The Wisdom and Folly of Systems Thinking

I’ve just read an article that excites me and irritates me in equal measure. This is usually a sign that there’s something profoundly valuable there. The article is called The Programmable Enterprise. In it, Esko Kilpi brilliantly articulates the dynamic, responsive, evolving nature of living organizations. But he also falls into the common trap of using the misleading language of the machine. And in focusing exclusively on the “networked” nature of the organization, he overlooks the fullness of what it’s capable of.

He’s not alone. I write about this tendency in my book, The Age of Thrivability. The systems thinking that underlies Kilpi’s proposals (and those of many others) is, I argue, “a limited and temporary bridge.” What’s truly needed is living systems thinking. With this, we recognize that an organization, like any living system, “consists of interwoven relationships between distinct, locally acting parts that together make up a coherent whole. Those relationships,” I write, “include responsiveness to changes from context and from within the system itself. And this generative – and regenerative – process is set in motion and sustained by a self-regulating and self-integrating property [that is life].” Only with such a comprehensive view are we able to support the organization in “tak[ing] on full, dynamic creativity and intelligence.”

I will share Kilpi’s article below, with my own comments inserted in orange. His insights are important. And the places where I feel he strays or falls short are useful invitations into further exploration and conversation.  Read more

It Takes a Village to Raise an Entrepreneur

Like the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, I would also say: it takes a village to raise an entrepreneur. We have this myth of the lone, heroic entrepreneur. And certainly, there is courage and heroism in launching a business. But if you are to succeed, there must also be countless influences and supporters along the way, as well as advisors, suppliers, partners, and, of course, customers. Any business exists within the context and fabric of a community – a living ecosystem or “village” – that is vital to the enterprise’s ability to develop, adapt and thrive. It may be useful for the entrepreneur to remember: you’re not alone. Perhaps more important is to recognize: the business is not you. It is something you steward on behalf of and with the support of the village.

Consider the very word “entrepreneur.” Those with some knowledge of French may assume that it means “take between-er” or middleman. In fact, the word comes from the Latin “inter prehendere,” which means to take hold of something with both hands in the interest of both responsibility and mastery. There is a sense of adventure in the full etymology. There is craftsmanship implicit in such an endeavor. And there is also generosity. The entrepreneur undertakes something on behalf of the community, in service of the common good. This is the spirit of the relatively new concept of “social entrepreneurship,” but the social implications are, in fact, baked into the word “entrepreneur” itself. Read more

The Refugee’s Gift

I’ve been helping a family of Syrian refugees – Omar, Salwa and their 7 children – since they arrived here 3 weeks ago, sponsored by the Unitarian Church of Montreal. After escalating violence, their home was destroyed by bombs 4 days after the youngest child was born, by Caesarean. That day, they began the long walk to Jordan, where Omar and Salwa were then not allowed to work and the family faced ongoing discrimination.

Despite their awful experiences, I’ve never felt such peacefulness, love and easy laughter as I do with them. Only the oldest son speaks some English, so I don’t always know what they’re saying. That allows me to be an observer, noticing the dynamic of their interactions. It’s really something beautiful. Just to watch them and to be in their presence feels like a gift to me. And I have to believe that their relationships must be a core source of their resilience.

In my book, The Age of Thrivability, I write briefly about this at a general level: about how this is a common characteristic in Middle Eastern cultures, how this is one critical piece in a vast evolutionary landscape, and what it means for the survival of humanity.

Specifically, I write about how:

  • All thriving living systems demonstrate a small number of characteristics: convergent wholeness; dynamic, responsive relationship; divergent parts; and self-integrating life.
  • Over the major eras, humanity has developed each of these characteristics in turn, first operating from a consciousness of wholeness and present-moment awareness during the hunter/gatherer era, then moving to embrace relationship consciousness in the agrarian era, eventually exploring divergent, individualistic consciousness in the modern/industrial era, and now – if we’re lucky – embracing a level of consciousness that can integrate wholeness, relationship and individuality to carry us into an Age of Thrivability.

“Rather than interpreting the eras of humanity as a series of definitive shifts taken by all humans in lockstep,” I write, “it may be more accurate to view each era as the appearance of a new option on the scene. At each transition, some parts of the human population began to experiment with an alternative focus, while others continued to steward one of the other core capabilities.

At any one point in history, then, different populations have held different focal points, though they may be contemporaries and even neighbors.” Sitting with Omar and his family, the contrast between their focus on relationship and my own strongly individualist (U.S.) culture was striking.

“Indeed, such variations explain much of global conflict today,” my book proposes.

“It is important not to interpret these different focal points as a basis for value judgment. Convergent consciousness is not naïve and wrong, as many modern observers have assumed; instead it represents a capability that continues to be critical for our survival. And divergent thought cannot be considered more evolved, intelligent or important than relationship consciousness. In fact, it is becoming ever clearer that the divergent lens is catastrophic if taken as the only reasonable perspective. Each of the lenses is equally valid, representing a vital source of intelligence and capability. Together, they are the multiple faces of wisdom.”

Indeed: “If different societies today demonstrate different focal points, this may be cause not for derision or conflict, but for celebration: together, humanity has all the ingredients needed to reach full thrivability.”

