Thursday, April 30, 2009

Carole Mase - The Adaptive Organization

Great article from the current issue of Shift (Institute of Noetic Sciences). If you work with changes at the individual, organizational, or cultural level, there are some good ideas here.
Emerging Worldviews - The Adaptive Organization

Change agents continue to struggle with outmoded models, tools, and techniques—ones that were sufficient in slower and simpler times, but that are counterproductive when complex adaptation is the only viable survival strategy.
—Edwin Olson and Glenda Eoyang
Facilitating Organizational Change

We have entered an era of global connectivity in which networks predominate and our interdependence determines the direction and consequences of our actions. This interdependence requires human organizations and systems (HOS)—the independent public and private institutions of our culture, such as our schools, businesses, financial systems, and governments—to function as ecosystems do. While we are all familiar with these organizations and systems, we are not so familiar with the connections that hold them together, and this will be vital in this new era. No longer can they operate as independent machines following the linear laws of Newtonian physics, because in reality they are networked communities—complex,
emergent, and nonlinear. This realization reveals what environmentalist-author Paul Hawken calls a “design problem” in our current systems: Assumptions about how our institutions of society and commerce best function have become outdated and need to be transformed. To do this requires that we rethink our paradigm of change—because change is what we obviously are facing at this critical point in human history.

Facing Adaptive Strain

Until recently, the world has experienced rapid but turbulent technology-driven growth—the outcome of a worldview that has designed HOS to be highly efficient machines of production and commerce that convert human and natural resources into products and services. Mechanistic organizational designs function well during periods of relative stability and limitless resources, but they become dysfunctional in highly networked and interdependent environments with limited resources. Rigid, slow, and wasteful, today’s mechanistic organizations, and the systems they spawn, produce continuous waves of regional and even global destabilization. Consider the negative fallout from an antiquated U.S. automobile industry, or a justice system that favors incarceration over rehabilitation, or an educational policy based on old models of teaching and learning. Out of necessity, our worldview is shifting beyond the principles of “industrial ecology” popularized in a 1989 Scientific American article by Robert Frosch and Nicholas E. Gallopoulos and toward an “ecology of human systems,” defined as a global web of unique and inseparable cultural, commercial, and environmental ecosystems that cocreate an interdependent ecosphere.

Unfortunately, faced with the need for widespread institutional change, we resist, preferring, either consciously or unconsciously, to wait until destabilizing external forces beyond our control impose change upon us. We hold tight to the existing status quo, continually reinforcing what isn’t working. In so doing, we ignore a level of organizational and systemic dysfunction that sickens the earth and produces human disengagement, cynicism, loss of trust, and, ultimately, resource and ecological depletion and a world on the brink of destruction. Resolving this global dilemma requires us to leave behind a mechanistic paradigm of change which assumes that change is a painful action of last resort, always externally imposed rather than systemically generated, and only necessary when social, economic, or business systems start breaking down. As outdated models are ripped off the moorings of their mechanistic worldview, a model of change that generates hope and opportunity is beginning to emerge (see Figure 1). It has the potential to empower us to meet today’s global challenges and improve human well-being, organizational longevity, and resource sustainability. We can use this model, which mimicks nature’s ability to harness the creative tension between an existing status quo and an emerging future, to redesign our social and commercial systems in a way that allows all participants
of the human ecosphere to contribute and prosper.

Based on a worldview in which HOS operate more like our bodies or a prairie ecosystem than a well designed machine, a multidisciplinary paradigm of adaptive change in sync with the processes of the natural world has developed at the intersection of physics, complexity theory, biology, psychology, ecology, neuroscience, and cosmology. Many thought leaders are authoring this new story of change. Margaret Wheatley, Fritjof Capra, and Peter Senge have described its leadership and processes. Daniel Quinn, Paul Davies, and the late Gregory Bateson have brought a cultural and cosmological perspective. Paul Hawken and Janine Benyus are its ecologists. Ray Anderson and Thomas Friedman contribute to the business side. Kevin Kelly is one of its leading technocrats. Through their work, we now understand that “adaptive strain” (in engineering and physics, this refers to the tension within structures and/or functions that result from destabilizing events) is inherent in the interactions between human systems and their environments and that this tension is resolved through a natural process of “adaptive change.” Unlike in nature, however, the magnitude of adaptive strain in HOS depends upon (1) the presence or the absence of a clear vision for the future, and (2) the conscious recognition that change is necessary for survival.
Read the whole article.

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