This semester at Saybrook University, I taught a course titled “Systems Practice for Socio-Cultural Transformation.” It was co-created with a group of organizational systems students who wanted to experience the implications of moving from systems thinking to systems being and explore other ways of working with systems tools and methodologies to facilitate transformation.
As part of this learning adventure, the students organized a two-day workshop in addition to the time we had together at the beginning of the semester during Saybrook’s residential conference in January. The workshop took place in Asilomar, an inspirational conference center immersed in natural beauty in Monterey Bay, California.
We used two books as key resources: The classic Systems Thinking, Systems Practice by Peter Checkland and Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our Worldby Joanna Macy. We wanted to ground our learning in systemic methodologies and practices designed to facilitate change, but we wanted to do it by experimenting, adapting, and enriching the tools in ways that reflected our individual strengths and interests.
I hadn’t been to Asilomar for some years but, as soon as I arrived, it was as if I was surrounded by a field of memories, emotions, and learning that I experienced there over the years. The first time I went to Asilomar was in 1993 for one of the annual conversation events sponsored by the International Systems Institute (ISI). Bela H. Banathy was the founder and president of ISI and there I met many individuals who became my dear friends, teachers, and colleagues. Here is where I decided to study with Banathy, here is where my work on evolutionary learning communities was conceived, here is where the inspiration for my organization Syntony Quest came from.
The first thing I did was to visit the circular meadow in front of the registration building. I felt greeted by the Monterey cypresses in that circle. I reconnected to Bela’s spirit. Even though I didn’t know what was ahead of us in terms of the experiences for the next two days, I was already grateful. It was clear that nothing but magic was waiting for us in this gathering.
The structure of the workshop was very simple: sessions of 1.5 hours in which we rotated facilitation. We were five women and each one of us brought a hands-on learning experience to explore ways of bringing systems thinking to life. The types of facilitated exercises explored issues of rank and power, compassionate communication, widening the circles when looking at challenging situations, experiencing deep empathy for others, and how to create sacred containers for emotional healing. Because of the size of the group, the experience was an easy flow from one activity to the next, and our time together during meals was equally productive and rich. We also scheduled down time to take care of ourselves and enjoy the place.
This workshop was an experience of deep and transformative dialogue that allowed us to be open and vulnerable with each other, to step forward to support and care for one another, and to experience deep connections and healing. This was the most amazing aspect of this experience. As we were able to relate the ideas and exercises to our personal and professional experiences, there was a kind of group alchemy in which what we brought forth became helpful to the group as a whole. We laughed and cried together. We shared our dreams. We continued our conversations until late in front of the fire place. We all came out feeling a little bit more whole.
It was very clear that the beauty of the natural environment around us was an important factor in creating such a powerful experience. Nature inspired us to be authentic, open, fluid, playful, relaxed, and diverse.
I re-learned that the most important thing for facilitating systemic, socio-cultural transformation is to know and accept myself and to be fully present. By showing up authentically, in our full humanity, we discover the power to transform ourselves and our world. Self as instrument.
Spending these days with this group of women was a gift. It didn’t feel like work. It was an experience of positive reciprocity: I received more than I gave. And I’m ready for more.
We have come to appreciate diversity as an asset in organizations. Diversity of gender, age, ethnicity, or any other manifestation of the ways we, as human beings, express our uniqueness. But beyond affirmative action, which creates a legal platform for equal employment opportunity, why should we care about organizational cultures that foster diversity? And how do we create them?
Diversity, in biological systems, is a measure of the health of ecosystems. It produces resilience, or the capacity for the ecosystem to respond, recover from, and survive drastic changes in the environment, such as natural disasters or human disturbances. Biodiversity is not evenly distributed around the planet. Ecosystems in the tropics tend to be more diverse than ecosystems in the poles. If we see organizations as human ecosystems, we can also appreciate how different levels and kinds of diversity play a role in shaping a unique organizational cultures. Learning from the “best practices” in natural systems can be a useful strategy to reflect on the choices that we have when it comes to leadership and management challenges.
Using nature as model, measure and mentor, biomimicry is becoming a popular approach for designing technologies, materials and even business processes. The learning edge of this movement, in my humble opinion, is the application of biomimicry’s life principles to the design of human systems—living, self-organizing, and evolving organizations and communities. What kind of leadership is appropriate to create and sustain a healthy and thriving culture? What’s the balance between competition and collaboration to foster the learning and innovation for evolution? What are the structures and processes that allow all members of the organization to contribute their gifts and benefit from the abundant exchange of value?
These are some of the questions that guide my work. I like to experiment, observe, and reflect on the ways organizations can move away from mechanistic to living approaches to organizational development. This is the challenge that I see over and over when I work with social entrepreneurs. Their vision is beautiful and inspiring but the implementation usually suffers from “common” problems such as conflicts between partners, lack of communication, or poor organizational design. One of my current clients, a mission-driven social enterprise, has embraced the challenge of fostering a culture of diversity and participation as a reflection of their commitment to “do well by doing good.” It has not all been an easy path. Here are the three most important lessons that I have harvested so far from my experiences with social enterprises:
1. Involve all stakeholders as co-designers
The most successful, beautiful, and compelling products and services that I have seen created by social enterprises were the result of deliberate co-design efforts that involved multiple stakeholders. It takes time and resources, and it is difficult for entrepreneurs to convince their investors of the value of co-design, especially at the start-up phase. However, giving stakeholders voice and engaging them in the creation of value is the best strategy for fostering a culture of collaboration.
2. Create a shared vision… and share ownership
Involving multiple stakeholders as co-designers creates a shared vision and a resonant field in which all involved develop a sense of community and pride in the venture. Shared vision creates the conditions for shared responsibility and elicits creative contributions from all involved. However, if the structure of the organization concentrates power and ownership in a few individuals, as in traditional business corporations, the excitement of belonging can wither. If you want the people of your organization to feel belonging and long-term commitment to the success of the enterprise, you have to be willing to think differently about how you share decision making power and actual ownership of the enterprise. Cooperatives structures or profit sharing and stock options have a place in communicating the commitment to truly co-create the future of the organization.
3. Create the conditions for mutualism or win-win interactions
The diverse species that co-exist in an ecosystem have different interactions:
A dear friend and colleague, Carlos Mota, likes to quote St. Augustine to communicate the delicate balance that allows for unity in diversity: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”
For me, this translates in agreement in vision, values, and strategy; freedom for creative exploration of the means that will make possible the vision but, above all, commitment to harmonious relationships within and without the organization for the wellbeing of the whole.
As we regain perspective and, with humility, recognize our place in the intricate web of life, we discover new possibilities in the ways we go about designing and transforming organizations. There is something about human systems that makes them human: our values, intentions, and emotions. Perhaps, love for all our relations—human and biological—is the first step in the journey to innovate living organizations.