Aligning Organizational Execution: Six Pillars Versus Six Pitfalls — Part 2
This is the second part of a two part series. See part one here.
5. Working from a Systems Approach versus Breaking Wholes into Parts
Dancing is surely the most basic and relevant of all forms of expression…. In it the creator and the thing created, the artist and the expression, are one. Each participant is completely in the other. There could be no better metaphor for an understanding of the…cosmos.
We begin to realize that our universe is in a sense brought into being by the participation of those involved in it. It is a dance, for participation is its organizing principle. This is the important new concept of quantum mechanics.
— Lyall Watson, Biologist
A Matter of Perspective
Imagine placing a highly concentrated red dye in a small stream and watching it flow into a larger stream and into a river and finally into a lake. There, though greatly diluted, it permeates the entire lake and all inhabitants of the lake now live in a delicately pink world. Furthermore, the lake remains color-tinged for a very long time after the original, distant stream is cleared of dye.
Scientific theories are models of reality that work much the same way in societies as dye does in water. By the time they have permeated the societal “lake” they color every aspect of how people think, the decisions they make, and the actions they take. Yet people are usually no more aware of this influence than a fish in the lake is aware of the dye. The more comprehensive the model, the more pervasive its ultimate social influence.
Unlike the fish however, we humans can change the color or perspective through which we view our world. This requires a conscious act of choice that begins with awareness of the current perspective and the ways it determines how we think about ourselves and the world, how we live, and how our future is unfolding.
A Mechanistic Universe
For several centuries, our Western culture has been dominated by a Cartesian or mechanistic model of reality. This model emerged out of the discoveries of the “Scientific Revolution” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It replaced the image of a living, organic, spirit-infused universe with the metaphor of universe as machine, in which mind and matter were viewed as wholly separate and independent. All the entities that composed the universe of matter, including living organisms, were thought of as machines composed of separate parts that functioned according to specific and predictable laws of physics and chemistry.
In a world made up of machines, intelligence was the sole preserve of God and/or humans and the different parts that made up nature were ours to arrange and rearrange however we liked in order to serve our ends. Sixty years ago Aldo Leopold described the approach to Earth that had grown out of this model. “We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steam shovel,” he wrote, “and we are proud of our yardage.”
A Changing Picture of Reality
Evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris writes that “Western science is very rapidly changing toward an understanding of nature as alive, self-organizing, intelligent, conscious or sentient and participatory at all levels. In this newer framework, biological evolution is holistic, intelligent and purposeful.” The new ecological model Sahtouris describes makes understanding life central to understanding the nature of the universe. The following are a few of the many key discoveries of this changing science:
Living systems replace inert building blocks. A universal property of all life is the tendency to form multi-leveled structures consisting of living systems within living systems. Cells combine to form tissues, tissues to form organs, organs to form organisms that combine to form societies or ecosystems. Each of these systems is an integrated whole whose essential properties derive from the distinctive pattern into which its parts are organized; at the same time, each whole system is a part of a larger system.
A frog obtains its “frogness,” or its essential nature, from the characteristic way in which its “parts” interact with and are dependent on each other. This is distinct from the essential nature of a tree or a cell, as well as from the part the frog plays in the larger ecosystem that surrounds it. At the same time, the properties of the frog’s parts can only be understood within the context of the frog as a whole.
In other words, we cannot understand living systems by reducing them to their “basic building blocks” and analyzing the parts. Indeed, when we dissect a living thing, physically or mentally, we destroy the systemic properties that make up it its essential identity. Because systems are fundamental to the way life structures itself, we can understand neither life nor the living nature of our world except as whole systems of integrated parts — parts that are themselves whole systems of integrated parts, down to the smallest particles we are able to perceive.
The web of life — from machine to network. A second key aspect of the ecological model is its replacement of the metaphor of machine with the metaphor of networks. Living creatures are members of ecosystem communities, linked together in a network fashion. At the same time, each organism is also a complex ecosystem in itself, consisting of a host of smaller organisms also linked in a network — a network of networks. Thus the network is the underlying pattern of all life and, in effect, interlinked networks form the vast “web of life.”
Within this web, reciprocal relationship replaces dominance as the model for our relationship to nature. Humans are neither dominant over nor subservient to nature. Instead, we are one of many nodes in a vast, living network, fundamentally interconnected and interdependent with all the other components. As Sahtouris notes, “The best life insurance for any species in an ecosystem is to contribute usefully to sustaining the lives of other species, a lesson we are only beginning to learn as humans.”
Reuniting Mind and Nature. In the systems model, all of an organization is mindful and intelligent, and evolution is purposeful. The network connecting and composing living systems is not a collection of static components; rather it is a dynamic network of life processes through which each component and the network as a whole are continually “making themselves.” Through sophisticated feedback processes (to be distinguished from the kind used in mechanical and human systems), each living system and each network of living systems is capable of regulating itself, learning from its mistakes, and reorganizing itself. In a manner of speaking, it has its own mind, which expresses itself through the process of self-organization or autopoiesis.
