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The Evolution of The Living Organization

October 24, 2016

Every generation experiences significant change due to innovations, disruptions and shifting perspectives. Yet there has been more significant change in the last 50 years than in the previous millenium.  These recent advances have created tetonic shifts challenging what we do and the way we do it, calling into question our sense of purpose, and demanding wholly new ways of operating and organizing.

7s shift

For organizations to thrive and flourish in these times of fast-moving change, our leaders need to be equipped with how to enable their organizations to appropriately adapt and respond to these unprecedented times. If you aren’t thriving you’re not surviving.


In this paper you will learn the why, the what, and the how.  You will learn a new way of thinking about your organizations that will make you and your organzations more impactful.  You will discover guidelines for assessing your organzations and a path forward that enables flourishing amid times of unceasing volatility and change.


Where we came from

The start of today’s dominant business paradigm coincides with the creation of the modern corporation around the turn of the twentieth century.  Its roots can be traced back to the industrial revolution which grew out of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, which heralded rapid advances in scientific, political and philosophical thought.  This shaped a certain mind set that influenced how we approached business management during the Industrial and post-Industrial period of the 19th and 20th century. A mind set that included the reductive logic of empirical analysis, process management, control, predictability, replicability, efficiency, win-lose competition and economies of scale. These formed the backbone of Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management published in 1909. The scientific approach of Taylorism became hugely influential in setting the context for viewing the organization as a machine. 


Machines perform better when optimized for efficiency.  The responsibility for optimizing the organizational machine became management’s domain and their primary concern.  This mechanistic logic coupled with economies of scale, centralization, and control-based thinking, led to the hierarchical organization structure with its silos and bureaucracy we know only too well today.  Employees were relegated to the role of efficiently performing the duties as defined by management. As management seeks to improve the efficiency of the machine, they unwittingly undermine the creativity, agility and empowerment of people in the process.


When you think of your organization and the challenges you face, where do your thoughts take you?  You might start with thoughts of increasing revenues, reducing expenses or even improving services to customers.  If you are like most business leaders, as you think further of how to implement such objectives, you will be thinking in terms of how you can get more with what you have (or less).  How you can maximize the efficiency of your organization.  If your thinking goes there, then it is enmeshed in the Machine Paradigm.

The Machine – Pros & Cons

Before we move onto what is the next evolutionary step beyond this Machine Paradigm, let’s acknowledge the benefits of this mind-set and what it has achieved for us over the years.


We have seen a significant rise in material betterment for large swaths of humanity over the last century. Breakthroughs in production have enhanced the lifestyle of many. Henry Ford’s Model T made automobile travel available to the masses, not just the wealthy. Today’s ubiquitous smartphone allows many of us around the world to have connectivity and the information super-highway at our fingertips.  Our daily lives are improved in innumerable ways from scientific breakthroughs in medicine to everyday life enhancing tools like the GPS.  All of this has been made possible by significantly improving the scale and cost of production and delivery of these wonderful technologies in an affordable way.


Why do we need to change if we have gained so much from this current paradigm?  Because the world of the 21st century is not like the 20th century.  The very advances brought to us by 20th century business have created a very different environment which now demands a new way of operating and organizing. Whether it’s the increasing digitization, widespread globalization, increased competition, the need for more sustainable and responsible practices, or the impact of the Millennial generation, business-as-usual is no longer an option.


Through most of the 20th century, success was defined by the most efficient, scalable machine of production or service provision, which worked quite well in 20th century surroundings.  Today’s environment is more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, the VUCA age. Success is determined by organizations being innovative, agile, purposeful and engaged.  No matter how we try to reconfigure a machine, the very idea of a machine means it is not very agile or creative and, notwithstanding our love of technology, we rarely feel passion for, or commitment to the machine. If you are not changing and evolving to a new paradigm you are dying.


Machine The Living Organization
Produces Creates
System of Discreet Components Organic Interdependent Relationships
Does As It Is Told Learns and Adopts
Purpose Is To “Do” Purpose Is To Serve
Predict and Control Sense and Respond
Transactional Relational

What’s next?

Businesses need to embrace a fundamental shift in how we manage and operate to thrive in these times of fast-moving change.


We are drawn to Nature in our search for forms of production and service provision that could serve as a fresh model for the next evolution of the organization. Nature is alive, resilient, creative and agile in the way it responds to the changing landscape.  Nature co-creates and participates within an inter-related ecosystem.  And everything involved in Nature’s processes – from cells to complex living systems – are engaged in the process. The organization’s correlation is that the individuals, teams and diverse stakeholders all form part of the over-arching, emerging ecosystem within an ever-changing context.


This opens up our perceptual horizon to see the organization as a living, creative and inter-relational system that is governed by the same laws that govern all of life.  One such fundamental law of Nature is that everything is energy and that outputs follow a process of transforming energy from one form to another.  Our daily interactions consist of energetic relations.


This is a profound shift in our perspective; one that will take us from optimizing the machine for efficiency through command-and-control and hierarchic power structures to optimizing the flow of energy through empowerment, empathy, communication and co-creativity.  We shift from reductive logic to relational logic and begin to treat the organization as a living system rather than as a machine.


A Living System’s View of the Organization

In 1978, James Miller introduced Living Systems Theory to explain the nature of life. It described all aspects of living systems from simple cells, to organisms, to societies.  In 1989 Lane Tracey, wrote The Living Organization: Systems of Behavior applying Miller’s Living Systems Theory to organizations.  Since then numerous pioneering scientific discoveries have contributed to an emerging perspective of organizations as living systems.


From the fields of quantum physics, facilitation ecology, transpersonal psychology, field theory, neurobiology, the science of consciousness, and studies on systemic leadership and organizational development, we are deepening our learning about how living systems work in collective environments, i.e. organizations.


What is abundantly clear is that in order to thrive in fast-moving environments, we need to move away from Taylor’s scientific-management of the post-industrial era.  Like all paradigm shifts, this shift does not come easy.  It requires us to radically rethink and redesign how and why we do things across all levels of business from our organizational sense of purpose to how we make day-to-day decisions.  It goes beyond simply optimizing the machine into an exploration of how we best empower a collective of people to create extraordinary impact.



This shift in perspective opens up our perceptual horizon to see beyond the box, silo and machine and sense into the relational nature inherent within life.  We see Nature and our organization’s place in it, as it really is, an inter-relational matrix of energy.  Within this matrix, our organizations express coherent purposeful energetic systems of value-creation and delivery through these relationships.

For the complete Opinion Paper on The Evolution of The Living System co-authored by Norman Wolfe and Giles Hutchins see here

To explore ‘the new paradigm’ further, join the Face Book community here

To watch a 3min video about Future-Fit Business see Future Fit

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