I had a wonderfully stimulating lunch conversation with new acquaintance Lise Palmer of Spark Consulting recently. She had the delightful ability to challenge everything I’m passionate about in a light, playful way so that we could both happily learn through the discussion. Specifically, she was (and generally remains) skeptical about “the universal applicability of the living systems view of organizations.” I’ve shared her three major objections below, along with my responses. There’s more learning to be had, for sure, but I enjoyed the opportunity to articulate my current take on things.

  1. It’s just a metaphor – don’t get carried away.

The resistance here is that if we take any metaphor as literal truth, then we start to apply it blindly and inappropriately as a one-size-fits-all prescription. And every metaphor has its limits.

I should clarify that I use the living systems view not as a metaphor but as a literal definition (more on this below). And that’s important. Within the dominant mechanistic view of organizations, sustainability and corporate social responsibility are awkward add-ons that don’t naturally fit. And so they generally bounce out or are implemented half-heartedly. With a living systems view, though, those things are inherently part of the organizational DNA. When we see organizations as living ecosystems, the goal more naturally shifts to enabling life to thrive – contributing to and participating in life’s process and pattern. The most logical activities become those that support the fertile conditions for thriving at multiple levels (individual, organizational, customer, community, biosphere). And the most appropriate stance is wise, compassionate stewardship. These are the perspectives and actions we need, and the living systems view is at least a powerful way to get there.

Also, the living systems view appears to me to be the most comprehensive lens we currently have. It is expansive enough to hold many other perspectives: for example, living systems have mechanistic characteristics, as well as network properties; they offer models of war and competition, as well as collaboration and altruism. In these ways, the living systems view reveals more of reality and offers up more effective – and wiser – ways forward than the alternative lenses that I’m aware of.

And still, it’s not quite accurate to say that it’s a one-size-fits all prescription. The living systems view comes with a vast and growing toolbox of methods, such as Appreciative Inquiry, the Art of Hosting (and the myriad techniques it comprises), Non-Violent Communication, Asset Based Community Development and more – even as it brings forward many traditional tools and approaches. Also, the living systems lens sees each organization as both inherently unique and self-healing – meaning that the most effective solutions will be those generated by the organization itself. Both of these perspectives offer considerable protection against restrictive one-size-fits-all prescriptions.

  1. Organizations don’t have a clear physical boundary.

We’re accustomed to identifying organisms by their physical borders. Our own skin gives a comforting sense of definition and delineation, for example.

Yet, we know that a rain forest doesn’t have a clear enclosing boundary, though it clearly is a living system, with emergent characteristics and capabilities that can’t be found at the level of any individual species. The same is true of ant colonies, bee hives, coral reefs… and organizations.

And anyway, how sure are we that the skin is the beginning and end of the human organism – or any other organism, for that matter? In every way, we are an inseparable function of our environment. If you look deeply enough, the dividing line between an organism and its surrounding environment becomes more and more blurry. And a physical boundary becomes less and less important in defining a living system.

At the same time, organizations do have a certain boundedness. Organizational purpose acts as a magnet, drawing otherwise divergent people together and creating convergent wholeness from their aligned actions. I imagine a conceptual field around them, with their core purpose at the center, giving a clear sense that “we are this (within the field – for example, ‘we are a weight loss clinic’), and we are not that (everything outside the field – ‘we are not an exercise studio, or a beauty salon).” The (imagined) enclosing boundary of that field then becomes the organization’s relational surface (the conceptual equivalent of our skin) where we interact with customers and community.

  1. Organizations are socially constructed. 

The objection here is that organizations don’t really exist in their own right, as a tree or a whale does. They exist only if and as we imagine them into being.

There is truth in that. And at the same time, they still follow the basic pattern of living systems. And so I don’t find this an important distinction.  It acts like a living system. We can nurture it effectively using the same rules we do for living systems. Therefore, it seems reasonable to consider it a living system, even if a socially constructed one.

There’s also something deeper here. Even the social aspects of the human species are part of life. Ants communicate and collaborate to create the emergent level of life that is a colony. Trees and fungi actively collaborate to nourish and strengthen a living forest. The fact that we participate wilfully (if unwittingly and often counter-productively) in life’s collaborative and creative processes doesn’t make the results any less alive.

As a species, and as organizational leaders in particular, our opportunity – and desperate need – then, is to participate consciously, intentionally and in harmony with life’s processes, channelling our wilful collective action toward the conditions that life needs to thrive. Indeed, the circumstances are so dire and the evidence compelling enough that I’m surprised and puzzled that we’re still in this debate. It’s not as if there’s an alternative that’s beautifully getting us where we want to go.

What do you think makes this such a challenge to embrace?   

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