Change as a Force of Nature: How Org Designers Hold a Living Systems View on Change
by Kathryn Maloney, M.A. Applied Behavioral Science
When it comes to the difference between change management and how org designers look at the future of work, org designers hold an exquisitely different viewpoint on the starting places for creating and embedding change. We also hold a deep appreciation for how change and living systems fundamentally work.
Where change management may apply change to or attempt to manage change within a system, org designers are focused on unlocking capacity and potential within a system. We aim to leverage change as a natural, expected, and needed force. We believe in flow and emergence. We don’t actually believe in control and management.
This isn’t for the sake of being rebels (although we generally are counter-cultural, curious, not-satisfied-by-the-status-quo types), but because control and management don’t align with the nature and operating principles of living systems or the dynamics of co-creation.
Let’s use three simple principles of systems theory to set up a few fundamentals of how we think and what we believe as org designers. According to modern science (biology, chemistry, evolutionary cosmology, quantum physics, etc.), living systems operate according to three basic principles:
- All living systems are interrelated and interdependent,
- All living systems have the capacity to self-organize, and without constraints, have the capacity to develop and evolve, and
- All living systems operate according to the principle of differentiation, in that to exist is to be different.
In the systems that involve human interaction, or human systems, change (transformation and evolution) will occur best under the conditions and with the appreciation that we are all innately connected. In other words, humans rely on and impact one another even when not in direct conversation or the same physical space.
Change also occurs in human systems by means of engaging with the presence of creativity and freedom. We are born to be free, we are genetically wired to create and innovate, and self-direction is fundamental to both existence and growth.
Human systems are based on the premise that we all come at these first two principles from uniquely independent and different points of view. This means our differences are not obstacles to change; they are actually the conduits for it to occur. Living systems need friction in order to evolve.
Humberto Maturana, a Chilean biologist, said, “You cannot know what is your potential until you are drawn into action.” Living systems are perpetually in a state of optimizing for potential. They are dynamic, self-correcting, and constantly working toward balance. Static systems, on the other hand, are an oxymoron. For instance, we don’t stop evolving and growing as human organisms. This is because we are dynamic systems with infinite capacity and possibility.
We evolve and grow both in spite of ourselves and as a result of great intention and discipline. By design, we are perpetually drawn into action to realize our potential.
Our human systems have the same capacity — and responsibility — built in. When a human system is wired optimally, the people inside it can do what is fundamental and natural — be drawn into potential.
Org designers design new ways of operating so that the system and the people are constantly being drawn into action to realize their potential — over and over again. Org designers hold the belief, in alignment with systems theory, that human systems head toward slow or catalytic extinction when they aren’t optimized for continual growth and evolutionary potential.
Simply because you started and gained success as X company with Y mission or purpose does not give you license to not evolve, grow, shift, and pivot. You have an innate calling and responsibility in line with nature to do the work of evolutionary potential.
In the theory of dynamic co-creation, we are perpetually in the moment of deciding what our response is to a stimulus. As Victor Frankl taught in his development of logotherapy and through the lens of his extraordinarily painful and enlightened life, the last freedom we have, which can never be taken away from us as human organisms, is the ability to choose our response regardless of the situation.
Ultimately, nobody and nothing can rob you of your ability to choose your attitude in any given moment. In our choice of response lies our personal growth and our freedom. We choose how we suffer as much as we choose how we experience love and joy.
Organizational systems have exactly the same choices of dynamic co-creation. Systems always have choices in response to stimuli and in terms of which levers to pull to suffer or not suffer. Systems take stands, make bad choices over good, and good ones over bad.
Co-creation and stimulus response boils down to consciousness and awareness. When systems engage the collective and align with the principles of living systems, the system again draws on the oxygen of potential, freedom, and the creative impulse.
Sometimes, outdated structures and ways of operating may blind and inhibit our organization’s ability or willingness to choose new and different responses to stimuli. Dismantling static methods and structures, while designing new levers, fluid structures, and dynamic rhythms so human systems can more easily exercise the freedom to co-create, is another element of what we do as org designers.
As org designers, we also know that chaos and messiness are fundamental partners to change and to living systems doing their thing. As org designers, we facilitate messy as a means to a better state of operating. We don’t pretend change is tidy, nor do we sell any delusions that we’re going to manage or control an organization out of that state of messiness.
William Bridges says chaos is the primal state of pure energy to which the person/system returns for every true new beginning. If we avoid messy, we don’t stand in the pure energy that gives rise to new beginnings. Org designers hold space for messy to occur as a part of the journey to new beginnings. We know it is part of our job and responsibility to allow systems to see and experience degrees of disequilibrium as a bridge to a new state.
As org designers, we take a living systems and co-creation point of view. We view change as a life force and an inevitability rather than as a threat. We optimize systems to leverage and ride change, rather than control or resist it.
We fundamentally believe, and know through experience, that connectivity and interrelatedness, the freedom to create and to choose how we respond, and the tension — and beauty — of difference activates potential. We facilitate rather than control and we allow rather than manage.
Ultimately, org design is simply a way of seeing, one that aligns with and leverages the truth about how the natural world works. If the capacity of natural systems to create is their work, org designers keep systems focused on being optimized to do just that.
We teach a mindset, and design ways to function (ways to make decisions, meet, share information, communicate, connect, and learn) that embolden the capacity in the system to activate the entire system’s highest potential.
We don’t believe you can manage change any more than you can grab hold of air. The notions of controlling change, avoiding chaos, and not being messy are misnomers. We believe that change is the state to which all living systems return, in order to continually become new, improved, and better versions of themselves.
We understand and accept that becoming isn’t tidy. We also know levers, mechanisms, and mindsets that can hold people and systems steady through the waves of change, and we understand how to hold space for systems and people to rise into their capacity and potential. We believe you and the system are capable, even when you might not.
It is in that state of grace and possibility and with deep respect for the way nature works that we org designers humbly do our work — and invite you to do yours.
An advisor, strategist, systems design consultant, coach and change storyteller, Kathryn weaves together strategy, transformation and change, the ways we work and the work of presence and self-awareness to build and run organizations of the future, prosperous teams, and coherent systems. She is founder and principal architect of Theeo Company, a consultancy committed to emerging the humanity within organizational life — as an act of strategic urgency.