Features of Healthy Living Systems

July 5, 2012 4 Comments

In a rich and recent conversation about the upgrade of our very popular course, Facilitative Leadership, IISC deliverers addressed the question of which main points to instill through the addition of a new and framing segment on systems thinking.  I offered the comment that we need to be sure to say that systems thinking is not monolithic, that there are different schools of thought and approaches within the field, and that we must also be clear about what our underlying cosmology is regarding systems thinking.

I believe we are united in our embrace of a living systems approach, which transcends a purely mechanistic and closed system orientation.  We see any approach as necessarily over-simplifying the mind-boggling complexity of systems, which can be physical entities or situations, and at best as an effort to make sense rather than provide a pinpoint accurate description.  The aim is gauging essence, not capturing every element.

Furthermore, in thinking about health or wholeness, in living systems, we can turn to the work of evolutionary and systems biologist Elisabet Sahtouris, who suggests the following principles or features of health:

  1. Self-creation (autopoiesis)
  2. Complexity (diversity of parts)
  3. Embeddedness in larger holons and dependence on them (holarchy)
  4. Self reflexivity (autognosis, self-knowledge)
  5. Self regulation/maintenance (autonomics)
  6. Response-ability to internal and external stress or change
  7. Input/output of matter, energy and information with other holons
  8. Transformation of matter, energy and information; no non-recyclable waste
  9. Communications among all parts
  10. Empowerment, full employment of all component parts
  11. Coordination of parts and functions
  12. Balance of interests negotiated among parts, whole and embedding holarchy
  13. Reciprocity of parts in mutual contribution and assistance
  14. Conservation of what works well
  15. Innovation, creative change of what does not work well

Another field that I am learning more about, and that I think has much to offer our thinking at IISC about systems is Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH).  CSH operates under the assumption that every system is in essence a human construct, in the sense that they are manifestations of our perception, through which we put boundaries around something in order to make sense of it, whether an apple or the health care system.  As systems theorist C. West Churchman suggested, boundary setting, and the choice of what to include or leave out, is an ethical matter and indication of what we value.  The critical questions of CSH, that have implications for gauging and improving systems health, include:

  • What and who are being excluded, marginalized, or made a victim by the way in which a situation is bounded (viewed, framed, operated)?
  • How might different and often conflicting boundary judgments on a situation be reconciled?
  • What are the implications of not questioning and/or not debating boundary judgments?

For more on systems approaches, check out Systems Concepts in Action: A Practitioner’s Toolkit, by Bob Williams and Richard Hummelbrunner.



  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Love the questions of CSH, especially the first one. It’s one of the reasons we insist on having people who are affected by a situation involved in discussions and action for change. They often see the boundaries quite differently than people who work on the issue as their profession or vocation.

  • Gibran says:

    Thanks Curtis, and yes, your points resonate – I like the living systems approach. It would be good to match each of the features with an assessment as well as a practice (tending to) tool.

    I too like the questions posed. My caveat is that we do not allow the challenge of the questions to keep us from drawing boundaries. I don’t think we can move without them. One of the shadow sides of pluralism is how much harder it becomes to assert a position. Without a position to move from, it is impossible to move!

    So yes – let’s delve into the challenge of the questions posed and be very conscious about our choice points. What’s in. What’s out.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks Gibran and Cynthia. I agree that we cannot avoid drawing boundaries. I think it’s a part of necessary meaning making and agency in the world. Let’s remember that boundaries are not necessarily primordial or serving of our collective long-term interests when drawn in a certain way.

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