organization as organizing

In August of last year, I was given the opportunity to open a conference in San Francisco. We were on a biotech campus in Santa Clara and the theme was sustainability. To me, sustainability starts with the foundation. Like buildings, organizations need a stable base. Post covid, most organizations were knocked off their base. This is about reorganizing back to stable. This is about people getting back to a stable platform. This is about the organization as organizing.

“Organizing is a deep impulse. The history of life is a history of organization, disorganization, and reorganization. Life opens to more possibilities through new patterns of connection.

But how many of us live and work in organizations that fulfill our desires? How many of us feel supported in our need to connect and to create?  Our organizations rarely reflect our need for meaning, connection, and growth. Yet we continue to create new organizations because of our human need to be more, to do more. We notice possibilities, we notice one another, we see a need which calls us to respond, and we organize.

Can organizations learn to sustain the energy and desire that called them into being? Can organizations learn how to support us as self-organizing?

When we view organizations as machine-like objects, unavoidably they become complexities of structure, policy, and roles.

❌ We build rigid structures incapable of responding.

❌ We box ourselves in behind hard boundaries breached only by hostile forays.

❌ We create places of fear.

❌ We shrink from one another.

❌ We mistrust the elemental organizational forces of life.

The struggle and competitiveness that we thought characterized life become the preeminent features of our organizations.

How many organizations believe in order for free?

Our first task then is to see the world differently. We need to observe processes that we either ignored or could not see. Self-organization is not a startlingly new feature of the world. It is the way the world has created itself for billions of years. In all of human activity, self-organizing is how we begin. It is what we do until we interfere with the process and try to control one another.

We don't have to look beyond ourselves to see self-organization. Each of us has frequent personal experiences with this process. We see a need. We join with others. We find the necessary information or resources. We respond creatively, quickly. We create a solution that works.

But then, how do we describe what we did? Do we dare to describe the true fuzziness, the unexpected turns, the bursts of creative insight? Or do we pretend that we were in control every step of the way? Do we talk about surprises or only about executing plans? Do we brag about our explorations or only our predictions?

Our analytic culture drives us to so many cover-ups that it's hard to see the self-organizing capacity in any of us.

How do we support our natural desire to organize in the world's natural desire to assist us?

It begins with a change in our beliefs. We give up believing that we design the world into existence and instead take up roles in support of its flourishing.

✔ We work with what's available and encourage forms to come forth.

✔ We foster tinkering and discovery.

✔ We help create connections.

✔ We nourish with information.

✔ We stay clear about what we want to accomplish.

✔ We remember that people self-organized to trust them to do so.

When we work with organizing as process rather than organization as object it changes what we do.

Processes do their own work. Our task is to provide what they need to begin their work. Do people need resources, or information, or access to new people? If they had these, could they then get on with the work? And would we let them?

This is a new way of thinking about our responsibilities.

In a self-organizing system, people do for themselves most of what in the past has been done to them.

🌱 Self-organizing systems create their own structures, patterns of behavior, and process for accomplishing.

🌱 They design what is necessary to do the work.

🌱 They agree on behaviors and relationships that make sense to them.

Those of us not directly involved in doing the work can give up fussing about designs, or believing that our timelines make things happen, or that our training programs change the behavior of the organization.

In self-organization, structures emerge.

They are not imposed. They spring from the process of doing the work. These structures will be useful but temporary. We can expect them to emerge and recede as needed. It is not the design of a specific structure that requires our attention but rather the conditions that will support the emergence of necessary structures. Patterns and structures emerge as we connect to one another. Even simple connections lead to organized patterns of behavior. Life always organizes as networks of relationships, spinning dense webs that can't be disentangled. As we organize, we need to keep inquiring into the quality of our relationships. How much access do we have to one another? How much trust exists among us? Who else needs to be in the room?

In ecosystems, members seem to have access to the whole system. The quality of their communication is dazzling. Birds build nests over a river at different heights each year in anticipation of the coming flood levels. Furry animals know how much snow to expect in the coming winter and dress accordingly. How do they know this? We don't know. But clearly, they communicate superbly. Nothing we have created in any human organization comes close.

We do know that in healthy human systems people support one another with information and nurture one another with trust. Our wonderful abilities to self-organize are encouraged by openness. With access to our system we, like all life, can anticipate what is required of us, connect with those we need, and respond intelligently.”

This is the entire chapter “organization as organizing’ in a simpler way, by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers.

I have had a deep connection with transition and sustainability in the days since lockdown. Because of this connection, my focus has enabled me to recognize patterns of healthy change. Regenerative thinking, circular process, and people as the catalyst.

We’ve moved from speed to velocity, and now from velocity to vector. A vector is an object that has both a magnitude AND a direction. Our organizations should be no different. Natural systems thinking coupled with healthy technology is the way. If we put our people at the center, study their process, and pair them with the healthiest tools - we will change the very world in which we live.

Music pairing - In anticipation of seeing this live this weekend…ZBB “If you’re too busy talkin’ your not busy listenin’ to hear what the land has to say.”

The cover image is a Ball Maarn Dahlia from the Retreat at Firefly Farm, a living lab for transitional & regenerative design in rural Southwest Virginia.

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