When I posted on Facebook that I loved the Turkish coffee my new Syrian friends served me, my Kiwi friend Dave “Tex” Smith wrote: “This is part of the immigration story. To bring to each other our love and passion for life and ways of living.”

May we find much to learn from each other and many gifts to share.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Just as communism fell in Russia, capitalism and Western-style democracy are not immune to the same fate. In fact, the US election, the global rise of nationalism and the worldwide persistence of poverty, social unrest and environmental degradation are all signals that capitalism may be about to hit a wall.

The difference is that the communists had capitalism to turn to. But what do we turn to next?

To answer that question, we have to understand the worldviews that underlie communism and capitalism and that render both unsustainable.

In simplified terms, communism values the collective more than the individual, whereas capitalism values the individual over the collective. As practiced, each in their own way, the two systems see the world and its institutions as machines to be managed and engineered. With these limited lenses, neither has been able to create the conditions for widespread personal and societal thrivability.

What’s needed instead is a worldview – an overarching narrative – that is elegantly able to integrate individual and collective needs. Only a narrative grounded in the self-organizing, self-integrating processes of life meets that requirement. After all, nature never settles for the false dichotomy of part versus whole.

The good news is: paradigm pioneers around the world are blazing an enticing trail, with innovative approaches like social entrepreneurship and impact investing. Grounded in the language and logic of living systems, these new options invite each of us to find our greatest personal reward by making our best contributions to the collective good. The early results are extremely promising.

The bad news is: the individualist, mechanistic worldview won’t hand over sole control without a fight. Donald Trump is the most extreme product of this worldview and its duly appointed spokesperson. Indeed, the entire US election process can be understood as the individualist worldview having a massive temper tantrum.

So, how do we put this unruly brat of a worldview (and a president-elect) to bed?

Certainly, we must resist and block the unreasonable demands and abuses of the tantrum.

Equally, though, we need to tell the emerging story, recognizing the values of individualism and also weaving them into a more complete view. We have to imagine together a society in which individuals can be honored even as they honor all life.

If we look beyond the dogma of communism and capitalism, beyond the dichotomy of individual versus collective, or of republican versus democrat, we can see that the expanded story is all around us, in everything that is alive and in the most vibrant parts of our communities. “You don’t start with the corporation and ask how to redesign it,” advised author Marjorie Kelly in a recent essay. “You start with life, with human life and the life of the planet, and ask, how do we generate the conditions for life’s flourishing?” The same is true of our societies and their governing structures.

“To change something,” said Buckminster Fuller, “build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” That is our most urgent task.

What Rituals for Modern Times?

It was a year ago, during a week-long island retreat, that I strongly felt the connection between ritual and reverence and the vital need for both in every context of our lives.  For over a decade, my work has been driven by the belief that if we are to be wise and capable stewards of life on Earth we must feel reverence for it.  Without reverence for life, we lack the vision and motivation to do all of what is needed.  Without reverence, we aren’t fully nourished.  We aren’t fully alive.   Read more

Nothing is Worth More than this Day

Nothing is worth more than this day.  So says the wall in front of me.  Years ago, I posted those words as a constant reminder to myself.  But, of course, at some point, they fade into the background, unnoticed.  Today, I felt drawn to reflect on them again.

This day.  Another precious day of life.  As one eminent philosopher says, “Every day above ground is a great day.”  (OK, it’s actually from a song by Pitbull.  But it’s still a great line.)

How will I spend this precious day?

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A City of Two Tales

Three suitcases. Two stuffed animals. A bag full of typically Canadian gifts.  And we were off!

My ten-year-old and eleven-year old children and I are traveling along the East Coast of the US on a two-week “epic adventure road trip.”  The journey is a response to my growing urge to show them more of life.  They’re getting to the age when school really starts to feel too small for all that the human spirit holds.  I wanted to have time with them to talk about anything.  To explore.  To be silly without a schedule to cut things short.  As US citizens living in Canada, I also had a desire to show them some of the history and significant places of my homeland.  Staying with family and friends along the way, I wanted to help them feel that they are part of a larger story. Read more

#ServingLife

This is a story in two parts: the first a few years ago involving a beautiful client organization; the second yesterday involving a convicted felon (also beautiful, it turns out); both related to the concept of “serving life.”  It’s a story of the surprising depth of meaning and possibility that has unfolded for me within that phrase. Read more

Mission Questions, Not Mission Statements

What if companies had mission questions instead of mission statements? How much more engaging and inviting would this be than the typical bland pronouncements about “being number one” or “being the best”? Why do you want to be number one? What learning, discoveries and milestones — what unfolding story — is to be found on that path? What are you all wildly curious about? What compels you to come together in this work because you can’t gain enough insight into the story alone?

“Your greatest source of untapped power is the part of your story that is unreconciled.”
— Michael Margolis

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Generative Journalism

peter-pulaI’m at the end of three head-spinningly rich days with Peter Pula, the founder and CEO of Axiom News.  We’ve been exploring what he and his team mean by “generative journalism” and what more it might come to mean.  The gist of our discussion has been that there’s tremendous power in aligning their work with the core characteristics of living systems.  (After all, only life can truly be generative.)  It’s exciting stuff that seems likely to have broad relevance, not least of all for media organizations trying to figure out the future of journalism – but, really, for any leader hoping to catalyze greater capability across a community. Read more