Mieke Byerley — Perspectives On Organizational Change

Mike Parker
Sep 26, 2018 · 13 min read

“Our current organizations are
very much a
product of the
industrial revolution”

Mieke Byerley is the next in our series of interviews asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on a few basic but essential questions on Organizational Change.

Mieke says of herself:
“I am a Neo-Generalist spanning a wide variety of interests and disciplines, with a central focus on Humanity. Interests include but are not limited to Holacracy, Sociocracy, U. Lab, Economy of Communion, Economy for the Common Good, Blue Ocean Strategy, Living Systems Thinking, Biomimicry. In 2015 Biomimetic Clockworx emerged as a response to my personal relationship with Humanity, it is the home of the HCO3 Scaffold, which is a paradigm in understanding organizations in accordance with Human Nature.

My professional approach is:
Human-Centric Organisational Analysis, Development, and Improvement. With a background in Corporate Compliance and Analysis, I strive to provide people with unorthodox and authentic human solutions and experiences, that enable meaningful connections, collaboration, and generosity”.

“Ultimately, nature holds the answers we are looking for.
It’s been practising this stuff for billions of years”.

Mike:
Do you see major change as being inevitable and essential to organizations the world over, both commercial and non-commercial?

Mieke:
Define ‘Major Change’?

Mike:
Okay. Let me re-phrase that; do you see a necessity for a paradigm shift in how organizations are configured?

Mieke:
Yes, to a certain extent, I don’t know if it’s really a full paradigm shift. I think one of the things we really need to do is be honest with what we’ve created. I always come back to the fact that, our current organizations are very much a product of the industrial revolution, which was essentially triggered by what’s known to some as the Age of Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason.

The interesting thing was that, when they designed this method of organizing, it was with all best intent. It was really to help us through, at that time, the extremely difficult situations of post-world wars, and trying to get ourselves back into some semblance of, I won’t say thrivability, but at least functionality, because we weren’t even functioning on a social stage. The infrastructures, the communities, they were all devastated.

I think that what happened is that with all good intent, we designed these organizations, and I use organization in the broadest context, but we neglected the potential side effects, and that is something we still have the tendency to do, because you see it’s still happening in a lot of industries. The medical industry is a good example, because we put medication out there to help, and then we find out five, ten years down the track that they have some serious side effects that we then must find another solution for, so that mentality, that way of looking at things in the short term is a problem. I think that rather than change being inevitable or essential, I think change is inherently intrinsic. It’s not a choice.

Mike:
It’s not a choice but an intrinsic necessity of survival?

Mieke:
That’s right. And you can either say, “Well, I don’t want that,” and there’s plenty of people who do that, or you could say, “Actually no, I choose to be a co-author with that. I accept that, and I more than just accept it, I become part of that change. I make myself one with that change.”

Mike:
You engage in inventing the future in conjunction with what is there and what’s happening?

Mieke:
That’s right. Like a conductor.
I think from an organizational perspective, the latter is obviously the more optimum choice, and that is simply from the perspective of longevity, of relevance, of ability to serve in context, place, and time. We’ve seen it time and time again in history, too, whether you’re talking at the level of nation states or whether you’re talking at a business level, organizational formats that refuse to accept change as part of the fabric inevitably die.

Mike:
Right, yes, absolutely.

Mieke:
They self-destruct, it seems.

Mike:
In my terms, they would be trapped in their primitive brain, frightened of change, and pretty much frozen, actually.

Mieke:
Yes. Yes, and it’s funny because nature selects, so if you don’t adapt, you will be deselected pretty much.

Mike:
Adaptability actually seems to be one of the key survival qualities, doesn’t it?

Mieke:
Yes. Yes, that’s exactly it. I think eventually what you will see is that they will cease to exist, whether we like it or not.

Mike:
Can I ask you, just following on from that, do you see new kinds of organizational design as having a role to play in enabling greater engagement in decision making by all the people in an organization?

