August 10, 2016

I recall as a young student being presented with a diagram, depicting humans on the top of a pyramid representing the food chain. At the bottom were the microorganisms, the fungi, bacteria, etc.

Even then I can remember wondering, “don’t bacteria eat everything? Why are they at the bottom?”

The linear, top-down pattern of the pyramid diagram didn’t match up with my experience, which suggested it was more complex than that.

Here’s a graphic that sums up this difference pretty well:

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 9.01.21 AM

The hierarchical structure named ‘ego’ by the artist reflects a certain mental model or worldview. It sees the human being as a dominator of nature, set apart and ultimately alone. ‘Nature’ shows us different — a complex and dynamic web of interdependent relationships.

This anthropocentric view, representing the ego of the human collective, permeates into other realms of our activity. It is reflected in the way we organize and make decisions:

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 9.01.34 AM

Here we can see how the belief that we as a species are set apart creates a mental model that, often unconsciously, affects how we design our communities and organizations. The collective ego translates into the individual ego, where we become not merely dominators of other species, but dominators of one another fighting for power and control.

We can also see how this produces a vicious cycle — seeing ourselves above the rest of nature, we do not look to it for insights on how to act. Therefore the patterns that we have invented and forcefully imposed persist, the result being an exploitative, extractive civilization that has severely degenerated the resource base on which it depends for survival while dis-empowering the vast majority to serve a select few.

As things change at a faster and faster rate, creating higher degrees of complexity, these mental models that do not correspond to natural patterns begin to quickly fail. Organizations with top-down power structures are finding it hard to adapt to these changes — they do not allow for decisions to be made quickly enough to keep up.

The challenges are not few moving forward. Existing organizational leadership will have to be willing to analyze their existing mental models and be open to transforming them. This will not be effective as a superficial process — it will require deep questioning and a relinquishing of the desire for overarching power and control. Some leaders are sure to resist the shift, to their own detriment and that of their organization.

As organizations with leadership who are unwilling to question their mental models begin to fail, new ones will need to emerge guided by new models.

This shift, though still in its infancy, is clearly underway. Frederic LaLoux’s book Reinventing Organizations paints a clear picture of the evolution of the organization out of a rigid, pyramidal pattern and into ‘complex adaptive systems’ with distributed authority, self-managing and self organizing structures that allow for the emergence of natural hierarchies as found in nature.

These ‘teal’ organizations empower individuals on all levels to think and act locally, creating an agile network that can quickly respond to changes in the environment as they emerge.

‘Dynamic governance’ frameworks such as Sociocracy 3.0 and Holocracy have been highly influential in the re-patterning process within such orgs. In both, a fundamental pattern is one of nested ‘circles’. It looks something like this:

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Here highly autonomous teams are formed around different functions of the organization. While they are largely empowered to make decisions locally, they are also ‘nested’ inside larger circles (groups of representatives from other smaller circles) to support the decision-making process in various ways.

In place of ‘hierarchy’, the term ‘holarchy’ has been used to describe this pattern of nested communities, where each unit is seen as both being autonomous and connected to the larger whole. This is in fact how nature functions, from atoms to molecules to cells, organisms, communities and ecosystems — each both a unique individual and at the same time an inseparable part of the larger systems in which they are nested.

The ways in which these components interact with one another and across borders with other systems to co-evolve is of principal interest. How we structure our communities and organizations must be ever-more informed by our understanding of how natural systems function to learn, adapt and evolve with the changing times.