If we think of organizations as machine-like, then we probably assume we can improve them by reengineering them, but we are unlikely to believe that they evolve. But if we hold that organizations are living systems, then we can assume that organizations can and do, and even should, evolve. And that if these living systems do not evolve, if they do not progress, they may wither and die. We all have seen examples of this with organizations that have lost their purpose, have not stayed current with the marketplace, have consumed all their resources (natural, human, financial), or have been so dysfunctional that they dissolve or fall apart.
Fortunately, we can draw inspiration and lessons for our organizations from Nature’s 3.8 billion years of evolution and thousands of diverse living systems. It has used that time to create Type I, Type II and Type III ecologies, each of which has their counterpart in human organizations.
Type I Ecologies
Type I ecologies are like weeds and annuals. They consume all their nutrients from the soil and don’t contribute anything back. As a result, they are short lived and not resilient. Organizations that are like Type I ecologies are consumptive. Startup ventures are comparable to Type I ecologies. These organizations consume their nutrients from the venture capital investments that fund them. They take resources to live, but don’t give back to the bottom line. They only continue to live if conditions are favorable. When winter comes (or money runs out), they die.
Type II Ecologies
Type II ecologies are also consumptive. These ecologies are composed of perennials, small shrubs, and short-lived trees. They consume most of their nutrients from the soil and give little back, but they live longer than weeds and annuals because they start to store nutrients for their own use in their roots, tubers, and bulbs. But they still consume more than they contribute.
Organizations that are like Type II ecologies are also consumptive. I like to think of these plants as comparable to organizational silos. In these organizations, departments are separated into silos where they spend much of their energy on their own needs and compete against one another for resources. Organizations at this level of evolution create and sell products to contribute to the organizational resources. They consume more resources than they contribute back to the world. There is a lot of waste to these organizations but sometimes it is hard for us to notice as this is considered normal organizational behavior.
Type III Ecologies
Type III ecologies are complex diverse ecologies such as old growth forests or mature prairies. In these systems, the diverse plant and animal life develop mutually-beneficial relationships that provide nutrients to each other and give nutrients back to the soil. The plant and animal life contribute more to the ecosystem than they use, so life thrives. They are adaptive, self-sustaining, highly resilient and based on generosity. Type III ecologies and analogous organizations are generous systems. Generous organizations are highly productive, innovative, and continually adapt to be resilience—just as in nature. Generous organizations are multi-dimensionally diverse, complex, and interdependent. They welcome the tensions that help it continually adapt and maintain a dynamic equilibrium.
Luckily, we don’t have to create generous organizations out of thin air. We already have examples of these kinds of organizations in operation today. We all have experienced or know someone who works in a great organization. At conferences, we hear people say, I love my job, or I love my organization. These people know what a generous organization feels like—open, affirming, innovative— and how it motivates them to engage and contribute at their highest levels of excellence.
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 purchase 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