Rooting for Change: A Living Systems Approach to Thinking About and Better Linking Our OrganizationsMay 10, 2020 2 Comments
“The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience. A system that can evolve can survive almost any change by changing itself.”– Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A primer
I just finished reading Leading From the Roots: Nature-Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World by Dr. Kathleen E. Allen. It was a great resource to dig into for the past few weeks as I have been getting out into the woods in western Massachusetts and tuning into the emergent spring season in a way that I never have. Allen’s book has certainly helped with my attunement, along with some interesting readings on edible plants (Northeast Foraging), becoming more local to place (The Natural History of Western Massachusetts), and regenerative gardening and farming (Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture). This is certainly one of the mixed blessings of these times, noting the relative privilege that my family and I have, to focus in a slower and more concentrated way on some of what might feed us more deeply and over the long-term.
Allen’s book provides a lot of food for thought. It is an exploration of a series of design principles from mature ecological systems (living systems) and how these can be applied to human organizations. These principles include:
- Run on sunlight (tap the power of photosynthesis/positive energy)
- Waste is never wasted (conserve energy, cultivate wise use)
- Fit form to function (and function to purpose, paying attention to context)
- Reward cooperation (respecting connection and interdependence)
- Bank on diversity/difference (for intelligence, resilience, adaptation)
- Curb excess from within (via feedback loops)
- Depend on local expertise and self-organization (for more response-ability)
- Tap the power of limits (constraints can inspire creativity)
In the first chapter, Allen also highlights some of the key dynamics of living systems that provide a better understanding of how generous and generative human organizations might operate. These include:
- Living systems are interdependent – change in one part of the system influences other parts of the system in expected and unexpected ways
- Living systems become more diverse as they evolve
- Living systems are never static; they are always in flux
- Living systems are filled with feedback loops that facilitate evolution
- Living systems cannot be steered or controlled, only attracted or nudged.
- Living systems only accept solutions that the system helps to create
- Living systems only pay attention to what is meaningful to them here and now.
As I was reading, I pulled out a number of quotes and posted them on Twitter, which provoked some fun interactions. Many of these have to do with the underlying network structure and dynamics of living systems, for which I have a particular fondness. Here is a sampling, that will give you a taste of the book and perhaps entice you to dig deeper. Curious to hear what thoughts, feelings and sensations these inspire:
“Once we shift our worldview to seeing our organizations as living systems, then we can begin to see that generous organizations behave more like dynamic networks rather than traditional hierarchies.”
“The quality and authenticity of the relationships between people, and between people and ideas, increase the flow of positive energy in organizations.”
“The structure of nature’s network, the connections and interdependencies, allow the living system to self-regulate, adapt to changing conditions and evolve to survive.”
“Mutualistic relationships can help buffer partners against extreme conditions, open new niches for both partners, and amplify the baseline of resource acquisition.”
“Diversity allows for multiple ways that nutrients can be exchanged, making the entire system more resilient.”
“Opposition is necessary for wholeness.”
“When we recognize organizations are in constant movement, we then see organizational strategies as adaptive cycles instead of linear constructs.”
“We need to let go of the assumption that all of our assets are tangible.”
“Wet sand operates like a network. It is made up of grains of sand held together by saline. When it encounters force, those elements combine to resist; however, when it encounters a slow entry into its system, it accepts the presence of our foot. Living systems are networked and the nudge and wait for change is very effective in influencing them.”
“Generous organizations are open to the wider world. There are no silos in a generous organization.”
“What if a job description articulated a philosophy of relationships and connections that this person would need to develop and maintain while doing their job?”
“What would leadership look like if its highest purpose was to ensure that future generations thrive?”
I have read the amazing book regenerative gardening and farming written by Dr Kathleen E.Allen. It is surprising to know about the connections in ecology and human organization. I am excited to read the book Leading from the roots. Thanks for the wonderful review post.
Thanks, Donnie. I think gardening, and regenerative practice, is a metaphor for our times!