Water has much to teach us about the dynamic nature of all living systems.
Recently I spent some time observing Lake Superior. The water is constantly moving, and it was a wonderful reminder and lesson to me that all living systems are dynamic by nature. Wind moves, roots grow, seeds germinate, plants and species grow, and the list goes on.
The constant movement of nature is not always seen. For example, mycelium is the root system of lichen that exists underneath the forest floor. It has been referred to as the wood wide web because it connects plants and trees to each other, transmits nutrients between plant species, and communicates information to plant life in the forest. While we can’t see this movement, it still exists.
Human beings are not apart from nature, they are a part of nature. Just like nature, we are in constant movement. Our hearts beat, we breathe in and out, our blood circulates and our neurons fire. These are all signs of life in our bodies. If this constant movement stopped, we would, too.
If nature and people are in constant movement, then why not organizations?
Organizations by their nature are a gathering of people who constantly are moving. If our organizations and communities are made up of people, then they are living, moving systems as well. I am struck by the difference between the reality of dynamic movement found in nature and people and our perception that our organizations are static by nature and the people in them don’t like change.
This misperception creates a wonderful justification for top-down power and driving change that serves the agendas of the people in leadership positions. The assumption that organizations are inert machines also influence most of the change strategies that are taught to leaders and managers.
The Paradox of Perception
Organizations are places that are made up of people. They are designed, structured, and led by people and the work of organizations are done by people – people who are constantly moving. The idea that organizations are static or machine-like is something we have constructed in our minds; it doesn’t fit the reality.
One indicator of when we should change our perception is when our thinking no longer fits the territory or helps to explain what is happening. This is the case when we think our organizations only move when leaders initiate change. In reality, organizations are changing all the time. Shifting our mind can help us see the dynamic movement that is already occurring. It is much easier to facilitate change if it paces the evolution that is already occurring.
Why We Resist Change
I have concluded that the behavior we associate with people “not liking change” is really an indication of something else. When we try to force change on others without regard to the direction they are already moving, we find resistance. This is a bit like being tone deaf to the people and their individual and collective hopes for the organization they work in. We have been taught that as employees, we are supposed to support the generation of profit for our organizations. Unfortunately, the compensation packages don’t support the employees in return.
Employees don’t usually see the benefits of increased profits because they aren’t distributed to everyone in the organization who helped generate the profits. When organizations are seen as inert; then we believe that people at the top need to initiate all change. Therefore, the credit and rewards should go to the people who are creating success through their leadership. This logic trail falls apart if we see all the people contributing to and initiating change and success.
It is never one or a few people who change an organization. Success depends on the active cooperation of many. When change is driven from the top to increase profits, but the effort involved is only awarded to a few, cynicism is generated in employees over time. They experience an organization that depends on their work but doesn’t reward them for their efforts. This becomes the root of resistance.
Unleashing the Dynamic Movement of Organizations
If we assume that all the individuals are dynamically changing every second, the question of leadership is not how I create change or who can make this happen. Instead, the questions of leadership become “How can I transform the energy and movement that already exists?” or “How can I pace the direction the organization is already moving toward?” or “How can I unleash the people to support a higher purpose?”
To do this, leaders need to sense the livingness of their organization and align their change strategies with the direction the organization is already moving in. This pacing of the movement and intention of the organization works with instead of against the natural energy of the organization. When we do this, we don’t experience resistance. Instead, we get active cooperation.
I recommend that leaders take time to meditate on dynamic movement found in nature. Sitting and observing waves on a lake, the movement of a river, wind blowing through trees, and gardens growing are teachers that help us get in touch with the dynamic movement found in nature. After observing for a time, ask yourself, “Does my organization have a rhythm of movement to it?” “What does it look like?” “How can we become more in touch with it?” and finally ask, “How can I lead from the assumption that my organization is constantly moving, not static or an inert machine?”
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 (currently available for digital download and in print form September 4, 2018) 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