The Key to Sustainability

My work is based on a view of organizations as living systems. Why is this important?  It’s the key to sustainability, in every sense of the word.

For humanity, and even for most organizations, the challenges we face are too complex and too urgent to solve with individual intellect alone.  What is needed is the wisdom and speed of self-organizing collective intelligence in support of individual intellect and initiative.  Working, thinking and reacting collectively is a hallmark of living systems — consider the speed with which the individual cells of your body self-organize to react collaboratively to an injury or an invading virus. The survival of our organizations — and, more importantly, of humanity — demands that we learn to understand and work deliberately with this powerful capability that comes with being alive.

But if self-organizing collective intelligence comes naturally, why do we have to work to understand and apply it?  Because during the Modern Era, we’ve focused on honing the skill of thinking and acting individually in order to create the vast diversity that is today’s human experience.  Nature loves diversity.  But at some point, that diversity must be integrated into the whole, or the entire ecosystem becomes compromised.

For humanity, that time is now.  The task for us in the emerging era is to participate consciously in the full pattern of living systems: that of (1) divergent individual parts (2) working interdependently (3) within a convergent, unbroken whole, (4) powered by the creative, connective, integrative force of life (which may be thought of as the human spirit in our communities and organizations).  In expanding our view beyond the role of the divergent individual, we can recognize the vast opportunities to connect and collaborate.  We can open our perception to the will and wisdom of the whole.  And most of all, we can create the necessary conditions to engage the human spirit, with all its creative, integrative power.

The good news is that there is no compromise needed, no sacrifice of our individuality.  Nature will always love diversity.  In working with the full pattern of living systems, we find psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow,” as our individual choices are infused with wisdom, meaning and contribution.

What could be more important than that?

The challenge is that we must question everything we believe about the goals and meaning of life and, in particular, of our economic lives.  The problems we face are a result of today’s dominant guiding story, which tells us (1) that we are all separate from each other and from nature, (2) that the universe, including our organizations, operates like a machine, and (3) that we exist primarily to compete and consume. The actions that seem logical and inevitable according to this story have proven to be unsustainable.  And only with a new guiding story will we be able to conceive of a full set of economic behaviors that are at once “logical and inevitable” and sustainable.

Introducing a new story won’t be easy.  Even with a full appreciation of the living systems view, the idea of economic entities as machines is so strongly and subtly present in our society that we need to be quite deliberate in adding a layer of living tissue to the bare skeleton that is the predominant metaphor.

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