Re-imagining Organizations as Ecosystems
Exploring the paradigm shifts necessary to move toward a living systems view of organizations
We are on the cusp of a massive transformation. Humanity is at a fork in the road. And everything depends on the choices we make today. No individual, organization or industry is immune from it. The world, as we knew it, is literally and metaphorically dissolving before our eyes. The old paradigms are disintegrating faster than we can comprehend. We are on the edge of tremendous opportunity as well as heart-shattering loss. In the face of this chaos, I believe our organizations today have the power, capacity, and reach to wreak havoc or to heal the planet. Organizations can become a healing force if they choose to be.
Will it be easy? Of course not. Transformation is never easy. It requires boldness, imagination, intention, and the ability to hold space and be the container for such evolution to take place. This requires us to view the organization not through the mechanistic lens but through the lens of a complex, living, and adaptive system that — given the right conditions, nurturing, and stewardship — can transform itself and its ecosystem. This calls for us to re-imagine and reinvent our organizations to become what we collectively envision — places where individuals come together to express and explore their fullest potential, and bring their deepest gifts in service to a larger Evolutionary Purpose.
Today’s organizations grew out of the need of the Industrial Era, and must have seemed visionary, liberating, and a place full of potential then. The rise of Newtonian Science, Rationality, the Enlightenment — all celebrated the rise of the logical, intelligent, analytical human. And our current organization model was another outcome of just such thinking. Out of this concept and design has emerged what we have today — technology, healthcare, education system, the Digital Era.
This narrative/construct came with an inherent need to impose control and order on a seemingly chaotic and random universe, infuse predictability and efficiency to get the desired outcome, and celebrate scale, speed, perfection. There was no place for the complexity, uncertainty, and the ambiguity of life. Growth, productivity, and profit were of paramount importance. And this propelled humanity to unimagined heights of achievement in all spheres. However, this infinite growth model in a finite world is no longer working, and the evidences are all around us.
Organizations are uniquely placed to create massive impact toward building “a more beautiful world.” Because they are platforms of convergence where individuals come together, the Narratives, Metaphors, and Purpose that drive organizations can exert tremendous influence on how people connect, collaborate, and co-create. Thus, to reinvent organizations, we need to re-imagine the constructs — new narratives, new metaphors, and a shared Evolutionary Purpose.
We have mistakenly come to believe that the organizational model founded during the Industrial Era is somehow carved in stone rather than thinking of it as a model that rose out of the need of the times. We are now living in different times. The context is dramatically different and shifting every day. To remain relevant, have positive impact, and be platforms of meaningful co-creation, organizations have to reinvent themselves.
It’s time to replace the metaphor of the organization as a machine to the organization as a living system. Frederic Laloux, in his path-breaking book Reinventing Organizations, gives examples of organizations like Morning Star, Buurtzorg, FAVI, and many more that are on the path of reinventing themselves. I highly recommend reading the book for inspiration, ideas, and guidance.
In this post, I have attempted to highlight some of the constructs that need to shift for organizations to become “thrivable” in the VUCA world. For organizations to become places of heartfelt work done with joy, passion, and love. For organizations to become truly relevant and regenerative.
1. Shift from economic growth to holistic well-being as a measure of success. I would like to quote the well-known example of Bhutan, the country that measures Gross National Happiness as opposed to GDP. Here are some articles questioning the benefits of GDP and “unlimited growth”. With the help of the German government and the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan, Scharmer co-founded the Global Wellbeing and Gross National Happiness Lab, which brings together innovative thinkers from both developing and industrialized countries to prototype new ways beyond GDP of measuring well-being and social progress. When an organization is committed to holistic well-being, people, planet and the entire ecosystem is positively impacted. Profit becomes a by-product.
What is required is creativity, capabilities like sensemaking to sense into the emerging future, and an evolutionary purpose that will draw people together. As far back as 1968, Robert Kennedy had laid bare the dangers of using GDP as a measure of success: GDP… “measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” Remembering this is more critical now than ever before as we experience where quantifying and putting a cost to everything has brought us.
2. Shift from “forced hierarchy” to “natural hierarchy”. Natural hierarchy emerges in an organizational setting when individuals are free to collaborate and contribute as per their capability, experience, and passion. This is not driven from the top but is an organically emergent process within a community of diverse, differently-talented, and passionate individuals. This kind of hierarchy doesn’t operate from positional power or through control. It’s an ever-evolving process, dynamically shifting and unfolding, including everyone in its emergence. In an inclusive community, people are free to be who they are meant to be in their wholeness and authenticity. In such situations, hierarchy is contextual, need-based, and voluntarily taken up and let go of when the context shifts.
3. Shift from fear to trust and love. The way organizations operate today forced by the economic system they are embedded in instill fear at various levels — fear of not meeting shareholders’ expectations and quarterly targets, fear of competition and disruption, fear of losing market share and falling stock prices, and such. Individuals within the organizations are equally driven by fear — of losing their jobs to AI and robots, of not getting that coveted promotion, of the appraisal cycle, of disruptive technology, of the ever-increasing pace of change, of their colleagues, of their supervisors, of the system. Our ever-growing fear drives us to cling harder to the known and resist the new. Fear triggers our fight, flight, or freeze response making us aggressive, reactive, incapable of empathy, compassion, or curiosity.
It will take courageous, compassionate, and committed organizations and leaders to disrupt this cycle, and design for trust and love. Leadership is not about externally vested and positional authority but one that comes from the heart. At an organizational level, this will mean not committing to limitless growth but to the overarching well-being for all. Only when the intention of an organization shifts toward creating positive impact can everything else fall in place. The intention stems from and is held by the leaders and pulls everyone in the direction of the evolutionary purpose of the organization.
4. Shift from optimization to human transformation. One of the sessions at the Global Peter Drucker Forum in 2018 was around Time to Re-engage with Humanities — cultivating what makes us human. Today’s generations are not interested in only making profit for some faceless shareholders. They are interested in and wish to participate in creating a positive impact, which requires a new type of awareness and consciousness. To become a conscious organization is a deliberate choice, which then leads to many small, thoughtfully undertaken actions and decisions over a period of time. These have a cumulative and a gradually percolating effect that can shift the trajectory of an organization.
This shift calls for transformation at a deeper level of engagement — with self, others, and the organizational purpose. It’s a subtle and an inside-out process that requires a safe container to blossom. Leadership today involves helping organizations to make this shift.
5. Shift from a mechanistic to an ecosystem view. The mechanistic model of organizations and Cartesian form of management are no longer viable for a complex, volatile, and uncertain era. Striving for linear, limitless growth isn’t realistic anymore — in fact, it’s dangerous. To view an organization as an ecosystem is to realize that ecosystems achieve stability through change, which is a fundamental characteristic of complex living systems. And to understand that change cannot be managed. Change and chaos are an essential part of the the adaptive cycle. In order to be resilient and design for positive emergence, organizations need to embrace and adopt this knowledge, and leaders need to become cultivators and nurturers of ecosystems.
6. Shift from “action orientation” to “being orientation”. I am not advocating passivity or suggesting falling into inaction. I am suggesting that leaders need to shift from an action-oriented mindset (a trait much admired in organizations) to a being orientation — this means to pay attention to the Source from where the action is originating. Is the action coming from a source of fear, a need to look good, a desire to beat competition, a craving to gain accolade? Or is it coming from a place of deeper truth, wisdom, and insight? This ability to be aware of one’s own intention and source of one’s actions is a vital trait for those who wish to take their organizations on the path of transformative change. A “being orientation” calls for some of the traits I wrote about in my earlier post.
I believe as organizations start behaving more like collectives of communities, and like living ecosystems, power will get distributed, decentralized and re-imagined. The desperation that often drives behaviors like competitiveness, abusing of hierarchy and position, protecting one’s turf, and so on will diminish. These are often outcomes of the concentration of power and privilege at the top, which has a cascading effect of creating a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness at the bottom of the pyramid. Taking an ecosystem perspective can help us shift from the mechanistic Narrative of Separation to one of Connectedness and Co-creation.