So your organization is a living system…now what?

Earlier this week, a new collaborator asked me for a few guiding principles that go along with thinking of an organization as a living system.  “Just give me a few sentences that I can share with my colleagues,”  he said.  As I anticipated, it was a valuable exercise.  Here’s what I sent him:

When we recognize that organizations follow the four-part pattern of living systems (see an explanation of the pattern here), we see that we need to build the intrinsic capability to:

  • Enable individual people within the organization to bring the fullness of their divergence.
  • Engage the loyalty of the customer or community being served (this provides convergence).
  • Design an infrastructure that connects and supports the first two things dynamically and sustainably.

These are the fertile conditions necessary to enable an organization to thrive.

At face value, this may appear to be nothing new. We’ve known for decades about the importance of diversity, shared purpose, and communication, for example.

But a few things happen when we acknowledge the fourth part of the living systems pattern (life).

First, we begin to add depth, detail and meaning to each of these three strategies, which until now have been applied quite mechanistically and superficially.

Second, we discover a new role for ourselves as hosts or gardeners, creating the fertile conditions for life to do its self-organizing, self-integrative thing, rather than mechanics re-engineering the machine.

Third, we begin to recognize the emergent collective wisdom of the ecosystem that is the organization. And with this recognition, we can begin to listen for the voice of the whole even as we honor the needs of the divergent parts.

Finally, we realize that life is the true bottom line and that contributing to life’s richness is our ultimate reason for coming together in organization. And that changes everything.

One last note: every living system has mechanistic properties.  Your heart is a pump. Your lungs are filters. These mechanistic characteristics are just not the most interesting or powerful aspects of who you are. And the same is true of our organizations. There is no need to abandon all the strategies we’ve developed to date. We just need to add a layer of living tissue to the machine.

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