Aidan Ward
Aug 1 · 9 min read

Often relationships are the reality that creates what we take to be real. This goes so much against what we have been brought up to see. As ever, we need to see the natural world differently in order to understand what is front of our eyes. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben describes still-green sections of the stump of a tree — five hundred years after it had been felled. The tree’s friends amongst the forest were keeping it alive when it had no leaves for all that time.

I did a tiny piece of work for a district council. The social relations there among senior staff gave me an instant migraine, the most sudden onset I have ever experienced. I did not know how to interpret that at first, especially since I was incapacitated!

I was working on the performance of the planning department, whose work was always complete just barely within the government target time. What transpired first was that it was easy for staff to devise for themselves more efficient patterns of working. However, if they were working more efficiently, they had no way of objecting to arbitrary senior management requests, so they quickly reverted to being up against the target.

Why this strange obstruction? Well, it turned out that the previous head of the department had been passed over for being a director of the council. There had been a long stink and he had left in disgust. Despite the passage of several years since these events and despite a changeover of staff so that the original slight had no real meaning, the battle persisted and was the most real thing about the work.[1]

Robert Macfarlane in Underland describes plantations of new Douglas fir trees, where the forester noticed that removing the silver birch “weeds” between them led to stunted growth, rather than to the expected better performance. It turned out that the network of roots and micorrhizal fungi was feeding the new fir saplings; removing the birch trees destroyed this effect.

If you study a fir sapling and its environment, you will never find this effect. The object of study has to be the appropriate system: in this case a chunk of forest. If you study a planning department of a council, you may never see what is going on. You need to understand organisation’s patterns that predate and control what you assume is independent. Unfortunately, this heuristic is chicken and egg: we only know we have the right lens when things come into focus in a satisfying way.

Just to round out the case study, it transpired that one of the work-practice procedures that needed to be replaced had been designed by the chief exec with his simultaneously superior and inadequate understanding of the work worked. Lest you worry for his career, be assured that there was a totally innocent but well-placed scapegoat to carry the sins of many into oblivion…

Anyone believe in design?

Trees in the wild nurture each other. Not all trees, not all the time. A diverse group of tree species and associated ecosystem of fungi and bacteria is healthier and more robust than a single species of tree. The easy thing to remember is that given half a chance, nature will stabilise environments to the benefit of all the species inhabiting them.

When I get to my smallholding this becomes a practical question. Which trees should I plant where and why? There are some heuristics. Some trees fix nitrogen in the soil for other trees and plants to use. Some trees can bridge the fungal connections between different sorts of trees. Some trees pollinate others that are not self-fertile. Some trees deal with excess water in the soil and some trees have deep roots to bring up groundwater when the soil is too dry. Trees provide different sorts of shade, grow to different heights, have different spreads of their canopies. All of which is before considering the usefulness or otherwise of fruits and wood types.

When Bob Marshall talks about OP, Organisational Psychotherapy, he is focussed on the internal life of an organisation as an organisation. It is a deliberate shift of gaze away from individuals and what anybody thinks they are doing rightly or wrongly, towards the “chunk of forest” view that says what happens cannot be understood at the level of the organisation. But almost all services offered to (and procured by) organisations are premised on problems and overcoming hurdles: OP is no exception. Of course, organisations typically only pay out fees when they are experiencing something as a problem. Which means that consultants become adept at seeing the problems that organisations can experience… Another ecosystem and not a happy one.

The notion of health and exuberant life flourishing belongs in a happier place. Life finds its own way through and when it is in full flood nothing will stop it. Not many people are comfortable with this independent and exuberant flourishing: it is a bit like having a teenager who will not be controlled. Do we want to have an organisational system that is self-correcting, self-healing, and self-sufficient or do we want an organisation that needs our “management” attention?[2]

Do we want to have an orchard that needs fertilising, that needs watering, that needs spraying for diseases, that needs constant attention? Or do we want a polyculture that thrives from its own resources and stabilises its own environment? Because that is the design question that we flunk. We flunk the question because it requires looking in the mirror. Of the consultants who I know first-hand, none think that their services are simply beneficial to their clients. In McLuhan terms, every extension of capability by employing a consultant is simultaneously an amputation of the things an organisation can do for itself. Every time I apply fertiliser to my orchard trees, I limit their need to for symbiotic relationships with soil microorganisms that will support their health in more comprehensive and durable ways.

Designing organisational systems

I used to specialise on a type of design around the Viable Systems Model of Stafford Beer. Such design is largely about the flow of information, and the radical ability of an organisation to understand its own situation and stabilise itself in its environment. We could call this the informational life of the organisation, and it is often liberating to make sure that individuals and teams within an organisation have the information they need to do a great job.