Evolution enables a living system to express its inherent potential as an increasingly generative and value-adding member of the web of life. It is, as Lyall Watson notes, a creative dance, always bringing new structures, new behaviors, and new life into being, but never losing the basic network pattern that organizes the dance.
Dialoging with living systems — a new model for learning. Systems — living systems, in particular — are central to the developmental perspective. Understanding them is critical to developing beneficial relationships with the living systems that make up our world. We have become aware that when we dissect a system we destroy its systemic properties. In order to apprehend and study a particular system without destroying its essential holistic, nonlinear, and dynamic properties, we need a new model for learning.
Living systems are in a constant process of becoming, literally creating and recreating themselves minute by minute through an ongoing “dialogue” between their pattern, structure, processes, and context. These four dimensions provide a systemic framework from which we can construct in our mind dynamic images of the self-creating processes of the systems we seek to engage.
6. Enabling Self-Accountability versus Proceduralizing Everything
Accountability represents the ability all people have, separately and collectively, to tenaciously and courageously account for results throughout the duration of a process and for the ways these results support the process’s ultimate purpose. Both extrinsic and intrinsic self-management practices are critical to the practice of accountability. They are two ends of the same stick, working back and forth to build motivation for sustaining and renewing will.
When we do not build this nature of accountability into our organization, we tend to proceduralize all activities and tasks. Procedures hold people accountable for carrying out proscribed tasks or activities to which they have no personal commitment in the service of ends that have not been fully articulated or understood.
Extrinsic processes speak to that which we must include in the work from the world outside ourselves; they guide us in accounting for our outputs and actions. When shared by all members of a working group, they may be used to reconcile internal differences and conflicts by using the greater whole to which we are all jointly committed as the reference point for deciding what is appropriate. Most importantly, they anchor each person to their own individual accountability.
Understanding. To be fully accountable, we must be connected by a deep understanding to events and situations as they unfold. Understanding gives us the ability to determine the highest leverage approaches from which to ensure the highest return on energy expended. It comes from engaging with the different wholes relevant to the situation and with all of the activating, restraining, and reconciling forces that are present and needed. A deep understanding allows us to truly see the situation as it is and not as we imagine it to be.
Solving and Inventing. Accountability also requires us to develop a value-adding process view of our work and the work of the units and businesses we are parts of. When we work from an encompassing view, we connect to the effects and effectiveness that our customers count on us to realize, that for which we are ultimately responsible. We are able to clarify problems that need solving and know where invention is needed to get the desired effect and effectiveness from every action along the way.
Intrinsic processes guide personal self-development and the inner work required to become able to be accountable.
Ownership. The first of these processes is use of the inner compass or source of direction needed to maintain and regenerate accountability in the face of shortfalls, failures, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. To be responsible, we must build ownership for immediate outcomes and — beyond these — for ongoing stewardship in service to the purposes and achievements of the greater wholes of which we are parts. To develop an unwavering internal compass, a source of personal will and motivation, we connect ourselves to the value of the task or effort in service to the greater whole; the opportunity to further develop and exhibit purposeful behavior; and a belief in the open-ended possibilities for learning and creating, and for discovering workable ideas.
Execution. Intrinsic accountability also develops from our ability to execute in a dynamic and evolving environment. In a successful business, we are most often pursuing moving targets with interceding forces that can cause us to lose personal force and power. Good guidance comes from coupling external objectives with internal personal aims and developing external strategies in order to position our efforts and use timing to good advantage.
Developing the Processes
The Execution Plan. Guidance also comes from developing and following an execution plan designed with reference points and milestones that tell us how we are proceeding, both intrinsically and extrinsically. External design is based on complementary and leveraged sets of steps. Internal design is based on the development path we are taking to move ourselves toward more appropriate ways of working in specific arenas of our lives.
An execution plan enables us to predict derailing forces and events, and to develop new strategies and solutions around, over, and under potential sidetracks. With other intrinsic processes it guides us as we develop the ability to rise above restraints, shortfalls, failures, and obstacles and develop the mental states required to achieve the ends for which we hold ourselves accountable.
Ongoing Self-assessment. Together, the two intrinsic processes of accountability provide us with the means to stay on course and to stay the course, while the two external processes enliven our motivation through deep understanding and connections to the source of our will, the ability to contribute to the greater whole of which we are apart. To continue to develop our accountability we must frequently revisit all four processes as we reflect on our development and ability to produce outcomes. This ongoing self-assessment improves our judgment and reveals ways in which we may be over- or under-expending energy in particular arenas. It lets us know when we are getting it just about right.