I had a fantastic time this weekend giving a talk at TEDx Concordia - red round carpet and all! The video should be available in a few weeks. Thanks to @evablue for the photo. In the meantime, here's what I said - imagine it being said with great passion! :-)
I discovered… that there's a simple pattern that all living systems follow, ...living systems like rainforests and coral reefs, and you... and organizations, and economies, and even all of humanity. All of these follow the same simple pattern.
And as we understand this pattern, it changes what it means to be human, and alive and at work in the world.
Now, before I reveal this pattern, first I want to tell you how I came to be looking around for patterns in living systems. Because my own story is connected to the bigger story.
I started out my career in marketing. And it was fun. But most of all, it was really disillusioning. Marketing seemed so superficial and manipulative to me. And I worked for some of the best. But still, I wondered, is this the best formula we have for engaging customers? Because it seems like we're missing something – something really important.
But I thought, maybe it's just that marketing isn't for me. So I moved into employee engagement. I joined a small consulting firm and we helped our clients tap into their employees' passion and purpose and creativity. We talked about engaging the human spirit. And this felt much more meaningful to me. But… I noticed that many of the organizational leaders who were our clients had this strangely familiar superficial and manipulative attitude. We don't really want to hear about the human spirit, they said. This is business, remember? We just want you to tell us what buttons to push to get those people to work harder for the same amount of money. And I thought, Is this the best formula we have for engaging employees? 'cause it seems to me like we're missing something here.
At the same time, I started to notice that humanity in general seemed to be stuck in unsustainable patterns. More of us were starting to recognize these problems, but we couldn't imagine different ways of being. And again, I thought: what are we missing here?
Then it occurred to me that the common thread in all of these observations of mine was the overarching guiding story we have about how the world works. We have this story that tells us that businesses operate like machines – in fact, that they are machines - programmed to make a profit. They're separate from us, and separate from nature. And that same story tells us that we exist to compete and consume, in similar machine-like fashion. This story shapes every facet of our lives, whether we realize it or not.
Of course, there's some logic and truth to the story. But the problem is that there isn't much life to it. There isn't much about what makes us wonderfully human and alive. And as we live out that story, we start to lose touch with the wonder of life, of the life in ourselves, in each other, in nature. We start to act and feel like machines.
I started to wonder if this machine story might have something to do with the environmental, social and even economic problems in the world. So I decided to go in search of life on Earth … to try to understand it better and to see if it was possible to reconcile our aliveness with this machine story of ours.
So I studied biology, in search of the pattern of thriving living systems. And at the same, I studied all the theories about what makes organizations thrive, or succeed. Now, for some reason, every biologist tells a different and very complicated story about how life works. And the same is true in organizational theory. But when you step back and look at them all together, you see that they're all telling the same basic story. At every level of human activity, it’s the same simple pattern.
And this pattern suggests a very different guiding story.
The pattern is this. All living systems have four defining characteristics:
1. First, there are parts – that's the individual bees in a hive, it's the trillions of individual cells that make up your body. And it's the people in an organization, each with unique perspectives, passions and contributions to share.
The more diverse or divergent the parts, the more resilient, adaptive and creative the living system will be. And we know this from biodiversity, right? We need divergent parts.
2. The second characteristic is that there is the level not of the parts but of the whole - an emergent whole - with characteristics and capabilities of its own that can't be understood by looking only at the parts. So that's the whole bee hive. It's your body, it's you, and you're so much more than just a collection of cells, right? You think, you feel, you move. And these are things that can't be understood by looking only at your cells. And it's the organization, with its culture and its dynamics that lie at a level above that of the individuals.
The more convergent the whole – so, for example, the more you remain recognizably you even as your cells are continuously replaced, the more the organization remains focused on a clear shared purpose, even as people come and go – the more convergence there is, the more resilient and adaptive and creative the living system will be. So there's this paradox that you want high levels of divergence and high levels of convergence if you want a thriving living system.
3. The third defining characteristic is relationship. Dynamic relationship internally and externally.
And the more open and free-flowing the relationships, the more resilient, adaptive and creative the living system will be. So, you want to build a vibrant network of connections if you want a thriving living system.
So we have divergent parts, convergent whole, dynamic relationships.
4. The final characteristic of living systems is what some biologists call a self-integrating property. That means that by itself, the living system integrates divergent parts into a convergent whole in dynamic relationship internally and externally in an ongoing, moment-by-moment process of self-organization and self-creation.
So that's what biologists call a self-integrating property.
But when I saw that, I thought, that's life! That's whatever it is that animates us and makes us alive.
And that process, that property... is amazing. It's the most precious miracle imaginable. And so am I. And so are you. Because we are alive.
So that's the pattern: mix together divergent parts, convergent wholeness, dynamic relationships, and then let life do its self-integrative thing.
And clearly, our organizations follow this pattern. And when I say this, I don't mean they are like living systems, in a metaphorical sense. I'm saying: they are living systems; they're an emergent level of life that results from the interactions of the people within.