Remember the wacky ambition of Stafford Beer and Ross Ashby to get a pond ecosystem to control a factory? The essence of the thought is that a living complex system has myriad innovative ways to stabilise itself: its fundamental property is to be able to absorb environmental change in way that keeps its own existence stable and productive. That is what we would like for the life of a factory and the organisation that “runs” it (or is run by it): but our imagination is limited by theories that do not encompass what needs to happen, and by prejudices about the operation of power in social systems.

The point about a pond, the point about trees on my smallholding, the point about social systems that work, is that they continually transform themselves in ways that allow new identity to emerge. If we fix identity and try to “manage” it, we set ourselves a Sisyphean task that brings no benefit. Hubris in thinking that we can control things leads only and always to destruction.

A great architect like Christopher Alexander produces elements of the built environment in which people feel lively. He has patterns that he knows from experience will help. He will mock up elements of a structure so that he can find out directly how people feel. He will leave 10% of his budget available for reworking a building after it is complete. The point is that it works in a key direction: people feel lively, feel alive, feel social, feel able to be who they need to be.

Design is a launchpad or it is nothing. It is an initial environment from which viable development and stabilisation of the environment can flow. No room for preciousness or ego or power-over. The life of an organism, of an organisation, of an ecosystem is what it is: life force flows through it or life force ebbs away.


In an ecosystem there is a necessary level of diversity. Diversity of species and types of organism equates somehow to diversity of mechanism in the ecosystem for how challenges from the environment are dealt with. Any monocrop is vulnerable to a wide range of problems that can become disasters: various sorts of infestation and pest (insect, fungal, bacterial, animal, bird) and a very narrow tolerance of weather variation. Just about any polyculture is more robust to all these things.

The reasons are not difficult to see. In any undisturbed ecosystem the various organisms that might become problematic are held in check by other organisms. That is part of what it means for ecosystems to control their environment. In an agricultural setting much of this self-stabilisation is in the soil and the development of the soil to better support the ecosystem: better water retention and nutrient retention, better supply and regulation of supply of trace minerals, better control of fungi that are otherwise a threat.

The effect of diversity can be seen directly in the economics of agricultural ventures. When the ecosystem is allowed to supp ort and regulate itself the need for expensive inputs can decline to zero: no commercial fertilisers, no sprays, no veterinary bills, reduced fuel bills etc. These two things go absolutely in lock-step: fewer interventions and less cost. But the whole system depends on getting rid of the mechanisation-and-efficiency mindset that pushes towards monocultures that are so much easier to handle.

The life of the ecosystem as system doesn’t easily reflect itself in our language: we just don’t see it. Still less do we see the life of social systems, although we are part of them and can feel them positively or negatively, like my instant migraine. Bob Marshall’s OP ostensibly deals with the psyche of an organisation, and I have had long conversations with Bob about what this might mean. An ecosystem of any significance is more complex in the interactions between its denizens than we can ever understand. It is precisely the complexity that delivers what Nicholas Taleb calls anti-fragility or that Stafford Beer calls ultra-stability.

We need to understand this more intuitively because we need to understand what diversity is in a social situation, or in an organisation. The dimensions that we tend to use to think of human diversity are useful to check for evidence of a monoculture like the ministerial team in Boris’ new government, but I don’t find them useful in design.

An approach to diversity

In Ricardo Semler’s Semco, the rule was this: you can join the organisation and after six months you need to be able to show the contribution you are making to the organisation. That is, we are not going to produce a job spec for you to meet, because that imposes a shape and a type of monoculture on the organisation. We are going to let arbitrary outsiders see what the organisation means to them and how they can produce a notion of “better”. This is much closer to how an ecosystem works: anyone can show up and see if they can occupy a niche and in doing so stabilise the whole.

In the practical situation like my smallholding, you have to start somewhere. But I need to understand the significance of nettles, bracken, thistles colonising the fields as and when they do. Just trying to eradicate them belongs to the old monoculture thinking about weeds and undesirable denizens of organisations.[3] It is precisely those blinkers, those prejudices, those attempt to impose design, that result in an endless need for interventions and a persistent lack of life and joy. We need to rethink why we call some people spongers and some loyal workers.

[1] An apocryphal anecdote from the world of home cooking, badly retold here, so hopefully you’ve heard it before… a recipe for pot roast that involved cutting off the ends of the roast before putting it in the oven, that when traced back in history was on account of your grandmother’s oven being too small for the whole roast!

[2] Think of all the places you’ve worked that reward ‘fire-fighting’ behavior, even while claiming not to. The heroic efforts and the long hours are recognized and reinforced. Managers often become managers precisely because of their ability to react well to crises. Philip had an engagement once where the chief problem faced by my sponsor was exactly that he no longer knew how to demonstrate his value to the organization, now that the types of problem that he helped them with were no longer occurring…

[3] Chesterton’s fence, of course. Mustn’t remove things until you understand the reason for them.


Serious topics, gently treated. A collaboration by Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer.

Aidan Ward

Written by


Serious topics, gently treated. A collaboration by Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer.

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