Systems are filled with connections and so are living organizations. These connections span the boundaries between the organization and its external environment and within the organization itself. Over time, these connections create ties and relationships to each other.
For example, when a person is removed from the organization, we see the hidden connections between one person and the rest of the people in the organization. These relationships cause a living organization to be filled with interdependencies.
I believe that organizations behave more like a living system than an inert one. Organizations are filled with human beings. It doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to believe that a living system would emerge from all the life that shows up every day in an organization. You can read more about how organizations are living systems by clicking here.
What Does Interdependence Mean to an Organization?
Interdependence means that change in one part of a system will impact other parts of the system in seen and unseen ways. Some of the implications of these relationships can be seen immediately and others will unfold over time. For example, the loss of a business on main street will have an immediate impact on individuals shopping patterns. Over time, however, one empty storefront can lead to fewer people who are shopping downtown. This can lead to other local businesses having fewer customers and may cause other businesses to shut down.
The economic interdependencies between local shops and consumers create an ecological system that supports businesses in a community. One loss can impact the community’s economy over time. If a town doesn’t have a thriving main street and there are empty storefronts, it can cause the citizens of that community to feel like their town is dying.
This is how interdependence works, the loss of one asset impacts the whole fabric of a community and this impact keeps unfolding in both predictable and unpredictable ways.
Open Systems Versus Closed Systems
As a system becomes more connected and interdependent, it becomes more dynamic and complex. It is difficult to predict how things will unfold. It becomes an open system. An open system is different from a closed system. In a closed system, the boundaries of that system are solid. Nothing additional comes in and the dynamics of the closed system are known. The elements of the system don’t expand. In a closed system, we can analyze it and the more we understand all the parts, the more we can control the system. In an open system, the boundaries of the system are permeable. This means that changes in the larger environment will impact your organization.
Open systems are more dynamic because there are new elements and variables that keep showing up in unexpected ways. It makes the system more dynamic and less predictable. Control is possible in closed systems because the variables don’t change. They can be simple or complicated, but with enough time everything can be known and fixed. In an open system, new dynamics and variables are always appearing. Therefore, there are more unknowns than knowns. Each new dynamic or variable that impacts an organization will ripple across the organization in unpredictable ways. Therefore, open systems can only be influenced by understanding larger patterns that exist in the organization, because the organization itself cannot be controlled because it is always in movement.
Interdependent Thinking and Attracting Talent
There is a growing labor shortage impacting the United States. Attracting and retaining talent is already challenging organizations. Looking at labor shortages from an interdependent point of view would invite us to think about what would cause an organization to be more attractive to prospective applicants. It would also invite us to think of the multiple relationships and variables that would retain talent in our organizations.
An interdependent viewing point would require us to think beyond salary to other things that are important to applicants and existing employees. For example, millennials value work-life balance, healthy workplaces, and having meaning and purpose in their work. They won’t stay if the salary is good, but the workplace is toxic. We are used to using more linear thinking when trying to fill positions. If we can’t get a good pool of candidates, we must not be paying enough. The solution is to raise salaries.
Interdependent thinking would surface additional strategies. What is the level of positive energy at work? Is our organization attractive to employees? Do employees have flexibility and are they treated with respect?
Once we look beyond the simple exchange of compensation and employment, we begin to see that a labor shortage will have many more impacts over time as talented people will be able to actively choose between working for a healthy organization doing meaningful work or working for an organization that treats them as an object (even if it pays more).
Time delays are ubiquitous in any interdependent system. A time delay means that what happened in the past, can take time to unfold and a pattern of impact might not be seen immediately. For example, the time between being exposed to the flu and experiencing flu symptoms tells us that our body will take time before we show the symptoms of the flu. We know that pregnancy has a nine-month time delay between conception and the birth of a baby and that during that time and after the baby is born, there will be continuous adjustments by the parents adjust to the changes that a baby presents in their family system. Another time delay example can be seen in the time between experiencing challenges hiring the talent the organization needs and the implications it has on how we lead our organizations.
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 digital download starting June 5, 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