Mieke:
Yes, but also the rethinking of current structures. I think one of the interesting things is that more flexibility, more variety, more diversity in role structures is definitely becoming a lot more the norm; but what I’ve also noted is that people are rethinking the traditional structures. A really classic example is the idea of democracy. When you talk about democracy, most people have a very set concept of what democracy is. However, when you really start to look at what democracy should be, you get an entirely different picture. You will start to ask, are we really practising True democracy? It’s when you re-evaluate the concepts that are still in our current organizational practices and start to question them that you find that actually, “we say we do this, but is that what we are really doing”?

Mike:
Yes. I completely agree with you, and I kind of describe that to myself to some extent in terms of thinking of democracy as being an aspirational practice.

Mieke:
Yes.

Mike:
For me, that opens up the concept as being something which needs to be tended and have constant attention and thought.

Mieke:
Yes.

Mike:
Do you think the same is true about organizations that need to make a transition then? The ones that are going to survive will decide they want to be flexible enough, is that partly what they need to do, do you think?

Mieke:
Yes. Yes, I think the shift really has to happen to becoming people-orientated.

Mike:
When I say new models of organizational design, I think I’m thinking of a target model to which an existing organization might be trying to transition.

Mieke:
Mm-hmm , yes.

Mike:
In those terms, I’m wondering if I could ask you, do you think that new kinds of organization design, new potential ways of doing things, have a role to play in enabling organizations to deal with massively increased complexity of interaction at their boundaries? Do you think that’s a driver of what’s happening?

Mieke:
Yes. I think it is. I think they do have a huge role to play, and the reason for that is because there’s a limit to what technology can give us in response, if that makes sense. Technology’s great at algorithms, mathematical quota, but it’s not very good at sensing or dealing with emotions or the things that are not quantifiable and are much more qualitative by nature. As Human Beings, that’s actually our strength by default.

Mike:
Yes. That’s interesting, isn’t it?

Mieke:
As is most of life. You look at nature itself, even down to the level of plant life, how does it judge where the roots grow into? How does it judge which way to point its leaves in a plant? There’s no mathematical reaction to that. That’s sensory. That’s a qualitative potential, the fact that they know, “That’s where the sun is, so I need to angle my leaves that way in order to produce the most photosynthesis,” which is the energy. That is the power of nature and that’s the power that we as Human Beings have been evolved to maximize the potential of.

Mike:
Right. Do you think that there’s a good case for actually considering bio-mimicry when you’re looking at organizational structures?

Mieke:
Yes. In fact, that’s something I tend to leverage extremely heavily, and extensively.

Mike:
Right, that’s interesting. That leads me onto my next question actually, which is what kinds of organizational design do you think is worth looking at in this context?

Mieke:
Ultimately, nature holds the answers we are looking for. It’s been practising this stuff for billions of years. However, I’m also very much of the school of thought that we are humans for a reason. We have a very specific purpose. We have a very specific set of capacities, of qualities, which sets us apart from other life forms in nature. I have a huge amount of respect for the concept of swarm leadership, for example, or learning from a hive mentality and that type of concept, but I always come back to the thought that, Human Beings are not born in hives, we’re not born in swarms. We don’t naturally swarm, we don’t naturally work in those environments. We, need to learn how we as Human Beings function and work on an individual basis, and learn how we can bring that into a collective sense, so really human-centred.

Mike:
In a way, it’s almost as if the development of structures of organization is kind of a reflection of our own evolution?

Mieke:
Yes. We create organizations as a mimicry of ourselves. They express and amplify us, and they are an extension of us. The reason we organize is because we try to do things that as individuals we cannot achieve, we need a collaborative concerted effort or what some people refer to as co-intelligence.

When I think of these things, I come back to these principles:
So if I’m looking at a Human Being, what are the components I see in them? Well, we’ve got our physical self, obviously, physiological, but we also have our emotional self, and our mind, which goes well beyond just the brain. Then of course, there is that part that’s intangible, some people they call that spirit, some call it soul, some people call it source. It goes by so many different names, but it comes down to a fundamental essence that makes us who we are, our beingness. Our organizations have those same elements, and that gives them an extremely unique identity.

