It is difficult even to imagine truly dramatic innovation in management until we develop a different concept of the organization. In contrast to the current machine metaphor, there is overwhelming evidence that organizations are living systems. Our key challenge is to craft a new guiding story based on this insight.
The problems we face (in organizations, in the natural environment, in society) are a result of today's dominant guiding story, which tells us (1) that we are all separate from each other and from nature, (2) that the universe, including our organizations, operates like a machine, and (3) that we exist primarily to compete and consume. The actions that seem logical and inevitable according to this story have proven to be unsustainable. And only with a new guiding story will we be able to conceive of a full set of economic behaviors that are at once "logical and inevitable" and sustainable.
This new story is emerging all around us, though few have connected the dots. Why does a flat, networked organization now seem the better choice, when we've relied on rigid hierarchy for so long? Why do we need to engage the passion of people within, when for so long we've considered them simply "labor"? Why do we need to engage customers in meaningful conversation, when for so long it was enough to deliver a quality product? The answer is that each of these is a move in the direction of resilience, adaptability and creativity. In other words, it's a move in the direction of life.
Without a clearly articulated and comprehensive alternative story, these new strategies remain awkward and unnatural to implement. They continue to encounter resistance -- despite clear evidence of their success -- because they are at odds with the machine story.
It's time to update the organizational operating system so that it can comfortably, naturally accommodate these new strategies and so that we can respond to the serious problems created by the outgoing system.
The solution involves two levels of activity: (1) a practical framework to guide strategy and action, based on the view of organizations as living systems, and (2) a global open-source conversation to update the guiding story about organizations.
1. The Practical Framework: Derived from extensive research into the common pattern of thriving living systems and successful organizations, the Engagement Competency Model is a comprehensive framework for engaging customers and employees on a sustainable basis. It has been tested and honed over the past five years at a wide range of client organizations. (See Helpful Materials below for a quick overview of the model. And see www.cambiumconsulting.com for case studies.)
The pattern of living systems (including organizations) involves four defining characteristics:
1. There are individual parts (people in the organization, along with their unique contributions). The more divergence, the more the living system will be resilient, adaptive and creative.
2. There is a whole (formed in organizations by convergence around a shared purpose -- usually service to a customer or community). The more convergence (for example, the more compelling that shared purpose and so the more the organization remains consistent and recognizable even as individual people come and go), the more the living system will be resilient, adaptive and creative.
3. There is a dynamic pattern of relationship (the physical and conceptual infrastructure of the organization). The more open and free-flowing the relationships, the more resilient, adaptive and creative the living system will be.
4. There is what biologists call a "self-integrating property." This means that by itself, the living system integrates divergent contributions into a convergent whole in dynamic relationship internally and externally, in an ongoing process of self-organization and self-creation. In other words, it's what makes the living system alive. That's life.
When we recognize that organizations follow this four-part pattern of living systems, we see that we need to build the intrinsic capability to:
* Enable individual people within the organization to bring the fullness of their divergence.
* Engage the loyalty of the customer or community being served (this provides convergence).
* Design an infrastructure that connects and supports the first two things dynamically and sustainably.
These are the fertile conditions necessary to enable an organization to thrive at all levels.
At face value, this may appear to be nothing new. We've known for decades about the importance of diversity, shared purpose, and team-building, for example.
But a few things happen when we acknowledge the fourth part of the living systems pattern (life).
First, we begin to add depth, detail and meaning to each of these three strategies, which until now have been applied quite mechanistically and superficially.
Second, we discover a new role for ourselves as hosts or gardeners creating the fertile conditions for life to do its self-integrative thing, rather than mechanics re-engineering the machine.
Third, we begin to recognize the emergent collective wisdom of the ecosystem that is the organization (including people within, customers and community). And with this recognition, we can begin to listen for the voice of the whole even as we honor the needs of the divergent parts.
Finally, we begin to recognize that life is the true bottom line and that contributing to life is our ultimate reason for coming together in organization. And that changes everything.
One last note: every living system has mechanistic properties. Your heart is a pump. Your lungs are filters. These mechanistic characteristics are just not the most interesting or powerful aspects of who you are. And the same is true of our organizations. There is no need to abandon all the strategies we've developed to date. We just need to add a layer of living tissue to the machine.
2. The Global Conversation: Our economic entities need a viable and compelling new operating system -- a new collective story about how organizations and economies work and what choices and actions are appropriate. By the same token, we need a comprehensive field guide to move forward into that new story.
To this end, our intention is to host a global open-source conversation to co-create the new operating system. We will offer the basic pattern of all living systems and our research and experience around its practical implications as the original kernel to get things started, just as Linus Torvalds offered the original kernel of Linux. The global community will then add to it and improve on it.
The starting pattern and research will be offered in a variety of forms:
* In written detail online
* In short documentary videos about the theoretical research and about existing paradigm pioneers
* In a series of online slideshows like Humanity 4.0
* In live presentations and workshops around the world.
We will engage people in crafting the field guide in several ways:
* Online moderated discussion on specific aspects, with emerging insights integrated into the field guide.
* Local monthly self-organizing gatherings (like Thrivability Montreal) supported with a series of compelling questions, a prescribed format and facilitation guidance -- their harvests would be posted to the website, with emerging insights integrated into the field guide. More than just intellectual explorations, these gatherings would also guide people into new ways of thinking and acting together.
* Online opportunities for people to share their stories, examples, wishes, visions.
This way, the new operating system will not be "our" framework -- it won't belong to any one person or organization. It will be humanity's framework. And so it stands a better chance of being "right," valuable and broadly adopted.
Though a new guiding story is needed in most facets of our lives, we will start with the one that shapes organizations because (a) organizations are arguably the most influential – and destructive -- force on the planet and (b) a critical mass of individuals is ready to cross into new ways of thinking and behaving, but they are held back by the story at the level of their organizations. The core question we'll explore is "What are the guiding principles and what is the strategic framework for creating thrivable organizations?"
Then in future years the same process can be conducted for healthcare, government, education, built space, and possibly other topics. If we can transform business, it will be much easier to transform other spheres of our lives.
Early in the process, we'll sign on a publisher to publish the collective work at the end of 2011 (or whatever timeframe seems appropriate). This will give the project a clear deadline and a practical convergent intention (the larger convergent intention being to save humanity and to usher in better ways of working and living).
We'll also release a feature-length documentary film in 2012 documenting the process, summarizing the field guide's main points and highlighting paradigm pioneers.
We will fund the movement through a mix of foundation grants, sponsorships and crowdfunding.