Building Intelligence: A Living Systems View—Part 1

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Photo by Karlo Boni on Unsplash

This series is a brief introduction to a “living systems model of intelligence” and its development. The model introduced here for development of intelligence, emerges from “living systems theory” and is based on how intelligence functions, universally, in all living systems. The article uses the case of the Lima, Ohio, Proctor and Gamble plant to demonstrate the application of this model and the nature and quality of outcomes associated with it. Many researchers have studied and published their findings regarding the Lima, Ohio, Procter & Gamble soap business. What virtually all writers failed to grasp, however, is the reason that it was, and continues to be, so successful. This article will reveal some of the key elements that were the cause of P&G’s success at this plant. Further, it will demonstrate the potential for building intelligence in any organization to achieve the same kind of results.

One of the essential elements of the success of this plant was their commitment to understanding and advancing the thinking and “intelligences” of their management, staff and employees. The primary training and development provided for all employees was aimed at building three core forms of intelligence. These forms of intelligence go beyond the “acquisition of skills and knowledge” and develop thinking capabilities that are more systemic, whole, and integrated. Additionally, these higher order intelligences access and utilize capabilities of the uniquely human brain that are too often latent and not activated consciously.

Another core element of P&G’s success was the work systems design. The design used at Lima, was built around a belief that continuous business growth occurs by increasing the intellectual capacity of the organization. It was in fact the actual business results that resulted from this belief that caused this plant to be the most studied business in the history of business and organizational development research of its time. The focus on intelligence was based on the premise that the quality of thinking of the members of the organization would be the prime determiner of business and organizational success and the one capability on which the business could depend in all markets and conditions.

To understand the “three core intelligences” we can reference work developed on how our brain is formed and how it works. Paul MacLean, of the National Institute of Mental Health (U.S.), discovered over two decades ago that the brain was composed of three distinct but related parts and that each played a role in our way of learning, being, and doing. The three brains are structured vertically, stacked and wrapped one around another, with each taking on a particular role. Though distinct in function, they operate as an integrated whole.

  • At the base of the brain is the brain stem, which is sometimes called the reptilian brain because reptiles have only a brain stem. The brain stem functions in humans in the same way as reptiles serving many of the same purposes. Although, in humans it can be augmented and directed into higher purposes. The reptilian brain uses a form of intelligence which is directed to the physical world.
  • The next level, the midbrain or limbic brain, is shared in function and purpose with other mammals and has its own form of intelligence, which is applied primarily to the work of understanding and relating to other living beings.
  • We humans also have a distinctly human part of our brain, the neocortex, sometimes called the thinking brain. The neocortex supports our capacity to think into the future and to consider the workings and needs of the larger systems of which we are parts — family, community, ecosystem, etc.

All three of these brains are at work most of the time, but primarily outside of our control and awareness, and therefore not to their full potential. In order to have an effective and constantly innovative business, it is critical to develop the capacity and effectiveness of these intelligences in everyone with the appropriate brain bringing the appropriate intelligence into each situation. This requires the distinctive development of the uniquely human brain to be able to give appropriate organization and direction to the limbic brain and brain stem so their physical world and relationship world intelligences are appropriately applied and the greatest potential is realized from our integrated intelligence.

As its colorful name implies, we need this brain to be able to read and interpret our physical environment in order to ensure our safety and perform physical work productively. The functional intelligence of this brain is extensively used, but incompletely developed, in most business and social cultures. This brain warehouses our learning and maps it onto automatic-pilot neurons, so that we can function without having to think through every move we make. The brain stem thrives on repetition and recurring patterns. It is the source of habits — the good and the bad. The territorial nature of this brain often leads us to experience the world in duality, as does the crocodile. In business and organizational settings this accounts for the tendency to rely upon “standards and procedures” as a means of working, and may explain why some managers believe that getting teams to compete with each other will improve business performance. We will hint at the limitation of each of these approaches.

As Joseph Chilton Pearce points out in Evolution’s End, if we were limited to the intelligence of the reptilian brain without the other two intelligences, we would operate in a very primitive fashion, behaving as predators without emotion or reason. We would interpret the world in terms of aversion-attraction and see everyone as friend or foe. However, when the reptilian brain is integrated with the other two brains, we have access to extended intelligences. For example, if the reptilian brain is developed beyond its primitive function, it can offer the ability to have intelligence in regard to the “quality “ of our production and actions, and our collective safety in the physical environment. When this intelligence is developed and then guided by the higher intelligences, it leads to operations and organizations whose products are free of defects and enviable in their safety performance.

There are limitations however, if the reptilian brain operates independently of the upper brains. It can follow the quality or safety standard and procedure to the letter, but as variations in the context of changing events occur, the reptile brain exercises very limited judgment in regard to an appropriate course of action. This is why over-training of the reptilian brain, which is the effect of many safety and quality training programs, usually results in improvements for some period of time (frequently 18–24 months), but eventually manifests in net loses. Variations in the work context call for an adaptive response and the capabilities to provide that response are not developed into the individuals, who are rigidly adhering to static standards.

A different intelligence, that of the neocortex, is needed to sustain continuous improvement, especially improvements designed and led by the people who do the work rather than by the managers. Businesses such as P&G Lima achieve this nature of on-going improvement by developing the full intelligence of each person in the organization.

In part two of this series, we’ll review the limbic brain and the neocortex, then see how intelligence can be developed in every member of a business, to create extraordinary outcomes likes those seen at P&G Lima.

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Carol Sanford is a regenerative business educator, the award winning author of The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes, and executive in residence and senior fellow in social innovation at Babson College. She has worked with fortune 500 executives and rock star entrepreneurs for 40 years, helping them to innovate and grow their businesses by growing their people. Learn more about Carol and her work at her website.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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