Architecture for Living Systems

It is curious to me how we have architects for buildings and technology systems, for a lot of things, yet, not so much for the design of organizations? The structure of an organization, for an organizational psychologist like myself, is about the structure of relationships around a vision, strategies, and activities, and about how to bring all that to fruition. 

This blog space is for conversations about the living systems we call organizations. It is a place for talking about design and learning, culture and change,  process and structure, space and reflection, systems thinking, patterns and relations, behavior and communications. If you have an interest in organizations as living, changing systems, my hope is to engage you in a discussion where we can all learn and have some fun in the process.  Zen teaches us that everything changes, everything is connected, and everything is impermanent. So it makes sense, then, that all these topics are related. This is a living space for playful interaction. Thanks for joining in.

Like you, I suspect, when I think about organizations I have many questions. What social need does the organization meet? How does the vision portray this? How are people and work structured? How are groups arranged around process? How does the organization approach change? How does the organization approach the design of its culture? How does the organization learn and what emphasis does it place on learning?

The list of questions we can explore about organizations is infinite.  Organizations are patterns of relationship swirling around an identity, purpose, and culture. What we do in organizations evolves around these core elements and involves change and process. Organizations must continually balance the need for external adaptation and internal integration. So what is the best way to do this?

In A Simpler Way, Margaret Wheatley shares this perspective: "There is a simpler way to organize human endeavor. It requires a new way of being in the world. It requires being in the world without fear. Being in the world with play and creativity. Seeking after what's possible. Being willing to learn and to be surprised. This simpler way to organize human endeavor requires a belief that the world is inherently orderly.  The world seeks organization. It does not need humans to organize it." (Wheatley, 1996, p. 5)  In this process of self organizing, something rather extraordinary happens on its own: intelligence emerges as a system connects to itself in new and diverse ways. Learning happens.

I view learning as the primary task of all organizations and organisms. What is learning? Learning to me is a search for the truth, about people, our world, and about how things work. As Kurt Lewin, the founding father of social psychology, pointed out, there are two kinds of organizations. The first is focused on unearthing the truth in every way possible. The second has lost sight of reality and is now spending great amounts of energy and time hiding the truth and hiding from the truth. 

Organizations can stay relatively stable if they can retain a high level of truth within the culture and a keen awareness of their environment. This suggests that organizations need to learn and spread knowledge quickly and ubiquitously. If learning is the core competency of an organization, then learning is the most fundamental task for survival. Learning organizations have the best chance of experiencing incremental change and avoiding sudden or what is often referred to as revolutionary change. This is not to say that an organization or even an industry can always avoid such change. It happens. The Internet has been a part of many such changes. Take, for example, and what that has done to so many stores, or the iPhone and Kodak.

Balancing Stability and Agility
Some change is inevitable. Wait, did I say that? Maybe all change is inevitable. So then, how can we design organizations to best create that perfect balance of agility and stability? Is learning and seeing the truth more important to an organization than leadership? Is a new form of leadership needed for today's organizational needs? The best learning, as we can see from children, includes play. How might we create structure for the organization that promotes play and learning? Anything stirring in you? I this this as a place for exploring, and not so much about answers.  


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