Mike:
You think organizations can have a smell, a resonance, a vibe to them, which is almost like that of a group mind?

Mieke:
Yes. Yes, it’s like meeting an individual. It’s like they have a very specific set of characteristics.

Mike:
I like that.

Mieke:
There’s an energy about it. Yes?

Mike:
Right, and also like many individuals, they may not have a particularly good idea of what’s going on in there.

Mieke:
Exactly.

Mike:
Organizational self-awareness, right?

Mieke:
Right. That’s right, when I look at it that way, then I think of organizational structures in terms of Holonic theory for example. To me this is one of the things that is a very big factor because Human Beings are based on principles of ecology. Ultimately, Human Beings are ecosystems, consider the fact that in a human body, only 10% of the DNA contained is human, the other 90% of the DNA we carry around isn’t human.

Mike:
Yes. We are basically symbiotes. Biologically, at a physiological level.

Mieke:
Yes. That’s right. There are so many different facets, but it all makes you realize, too, when you look at the human body, that you have an architectural structure that is not necessarily hierarchical, but it is very defined. You have, for example, your governance structures in the body. As a matter of fact, you have four, I call them the coordinating systems. Most people know them as your cardiovascular system, your lymphatic system, your endocrine system, and your nervous system. They basically make sure that your body coordinates, that everything is functioning the way it is, that messages come through, and when they work in combination, they work in combination under very specific conditions, one of those combined functions is your immune system. The immune system’s not one system, it’s actually the integration of these four coordinating systems. Those same coordinating systems, you should also then be able to find in our organizational structures.

Mike:
Yes.

Mieke:
Incidentally, they are there. We already know them and we’ve named them. We simply haven’t realized and connected them.

Mike:
Interesting, isn’t it? This is almost exactly what Stafford Beer was saying as far back as the ’70s when he based the Viable Systems Model on the human nervous system and the brain.

Mieke:
Yes, very similar to that. That is not to say that we can’t learn from other systems in nature. For example, I quite often refer to dendrology, the study of trees as well, because of the way that under natural forest circumstances they communicate and interact.

Mike:
Could I just ask you, because this is actually fascinating, how that interfaces and how it can express itself through some of the structures which have been promoted out there at the moment like holacracy, because it seems to me that those are okay structures but it feels like what you’re talking about is an essential flexibility and qualitative sensibility that needs to in-dwell those structures for them to really flourish. Would that be right?

Mieke:
That’s quite true. I’ve been involved with Holacracy since, gosh, halfway through 2014? I’m actually a constitution contributor, so I help write the constitution.

Mike:
I’m asking the right person then!

Mieke:
I’m one of the very, very small number of certified Holacracy practitioners here in New Zealand.
I also have strong links with sociocracy and I’ve also been extremely blessed to have worked for a digital company that was supported by Ricardo Semler (Semco).

Mike:
One of my favorite people.

Mieke:
He’s seriously an amazing person, yes. Deep respect. I think the thing that’s beautiful about him is that his love for humanity or people really comes to the fore. It is really, really evident in what he does.

With regards to all these systems, I very quickly realized that they’re fantastic, but they’re pieces of the puzzle. They’re not the entire puzzle. Holacracy on its own doesn’t stand on its own. It’s fantastic as an organization coordinating system, but it is not very good at the strategy, the communication, or the economic level for an organization. It doesn’t deal with those things. It wasn’t designed to. You need other concepts, other frameworks, I guess you could say, to merge with that.

The whole trick is to find those that complement each other. For example, holarchy is like the basic form of theory, so when you’re looking for compatible practices, one of the prerequisites would be look for other practices that go from a holonic perspective. If you don’t do that, what happens is you end up with a real clash and it becomes really, really difficult to fit the pieces together. Not un-doable, but you’d probably end up creating a whole lot of extra work.

