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Saturday, 26 July 2008 00:40



Section VI - The Curve of Hope
Chapter 7 - Organization & Structure


...seeing knowledge and knowledge creation as the cornerstone of what makes an organization successful...
...seeing all organizations as embedded in, and interdependent with, larger natural and social systems...
...How work is organized must be guided by principles of living systems...
Together, these three elements could be the basis for a second industrial revolution that would close the circle and enable humans to live once again as part of, rather than apart from, nature.

Peter Senge's forward to H. Thomas Johnson & Anders Broms'
'Profit Beyond Measure:Extraordinary Results through Attention to Work & People'

What is the model or set of models that support our organizations as living systems?

Prior to beginning my studies at Antioch, I met with Greg Wolf who, at the time, worked directly for the Governor of Oregon and was responsible for ‘Oregon Solutions,' a program that supports folks who are implementing projects intended to help Oregon achieve balanced sustainability by the year 2025. A mutual friend told me that Greg had an intuitiveOO_VI-7_2009-02-27 understanding of Dee Hock's work on the chaord , and I wanted to understand two things from Greg. First, his thoughts on my focus on learning more about how to organize ‘chaordically' and, second, if he would be interested in me doing my Antioch project as an ‘Oregon Solution' project. He was very supportive on both counts, and we agreed to stay in touch as I proceeded with my education. I mention this because when I shared the ‘ Curve of Hope ' construct with Greg, he asked me to add ‘Structural Changes' as an exponential improvement. His rationale being that government as currently structured isn't equipped to adequately deal with our sustainability issues.

I agreed with his premise, but not the title, 'Structural Changes'. The reason is that I believe that the structures are a symptom of a deeper problem that probing into the quote at the top of this chapter might illuminate.

Let's take a few minutes to look at each facet of the Senge quote that opens this chapter.


'seeing knowledge and knowledge creation as the cornerstone of what makes an organization successful.'

I think it is fair to assume that Dr. Senge's 'knowledge and knowledge creation' is grounded in organizations being Learning Organizations -- steeped in the five disciplines he elaborated in his book, 'The Fifth Discipline; The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization ', and with the capabilities to both dialogue and suspend disbelief. A portion of our knowledge creation will include uncovering current practices that don't serve us well. An example is that many of our organizations utilize ' Fixes that Fail ', processes where short range solutions often exacerbate long range problems. This archetype is an excellent description of addictive behavior, and raises the question of just how addicted are we to our identity, comfort, power, or recognition that stems from the structure that underlies the 'Fixes that Fail' behavior.

The prevailing structure generally associated with most businesses has been incorporated in almost every other institution. It is the top-down, hierarchical model that originated in the military. It is highly efficient in that it clearly delineates responsibilities and span of control, but stifles creative thinking and collaboration. It is very goal oriented where the goals of the higher ranking person(s) become the goals of the subordinates. Life in such organizations often becomes a series of finite games, characterized by competition with its winners and losers.

typical hierarchy diagram

This simplified version of most typical organizations has brought a lot of success to both companies and the individuals who work for those companies. It can be argued that this organization has been very successful in the military with its mission of winning. It can also be argued that in battlefield situations where virtually nothing goes as planned, and quick thinking and creativity are life enabling traits, that operating to a plan and having an inflexible structure have caused battles, and even wars, to be lost. Another facet of failure of the military is that the finite game of winning overwhelms the infinite game defined around fighting for a 'noble cause;' thus the 'esprit de corps' necessary for commitment to winning is lost. Analogous arguments can be made for most companies.

It is also interesting to note that the organization structure shown above, when used in manufacturing situations, is ideally suited for describing the components of a mechanical structure, and is called a ‘Bill of Material.' The point being that many organizations tend to look at their people and departments as mechanical components in a mechanical process. But they are not mechanical -- they are alive and exist as a living system. One last comment about the structure. It assumes that every project can be reduced into all its components with a minimum of communications required among these components. When the project can't be described, or isn't understood by those doing the tasks, then critical tasks 'fall between the cracks' leading to costly breakdowns and rework.

We know that structure influences behavior. What we don't often think about is that our primary beliefs about life influence structure. For instance, if we see the world through a lens of scarcity and survival of the fittest where we must fight and conquer in order to survive or have our 'fair share', than we will put in place structures to support our best chance of survival and winning. We find ourselves in a re-enforcing loop in which an increase in structures that facilitate win/lose behavior causes a deepening belief that the world requires us to be this way, and yet more structures. If we are to become sustainable, we require new knowledge to formulate limits to being competitive so that cooperation isn't overwhelmed.

In chapter 4 of this section --' Transformative Learning ' our cultural reductionist approach is compared to that of the Japanese (Ford & Toyota), and it is the Japanese discerning their manufacturing process through a 'living system lens' that is at the heart of they're being able to implement a system that relies on the quality ethic of each worker, and to have a shop floor without measurements or rework.

