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The Next Stage of Organizational Evolution


By Giles Hutchins

We are witnessing an evolutionary step change in how we operate and organize: a shift from linear, mechanistic, control-based modes of operating toward living, emergent, self-organizing, life-affirming organizations. This shift is the greatest challenge facing leaders, managers and change agents today, according to Peter Senge; a shift in human consciousness, according to Ken Wilber.

A shift in consciousness can sound grandiose, but it is simply a shift in our awareness, in how we perceive life. The old lens of separation, scarcity and selfishness are giving way to the deeper eyes of ecological-awareness. Here, we perceive and embody the sacred reciprocity, synchronistic rhythms and soulful resonances life affords us. This challenges and transforms how we relate with our own sense of self, our relations with others and the wider world. It is a metamorphosis in our midst supported by ground-breaking discoveries in quantum physics, neurology, facilitation ecology and many other disciplines, while tapping into the depths of ancient wisdom traditions and shamanic cultures the world over. This ecological consciousness is the premeditation of regenerative, flourishing, soulful business; our future depends on it.

Leaders across the board are coming to terms with this seismic shift in strategic and operational intent.  Proactive business strategies based on life-affirming values are beginning to set a trend. Net-positive business strategies are a step beyond ‘doing less bad’ ushering in a new business sense quite beyond business-as-usual.

Kingfisher’s well publicized Net Positive strategy is just one of several emerging business strategies that drives decisions based on what is of lasting value to an inclusive stakeholder ecosystem. Positive and negative impacts of direct and indirect activities are quantized and qualified in a way that shapes the future direct of travel for the organization by informing stakeholders on where to improve towards a goal of being net-positive.

And there are the well-versed examples of global brands:

  • Unilever is considering becoming a B-Corp in a move away from singular shareholder value towards wider stakeholder value and responsible business

  • Natura is now a signed up B-Corp

  • Novo Nordisk is shifting its sense of purpose to life-affirming net positive business

  • Interface is going beyond ‘mission zero’ toward restorative initiatives such as the Networks project in the Philippines, which restores marine ecosystems by collecting discarded fishing nets and turning them into recycled carpets, and in the process local communities gain resilience. Also noteworthy is its biophilic workplace initiative helping develop soulful workspaces that attune with nature’s ways).

  • Patagonia has long been pushing the envelope on what transforming towards sustainable and responsible business means in practice

  • Weleda has a biodynamic anthroposophic sense of purpose permeating every corner of its global operations.

And we all know that there are a plethora of rich and inspiring cases of pioneering organizations in the social enterprise and nonprofit sectors. For instance, there are now over 1,250 B-Corp organizations in over 40 countries. This has rapidly risen over just the last few years and is indicative of an evolutionary shift in the way we create and deliver value.

This shift in business is what I refer to as a shift from ‘firms of the past’ to firms of the future – businesses inspired by nature, ones more akin to living ecosystems than machines, and resonating with a deeper ecological awareness birthing in us. And this is not simply a metaphoric shift from ‘machine’ to ‘living’, but a metamorphic shift at personal, organizational and societal levels, where organisms, organizations and societies are no longer perceived through the lens of separation and competition but understood as permeating within an emergent, fluid and connective stakeholder ecosystem immersed within a psychical and physical inter-relational matrix of Nature.

Firms of the future are self-managing and organic in nature, and are decentralized, distributed, diverse, locally attuned, purpose-drive, soulful, life-supporting organizations. They are flourishing enterprises in that they provide space for the stakeholders to realise their full potential in a thriving work environment. People manifest their sense of purpose through the organisation’s delivery capability and network of relations. Work is an enjoyable essentiality of realizing one’s journey of discovery. Locally attuned, self-organizing teams of empowered, diverse stakeholders form a blend of full-time and part-time employees, self-employed associates, contractors, suppliers, customers, partners and interested parties of volunteers involved in the project team’s scope. The organization’s boundaries are semi-permeable with a hive of open innovation, creative commons, open source, peer-to-peer working as well as synergistic partner relations both globally and locally with community groups, activists, specialists and charities.

Sounds a nightmare to manage and difficult to grasp for the mechanistic mind-set. But for the ecological mind-set of emergence, prototyping, feeling with our instinctual and intuitive awareness and using our shared sense of purpose to guide us, the work environment becomes uncluttered, open, expansive, creative, respectful and energizing. The organization becomes a living community to nurture and develop, with everyone empowered, locally attuned and soulfully engaged.  The importance here is ensuring inevitable tensions can be transcended into productive innovations or released through empathy. Time-honored practices such as deep listening, circles of trust,  and Way of Council can be applied to businesses with great effect, for instance, Thornton’s Bugden’s Heart-in-Business program.

This shift is not a faraway possibility but an imminent reality. There are already a growing number of organizations transforming towards a more participatory, self-organizing, emergent way of doing, as exemplified by the increasing uptake of approaches such as Holacracy and Sociocracy.

Not only are soulful organizations more enjoyable communities to work in, but there is emerging evidence that they are more successful, profitable and resilient than the firms of old. For instance, a study done by the LAMP Index a few years back showed that companies that mimic living systems outperform their peers on many levels. This study has recently been updated with more recent data showing impressive results for living organizations consistently outperforming mechanistic ones. Likewise, ex-Mckinsey consultant Frederic Laloux , in Reinventing Organizations, evidences how living, self-organizing, soulful, purpose-driven organizations time and again outperform their traditional counterparts due to the intrinsic motivations these organizations foster. Making money is not the key motivator here yet profit does flow for either reinvestment or redistribution.

New ways of doing without new ways of being underpinning them will not last long. Hence, how we embody this transformation through our new ways of being is vital for our personal and organizational success in the transformative years ahead.

Old ways of being                                                         New ways of being

Ego                                                                                                           Soul

Power over                                                                                     Power with

Competition                                                                                Collaboration

Control                                                                                         Co-creativity

Separation                                                                                 Synchronicity

Scarcity mentality                                                           Abundance mentality

Patriarchy                                                                                         Empathy

Fear                                                                                                        Love

It is one thing to intellectually understand this shift and quite another to actually embody it. Hence why Ashridge Business School is hosting a workshop on Steps Towards a Deeper Ecology of Business to explore and embody just this on July 1. For more information on this unique workshop, please email Victoria.brown@ashridge.org.uk 

Image credit: Flickr/Hartwig HKD

Giles Hutchins is author of "The Illusion of Separation" and "The Nature of Business" and blogs at thenatureofbusiness.org.

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