Mike:
Yes, right. It can be pretty confusing, right?

Mieke:
Yes.

Mike:
Do you think that the leaders in an organization, and I don’t necessarily mean just senior people in a particular organization, but do you think for that the leaders in an organization, their level of self-awareness, how they turn up and their attention to their own being, is directly relevant to how well all this stuff works?

Mieke:
Yes, absolutely. The reality is that when you look at a human body too, inspiration as we know it, doesn’t get processed by every part of the body. That’s the reality. Inspiration is processed by very specific areas within the body, and they translate it for the rest of the body in order to make it functional and something that is concrete. There is a transformation process that happens with that.

It works the same way in an organization. You will have people who are a lot more sensitive to that source of inspiration. It’s vitally important that these people understand that concept of self-awareness in leadership. In actual fact, in some ways, the primary function of these people is to hold space.

Mike:
Right. That’s interesting, yes.

Mieke:
This is a weird way of putting it, but to be as empty as possible.

Mike:
Right. I don’t find that weird, but some people might. I know what you mean. I think the whole idea of holding space for people as an act of leadership is immensely powerful.

Mieke:
Yes, because you need to create an environment in which people can understand and process what is actually coming in. That takes time and it takes space, it takes flexibility, ability to experiment, all these little things that as an individual, we take for granted.

Mike:
Time for reflection, calm reflection time.

Mieke:
Yes, yes, that’s right.

Mike:
I would love to carry on, because I think we could go on for ages, and perhaps we could have other conversations outside of this one, but we’re coming up on our half hour. I’d just like to ask you if I could a couple of quick ones:
As a neo-generalist with a focus on the whole area of emerging organizations, a mom, a soon to be mom again, life must be really busy. Is it possible for you to even begin to think about describing what an average day might look like, or is there just no such thing right now?

Mieke:
No, actually, that’s funny because it’s ironic how people follow patterns, really. Yes, I am very busy, but the good thing is that I’m completely remote. I do everything virtually. That’s one really big bonus, which means that I can easily fit it around my physical busyness in the day. The other good thing is that essentially, because my children are quite small still, most of the time they are still asleep before 7:00 am and go to bed at about 7:30 pm, so most of my actual work outside of my family stuff is done outside of that 7–8:00 during the day.

Mike:
Long day, though.

Mieke:
It is a long day, but it requires different skills. It requires different attitudes. Being a mom is very physical. It’s very hands on, quite emotional. It’s taxing because you have to be on the ball. The work that I do within this environment is more intellectual.

Mike:
Two things that cross-fertilise each other really well?

Mieke:
Yes. Yes it does actually, I quite often watch my children and the way that they do things and I think, “Huh, funny, it really doesn’t change much”. As an adult, we do exactly the same things. It’s a real home laboratory. It’s like watching a classroom. Pretty cool.

Mike:
Yes, what a great thing to say. Finally, last question, if there’s one piece of advice you would give to organizations wanting to move towards a more complete kind of organization, what would that be?

Mieke:
Focus on your people.

Mike:
Simple as that, right?

Mieke:
Simple as that. Your organization stands and falls by its people. Ultimately, human organizations are made up of Human Beings.

Mike:
Right.

Mieke:
If you want to get the most efficiency, most profitability, most value for investment, then you need to learn how you can release the potential in your greatest asset, which is people.

Mike:
Great. That’s a brilliant place to leave this. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I really appreciate it.

Mieke:
You’re welcome.

Liminal Thought Leaders

A collection of articles and observations from the leaders pushing the thresholds of organizational design.

Mike Parker

Written by

MBA innovation and strategy post-graduate studies in Systems Thinking and Governance. Qualified Solutions Focused therapist www.liminalcoaching.co.uk

Liminal Thought Leaders

A collection of articles and observations from the leaders pushing the thresholds of organizational design.

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