And that changes a lot from our original story that organizations are machines. But it doesn't change everything. All living systems do have mechanistic properties – your heart is a pump, your wrist is a marvel of mechanical engineering. But these are just not the most important or powerful things about you. And the same is true of organizations. So we don't have to abandon all the strategies we've developed so far; we just have to add a layer of living tissue to the machine.
And when you look at the cutting edge of business today, the most pioneering and successful companies are moving in exactly that direction.
· Their leaders are evolving into stewards or hosts, creating the fertile conditions for people to thrive.
· They’re engaging their employees on a deep level, enabling them to be passionate, authentic and autonomous in their divergence.
· They’re rallying their organizations around meaningful purpose as a strong point of convergence.
· They’re moving from rigid hierarchy to an open, networked infrastructure.
· They’re building self-organizing teams and developing methods to tap into collective intelligence.
· And they’re engaging customers in meaningful community and conversation, as they recognize the organization as an ecosystem in which customers and employees can't truly be considered separate.
So, the pattern of living systems helps us understand why these cutting edge practices are so effective.
But even more important, it helps us see that the true bottom line in business is life. And that really might change everything.
Now, let me be clear that I'm a big fan of profit, which is the current bottom line in business. Profit is good. But when we pursue it at all costs including life, the outcome can't be good.
So we have two choices. We can either go into business with the intention to enable life to thrive as much as possible, at every level, knowing that along the way we'll need resources like money and profit. Or we can go in with the goal of making as much money as possible and along the way we'll nurture life if we can. Those are the choices. And they each lead to very different outcomes.
I’ll give you an example. I spoke at a conference a few months ago. The man who spoke right before me was from a company that had the only technology in its industry to recycle the toxic heavy metals it uses to create its products. Everyone else in the industry is forced instead to put those materials into the ground. And this speaker explained that his company only recycles for their own customers, and that, in his words, it wouldn't make business sense to recycle for everyone, even for a profitable fee, because that recycling technology was a source of competitive advantage for them. So, they hoped that it would encourage everyone to buy from them in the first place. It wouldn't make business sense, in other words, to do everything in our power to keep toxic heavy metals from poisoning our water and soil.
Can you see from this example how important it is to bring the goals of business and the goals of life together as one?
I want every company out there to make good money. And if we see the organization as a machine, then that's enough.
But if we see the organization as a living extension of ourselves, it becomes reasonable to expect more, to aim not just for profitability, not even just for sustainability or responsibility, but for thrivability: in which our challenge is to enable life to thrive as much as possible, at every level – creating an organization that is successful and thriving itself, and also deeply fulfilling for the people involved, and enriching for the communities they serve, and in harmony with nature.
It's a lot to ask, I know, but if we never make that our goal, we will never get there.
The good news is that we’re just starting to turn in that direction, and those few cutting edge companies are showing that this direction offers better results, including financial results. But maybe recognizing life as the true bottom line would give us a powerful push forward, toward thrivability.
And there's something that gives me hope that we will get there. I mentioned that the pattern of living systems is present even at the level of all humanity. When you look at the eras of humanity, you see that each era has had a distinct guiding story. In the hunter/gatherer era – and in hunter/gatherer cultures that still exist today - the story is one of convergent wholeness, with no perception of separateness at all. In the agricultural era, we developed the ability to be in relationship with nature and with each other and the world around us. The story was one of relationship. In the industrial era, our story was clearly one of separateness and divergence.
So the big question is: what's the next guiding story going to be?
Well, I think most of you here are in Generation Y. And if you look at the stereotypes about Gen Y, at work in particular, you find some clues about that next guiding story. The stereotypes go like this:
· You gotta be you, you won't conform, 'cause it's all about divergence.
· You insist on knowing how your work contributes to some meaningful purpose, some larger convergent whole.
· You value the relationships in your social networks almost obsessively.
· And what I would add to that is that more than any other generation before, you're able to integrate all of these together into one coherent guiding story.
And it's a fundamentally wiser story, seeking to serve the needs of the parts, and the whole and the relationships that connect them. Seeking to nourish life.
So here’s what you have to do. Here’s what we all have to do, actually. First, we have to make the conscious choice that life is the true bottom line. And then we have to imagine that new story together, to give it details and make it real and viable, especially the chapter about business. We need to gather together, in small groups and large, to ask ourselves:
· How can we reinvent our organizations so they nourish the life within us and around us as much as possible?
· How can we re-imagine ourselves not as consumers, not as “human capital” but as vibrant, thriving contributors to the whole of life?
· How can we re-craft the artifacts and architecture of our organizations and our societies so they support wiser, more life-sustaining ways of being?
These are the conversations we need to have.
And as we go into them, we can find courage in the fact that the goal of business (to ensure sustainable competitiveness) and the goal of humanity (to ensure the sustainability of human life) – these goals are coalescing for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. We’re beginning to recognize that the machine story isn’t working anymore. It’s incomplete and it cannot deliver the resilience and adaptability and creativity we need. And as we start to recognize and steward the life in our organizations, and in ourselves and all around us, we are ushering in a new guiding story… and therefore a new era for humanity. An era, it seems, of thrivability.
I’ll meet you there!