodel their infrastructure to cultivate thrivability. Instead of “management,” use the term “stewardship” to describe how an organization provides the environment people need to thrive.
The Montreal Nature Museums, for example, were originally four separate, city-owned bureaucratic institutions. Montreal merged them under one director. The new leader had visionary energy, but staff members worried about losing their individual museums’ missions in the midst of new, overall branding. The director asked, “What is the one conversation we all want to have with the world?” He guided the museums’ people through the process of creating a manifesto large enough to embody all their work.
“Internal communication blossomed. With a compelling identity, there was now a willingness to open budgets to each other and to decide collaboratively how resources would be allocated.”
The group renamed the combined museums “Space for Life.” They felt this was more than branding. It reflects the conversation they want to spark.
A thriving systems perspective offers three lenses: “instrumental and transactional,” “intellectual” and “heart-centered.”
Managers using the instrumental and transactional lens look at patterns that improve work processes and, therefore, business results. New vocabulary, concepts, and strategies viewed through the intellectual lens offer different approaches to organization and oversight.
“Every interaction is an opportunity to be transformed. This is life’s fundamental urge. Anything less is simply transactional, falling short of fulfilling life’s true yearning.”
Seen through the third lens, the perspective of the heart, organizations connect through their relationships and life force to the life force of their communities. This lens uplifts love and beauty and adds vitality. Organizations can achieve thrivability only by looking through all three lenses. It comes from nurturing stewardship of an organization’s overall health. There is still a place for management processes for “controlling the parts,” but through encouragement, invitation, experience, and openness to “what wants to happen.”
Successful projects need the participation of the archetypes that embody the thoughts and behaviors of living systems: “Warrior,” “Magician,” “Sovereign” and “Enchanter.”
Four archetypes capture the ways living systems think and act:
- Warrior: This archetype represents divergence and individual talents, gifts, and truths.
- Magician: This archetype unites different elements to enable new possibilities. It facilitates, linking people who have new ideas to foster learning, perception, and creativity.
- Sovereign: This archetype represents the energy of cohesive wholeness and purpose.
- Enchanter: This archetype contributes to the energy of transformation and renewal, embodies self-integration, and shines through in the arts or in nature.
A “steward” orchestrates these energies within an organization or a project. To transcend conflict, recognize that certain personalities prefer different energies. Focus on the energy your group needs most at any time. Consider introducing the energies separately, as living systems or patterns. Some places are more culturally biased to one archetypal energy than the others. Sovereign and Enchanter energies are more inspirational and aspirational than the instrumental Warrior and Magician. The Sovereign and Enchanter integrate the other energies and create the space for transformative change.
Measure your organization’s “vital signs” for insight into its health.
The measurements companies use to manage and predict results remain the same in a living organization, although some goals transcend production numbers and profits.
“Our survival and health depend on the conditions necessary for thriving – belonging, self-actualization, meaning and transcendence.”
Measure what you need to thrive. Use thrivability to work yourself out of “survival mode,” which leads to isolation, depression, and anxiety; robs you of your ability to envision better outcomes; and leaves you unable to create. Living organizations develop the story of who they are in a manifesto that defines the “fertile conditions” they need to reach their goals. Working back from these goals, they design the feedback loops and metrics that enable them to thrive. Feedback might emerge in daily stand-up meetings or brief weekly sessions with a whiteboard with four columns: “Noticing, implementing, practicing and mastery.” A team using this method will see a problem, brainstorm potential remedies, and implement one as a test. If it seems to work, it moves into the practicing column. If adopted, it becomes a part of the group’s mastery. Sometimes just noticing a problem can help resolve it.
Death, as part of all-natural processes, has a place in thrivability.
Little basil plants will grow and thrive in the space you give them. But if you put too many in a small pot, none of them will get big or strong. Pruning cultivates life. And life encompasses death, conflict, challenges, and confusion.
“For the system overall to thrive, there may have to be multiple experiments, from which only some are chosen. [Some things will] come to their natural end and must be turned back to compost, in turn nourishing the rest of the system.”
Death within a living system is generative. Many companies embrace this perspective with the exhortation to “fail fast.” Such creative destruction allows for renewal. Innovation grows from granting yourself and your firm time and space to reflect. For instance, one organization broke down longstanding silos by using a participatory process of redesigning common areas. It moved ahead on the understanding that, as writer Peter Block put it, “The answer to ‘how?’ is ‘yes’.” Such a process is itself enriching, and a path forward will emerge.
About the Authors
Michelle Holliday is an organizational consultant and facilitator with expertise in thrivability for communities and businesses.