[A version of this post originally appeared in April 2018 at www.realityseeker.org. It is my responses to a series of interview questions about complexity science, living systems, and the Age of Thrivability.]
How would you describe the “context” that filters into and through a living system?
Here’s why I love this question: Because the more fully we can understand our context and the more adeptly we can respond to it as it evolves over time, the more “thrivable” we and our organizations and communities will be.
After all, any living system is an ongoing process of self-creation from context. This is the over-simplified truth within the maxim: “you are what you eat.” Your body constantly creates itself from the food you eat, from the oxygen you breathe, from the environment with which you interact. Likewise, organizations and communities are ongoing processes of self-creation from context. They are verbs, not nouns.
Life’s great opportunity is to become ever more responsive to ever more of our context, in ever more uniquely expressive ways. For organizations, in particular, this is more important than ever in an increasingly complex and interdependent world.
What counts as context?
Anything that has the potential to influence the living system may be considered context: information, sensations, relationships, structures, chemicals, physical force, and so on. In our organizations, it can include customer desires, fears and ideas. It is the personal concerns and passions every worker walks in the door with. It entails the changing competitive and collaborative landscape. It is the state of national and global dialogue. It may include the day’s weather. It is the flow and availability of the resources we need for our work. It is the character of the geographic place where we find ourselves. And more.
Living systems cannot truly be considered separately from their context. Though different aspects of context exert different degrees of influence, there isn’t generally a hard-and-fast boundary to any living system — a point at which you can say with certainty: the system is only THIS, but it is NOT the [customer conversations/national dialogue/local weather] that shape it. Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges thoughtfully reflected, “I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities that I have visited, all my ancestors.”
In this way, context “filters into and through a living system” and also has the power to disturb the system. Changes in context can initiate an adaptive response or reaction within the living system, akin to learning. In this way, thrivability may be understood as the living system’s ability to learn from — and with—context over time. Absent the learning response, the living system experiences limitation, debilitation or death.
How do you respond to context?
What does it take to help your organization become ever more responsive to ever more of your context, in an increasingly complex world? In other words, how do you make your organization more learningful? More thrivable?
At a broad level, enhancing your organization’s ability to respond to context calls for two core practices that endlessly feed into each other:
- Continuously grow your ability to sense context, individually and collectively;
- Enable self-organized learning through ongoing, context-informed experimentation.
Breaking this down into the living systems patterns I describe in my book, your organization must cultivate its capacity to:
- Sense, respond and adapt at the level of the diverse contingent parts.This means supporting each contributor’s ability to discern context and interpret its implications. And that generally calls for enhancing access to information (including multiple aspects of any complex issue), creating time and space for reflection, and enabling people to show up as their whole selves, with all their senses, agency and creativity intact.
- Craft a consistent yet responsive pattern and structure of relationship between parts. First, this means connecting the system to more of itself by increasing strategic interactions between people and disciplines and by cultivating trust and empathy across differences. Second, it means creating the infrastructure, habits and culture of experimentation guided by what is being sensed from context —in other words, crafting a “practice ground” where processes and outcomes are visible, where learning is an explicit goal, and where you may be surprised by what emerges. And third, it calls for structures of self-management. In a complex living system (such as a company or a community), self-organization is more rapid, effective and elegant than all our efforts to engineer and control can ever be.
- Integrate individual responses within a coherent, compelling whole. Any exploration of context must be conducted within the boundedness of your organization’s purpose — the shared identity that creates wholeness and convergence among otherwise divergent parts. “What does this information mean given who we are together?” “How might this shape the next chapter in the story we are living out together?” Since shared identity is an emergent property of the living organization (created at the level of the whole, not the parts), implications related to it cannot be faithfully ascertained by any one individual alone. Instead, we turn to collective sensing processes, such as World Cafe and the many other forms that dialogue can take. We “listen together for the voice of the whole,” in service of something larger than ourselves.
- Invite and steward life’s transformative flow. The first three capacities (tending parts, relationships and wholeness) are the ongoing work of design and cultivation, creating fertile conditions for thriving. But just as in our gardens and in our own bodies, it is life — precious, mysterious aliveness — that actually does the work. With this recognition, we can see that we are less engineers of a machine and more stewards of a living, animated ecosystem. And with this insight, we recognize that shared identity must be truly compelling, in exuberant service of life. This observation calls for designing your organization as a purposeful, practical playground. It creates a central role for celebration, movement, beauty, and reverence. And it invites us to embrace learning in all its forms — including failure and disappointment. Without acknowledging and aligning with the life in your organization, your responses to context will continue to be stilted and mechanical, falling well short of transformation and thriving.
Everything we do is essentially drawing on and responding to context. Whether or not we are to thrive in the process depends on how well we cultivate those fertile conditions of divergence, free-flowing relationship and convergent wholeness, all in clear service of inviting and stewarding ever more aliveness.