The Challenge & Opportunity

The top-down way we typically structure decision making (think of a typical org. chart) is a throw-back to the industrial revolution, where the principal resource was human labour, and control was deemed necessary to maximise efficiency and minimise errors. It’s a model of a machine, rather than a living entity. The problem is, machines break down and eventually wear out. Living systems, designed to adapt and evolve, do not.

This fundamental mismatch between the way we structure and control our enterprises and the way that living systems operate (which, by definition, any human organisation is) creates three big problems:

  • Management and leadership practice becomes hugely complex, faddish and unreliable [1].
  • Organisations tend to stagnate and become more brittle over time. The stages in their decline are quite predictable.
  • Most people report their work life as a pretty joyless experience — a means to an end rather than a source of fulfilment.

Because these issues are so common place we tend not to see them as symptoms of something seriously amiss, but as just the way things are. And so in our sleeping acceptance we never really consider the possibly of a better way.  While we’ve papered over these cracks for the last 200 years or so, we believe it is no longer possible to do so… for two reasons:

  1. Our society, economy, and technology are changing faster than ever before, and so the old systems and power structures are creaking and falling apart. The average lifespan of an established business in UK and US is now less than a third of what it was 60 years ago.
  2. The new generation find organisational life, as it has been, just too claustrophobic and they are no longer willing to put up with the status quo. They want to be part of creating something better, more worthwhile, together. An enterprise with a pre-existing master plan, or ‘purpose’, represents a frozen future that they have had no opportunity to shape. They want their career path to be the discovery their own purpose, because they instinctively know that it’s only this that can make their work truly meaningful to them.

So that’s the challenge.

The opportunity… is that we can create a very different kind of team or organisation that flourishes by default, and is an enlivening rather than dispiriting environment to work in — the kind of place that everyone yearns to be a part of [3].  But to do that we must look at how living systems heal and rejuvenate, and how they evolve and continue to thrive [2].

“Follow your bliss and doors will open where before there were only walls” ~ Joseph Campbell


[1]… As an example, recall the last time you tried to manage someone, be they an employee, a child, a partner or in fact anyone. No matter how good your instructions, chances are they changed them in some way – tweaked them, reinterpreted them, ignored part of them, or added their own emphasis. We often feel frustrated by this. Wasn’t I clear? Why are they being so difficult?

But there’s another way to look at this: That we’re not seeing resistance or sabotage or stupidity, but instead observing the fact that people need to be creatively involved in determining what they do and how they do it. We’re simply seeing people exercising their inalienable freedom to express themselves. The process of tweaking, changing or re-creating the directions, is the creative process: the expression of their own vitality — literally, that which gives us life. Allow our creativity to be suppressed and we deaden ourselves. When we submit to another’s direction we end up dispirited, disaffected, lifeless and prey to stress. Then we wonder why people turn out so badly.

It seems that every person, consciously or subconsciously, struggles to preserve this freedom to create. Certainly, our education system appears less than helpful in this regard. For things to work well in our teams and organisations, we must accept that everyone requires this freedom to author their own day and destiny. Instead of giving direction, we can support others in clarifying their own inner direction. Doing this together is what brings a group together, with perfect clarity and cohesion.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ~ Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

[2]… For a good primer in living systems principles we recommend ‘The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision’ by Fritjof Capra and ‘Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World’ by Margaret Wheatley

[3]… Examples of companies like this are few and far between, as yet, but Buurtzog, the Belgian health care provider; Patagonia, the American outdoor wear manufacturer; and FAVI, the French metal component manufacturer are three companies that have moved a long way in this direction.

Credit: Hugh McLoud of Gapingvoid Culture Design Group for the images here, and the brilliant art blocks that adorn my office.