Although we might discern the world of winning and losing as quite dynamic, in the broader scheme of things our institutions with their structures are very static.

The knowledge we are seeking is grounded in ' Panarchy ', the understanding that every living system from the smallest particles to the universe itself is alive and in ongoing flux. Our challenges are to flow with these changes rather than try to manage them.

A very helpful learning tool is computer simulations with their graphic, sometimes animated, processes and output. They are normally developed to project the future as the computer is an ideal tool for storing a large number of variables with the causal relationships with which they are linked, and then seeing what happens for as far into the future as one wants to project. They are also excellent learning tools because the variables and their relationships are our assumptions about the way the system being simulated works, and they can be easily changed and the system run again. From this we can see which of our assumptions has the most impact on the system, and which assumptions have lesser impacts. An example comes from a systems dynamics class I took. My project was to try and understand the impact of various public education attributes on the quality of communities years later. From my fairly simple, unsophisticated model, came the somewhat startling conclusion that by far the greatest positive influence was students developing commitment to life-long learning. What became clear to me was the understanding that those children who can retain their intrinsic motivation to learn throughout their lives will be the best citizens.

'seeing all organizations as embedded in, and interdependent with, larger natural and social systems'

The models we develop help us discern how we are connected to larger systems in ways that are much broader than the dependencies we have in our typical work processes. When we are in touch with our principles and our goals, we realize that much of our synergistic interactions are with those who share this portion of our aspiration. If we are out of touch with our principles and goals, we end up in situations in which our thoughts become too tightly focused. We are often this way with political issues where we get caught up in a specific issue, an ideology, or a particular party affiliation, and lose the forest for the trees. More and more countries have established a constitution and a larger social system in which all their people are embedded and interdependent. That social system establishes which paradigms are primary and which are secondary. For instance, our Founding Fathers' primary paradigm was relational and best characterized with the opening words of the Preamble to the Constitution, 'We the People.' By forming a republic with elected, representative government they introduced a secondary paradigm, hierarchy. The oath of office of elected officials is to ‘preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States'. The Constitution protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority, something inherent in a democracy. A corollary is the checks and balances of the three branches of government designed in part to protect the majority from the tyranny of the minority. The original model of US governance is a beautiful blend of relational and hierarchical structures, intended to be both a solid foundation and organic as fundamental needs change. Although there wasn't a formalized Living Systems Theory at the time, our Founding Fathers, along with many other of the brilliant leaders of the world whom we most admire, seemed to intuitively understand both the infinite game and its organizing concepts as inherent in the ‘ chaord ' It seems to me quite possible that if these common sense, brilliant people were faced with the situations we face today, and we asked them for their advice, they might say that we need to be very cognizant of the consequences of our actions:

  • ecologically, that we honor the Earth's capacity for renewing, cleansing and healing;
  • socially, that we honor the dignity of individuals, and sovereignty of groupings as we strive toward global community;
  • economically, that we incorporate the long term costs of both our actions and the resources we utilize; and
  • there is one paramount guiding principle - We only do what we believe to be sustainable.

'How work is organized must be guided by principles of living systems.'

When we now look at the model for governance that the Founding Fathers gave us, we know it was informed by the Native Americans with their council form of governance. Their mentor was nature, the ultimate living system.

Our understanding and capacity for embedding in and being interdependent with natural systems is even more masked than with social systems, and I think this is primarily due to our predominantly Western religious concept of 'dominion' over nature. But we are beginning to understand how interdependent we are as we better understand ' structural coupling ' and the importance of both emergence and variety to our existence as a species.

When we perceive our organizations as living, breathing entities and use nature as a model, the other attributes of living systems lead us to questions like:

  • How are we 'structurally coupled' both within and without our organization?
  • What autopoietic and/or emergent attributes are desirable?
  • From where does the organization derive its energy (metabolism)?
  • How does the organization renew and cleanse and heal itself?
  • What is continually dying and serving as compost to nourish the rest of the organization?
  • How are we individually and as an organization contributing to the larger community?

Perhaps the most critical attribute of living systems is that organization is fixed and structure is constantly changing, whereas in mechanical systems structure is fixed and the organization is changing. This leads us to the questions:

  • What are the fixed organizing components in our living system?
  • What are the desired ongoing structural changes by which we fulfill our mission?

It was this attribute of living systems, organization is fixed and structure in flux, that was the source of dissonance when I thought about naming this exponential improvement chapter 'Structural Changes.' It was imperative that the title help us recognize that the ways most of us understood and designed organizations and structures needs to fundamentally change.



Please take a moment to think about an organization that you either can or might wish to change. Discern it as a living, breathing system and list what you belief are the critical components that bring it life. Then list what would emerge from the system both as relatively fixed outcomes and those that are in constant flux.

What is the organization?
What are the components and the outcomes?
Does thinking about this contribute to your sense of being alive?
How might it be possible to implement the changes you've come up with?
What do you perceive the long term consequences to be?


Rev. 2009-02-27 MOM

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