There is much to learn from our bodies. Our bodies are a living system, and as such can help us think about our organizations as living systems. For example, the Feldenkrais Method® is a remarkable approach to human movement, learning and change originally developed by Moshe Feldenkrais. The method is based on principles of physics, neurology and physiology, and the conditions under which the nervous system learns best. Feldenkrais is recognized for the strategies it employs to improve posture, flexibility, coordination, athletic and artistic ability and to help those with restricted movement, chronic pain and tension (including back pain and other common ailments).
I have used the lessons I have learned as a Feldenkrais practitioner to understand my own living body. For example, one of the lessons I have learned is that the body is interdependent. Therefore, a problem in one part of the body will affect other parts of the body. If you are having pain in the right knee joint, Feldenkrais would start working the left knee joint because that area of the body is more open to receive the stretches and healing work. Feldenkrais would teach us to always start influencing the body’s health where the body is most open to receiving it. Only after that work is done do you move to the place where there is pain. Because the body is an interdependent system, the work on one part, will influence other parts of the body – including the area that is in pain.
Another lesson from Feldenkrais is also about interdependence. In Feldenkrais, I have learned that the source of pain is always adjacent from the location that I feel it. For example, if I am experiencing lower back pain, the source of that pain is the result of stiffness in the middle of my back, inflexibility in my hips, or tightness in my hamstrings. If I work on loosening my middle back muscles, helping my hips to become more flexible, or stretching my hamstrings my lower back pain goes away. Because our body is interconnected, we need to think about the source of pain from an interdependent point of view.
Organizational Lessons from Living Systems
Feldenkrais is a practice for the body, but its lessons can be applied to living organizations. For example, how many of us have looked at an organizational problem and seen a problematic employee? If we think that the source of pain is a single person, it is as if we would be applying heat or ice on the lower back, without regard to exploring the areas around the problem employee to see if their behavior is connected to other things that are happening in the organization.
If we see our organizations as interconnected living systems, there can be several other sources of pain that might explain why it appears that one individual is creating a problem. For example, in my consulting practice I have noticed that teams that think ahead and are working toward the future have a provocateur in their group. Sometimes this person is an irritant to the other members, but the presence of their provoking personalities, caused the team to look deeper at their background assumptions and counteract unconscious bias in decision making. On the surface, the individual is the source of pain, but looking at this behavior from one step removed the source of pain is the unconscious background assumptions that shape organizational behavior and decision making.
Another example occurs when an organization has a habit of assigning blame. Identifying who is to blame for a problem or mistake causes us to assess and often spend energy shifting the blame or pointing fingers at each other. The blaming or shaming behavior is experienced as painful to the individual who is being scapegoated. However, the focus on finding blame is also a practice that causes us to avoid looking deeper into the root causes of why something occurred and what happened in the complex systems that our organization exists in. A complex dynamic interdependent organization will always have a web of variables that contribute to a problem. It is never just one thing (or person). By focusing on finding a person or group to blame for our “pain” we are applying a simplistic strategy that doesn’t help us to get to the true source of the organizational pain.
The army is known for its After-Action reports. The purpose of the After-Action Report is to do a retrospective analysis on critical actions previously undertaken, evaluate performance, document effectiveness and efficiency of response, analyze critical procedures and policies, and make recommendations. The value is to gain a broad understanding of events and actions, enhance future operational planning, assist in policy development and revision, protect resources in the future, improve over all future response and share the information so everyone can learn. This is an example of searching deeper and in a more integrated way about what happened and why. It focuses on learning and applying lessons going forward. It is a beautiful example of not focusing on the immediate pain, rather it learns from the context and interdependent nature of the system.
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for pre-order on Amazon) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: www.kathleenallen.net