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The Organization is a Purposeful Living System

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency
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By Giles Hutchins

We are in the midst of a metamorphic period of change unlike anything the world has seen since the late Middle Ages. With “meta” (meaning “form”) and “morph” (meaning “change”), the word suggests the transformative change in form of human institutions now emerging as we awaken to the realities of climate change and the destruction of ecosystems we have long relied upon for our survival. As the organization specialist Peter Drucker insightfully said, "In times of turmoil, the danger lies not in the turmoil but in facing it with yesterday’s logic."

Nowhere is this metamorphic change more evident than in the way business organizations are being managed and led. The ideal of ‘organization-as-machine,' which was dominant throughout the 20th century, is now giving way to an ideal of ‘organization-as-living-system.’

Increasingly, as our organizational context requires us to become ever more emergent, innovative and adaptive, so leadership must become more about empowering, empathizing, encouraging interconnections, innovation, learning, local attunement, reciprocating partnerships and an active network of feedback. As such, the aim of leaders becomes more focused on nurturing conditions in which the organizational living system can learn, unlock its creative potential, and flourish in a purposeful and coherent way, so that it can create and deliver value while being mindful of the wellbeing of all the people it serves and the wider fabric of life to which it relates. This is not some utopian dream; it’s happening now as you read this article.

Enter a myriad of organizations thriving amid uncertainty by applying living-systems logic: the healthcare provider Buurtzorg, the bank Triodos, the employment agency Vaga, the high-tech manufacturer W.L Gore & Associates, the global network of social-enterprise community centers Impact Hub, the multimedia provider Sounds True, and the Brazilian manufacturer Semco, to name a few.

To aid this transformation, here are five important areas for leaders and change agents to focus on in these transformational times:


  • Communication: Commune with others. Really listen and deeply share with our peers and stakeholders within and beyond the organization by creating space for soulful sharing and collaborative networks that do more than just brainstorm by having the remit to prototype the future.

  • Innovation: Within the organization ‘accelerator skunkworks,' ‘incubators’ or ‘innovation hubs’ operate like cocoons in stealth mode (Google X, for instance) where out-of-the-box innovators across the organization can engage in entrepreneurial explorations, with the support of the organization to invest in these prototypes, testing them out before the activities are either spun off or integrated into the main business.

  • Diversity in the boardroom: Yes, we need more diversity and inclusiveness in terms of age, sex and race. Yet we also need diversity in our ways of thinking by bringing in non-conformists that provoke and cajole with different perspectives and insights. This can be achieved through inviting a wider range of non-executive directors, diverse stakeholder representatives, a greater variety of external advisers, and utilizing innovative forward-thinking consultants and coaches beyond the traditional mainstream consultancies.

  • Sense of purpose: As leaders we need to cultivate our inner-compass and develop our own coherence within ourselves. We must take the time and energy to embark on a process of ‘knowing thy self’ so as to understand our deeper sense of purpose beyond our ego-personas and acculturated masks. When we align our outer actions with our inner sense of purpose, we allow a deeper creative impulse and authenticity to flow through our work. Ditto for our teams and stakeholders. And when our organizational sense of purpose resonates with our personal purpose, truly extraordinary things spark – we develop what living-systems scientists refer to as ‘super-coherence,' enabling us to thrive amid volatility.

  • Time and space: Taking personal responsibility for our work schedules and recognizing that the continual busyness and stress actually undermines our ability to think out-of-the-box and sense our inner compass. Each of us can be more effective at managing our diaries, creating blocks in our schedule for ‘systemic thinking’ where we can reflect, pause and learn to tune-in to our more intuitive awareness and authentic, soulful selves.

Gone with the winds of change is the artificial certainty and mechanistic linearity of command-and-control cultures and ‘human resource’ management -- revealing a fresher, purposeful, altogether more human approach to our ways of working.

Image courtesy of the author 

Speaker, author, adviser Giles Hutchins’ latest book is Future Fit

‘Essential and timely’ Dr. Scilla Elworthy, Author and Founder of the Oxford Research Group

‘A must-read’ Bob Willard, Author and Speaker, Sustainability Advantage

‘Brilliant’ Richard Barrett, Chairman and Founder of The Barrett Values Centre

‘A masterpiece’ Mark Drewell, Founder of The Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative