Living systems are always in movement – they’re never at rest like a pen, or chair. Objects only move using an external power source. Our cars run on electricity or gas, our phones move when we move them, a coffee cup moves by our hand. Living systems are always in flux, in part because they are embedded in an interdependent system filled with plants and species that self-organize by their very nature.
Organizational leaders are taught that our organizations are objects, usually through deep background assumptions that aren’t articulated but assumed as starting points in our theories. For that reason leaders who want to initiate change in their organizations see themselves as the external power source to get the organization moving.
What happens when we assume our organizations are already moving?
If we shift our background assumptions from “organizations are inert” to organizations (and the people in them) are always in flux, what happens? The first thing that often changes are the very questions we ask ourselves. Instead of “how can I get this team to move” we might ask “where are they already moving”? Is there a direction that the team is already headed? Is it headed towards cooperation, innovation, and performance – or is the team heading toward discord, competition, and toxicity? Are there individuals on our teams that are moving toward high performance and teamwork and others that are moving away from that? When we start to ask these new questions we begin to recognize patterns of movement that are natural and much, much more powerful.
Tracking natural patterns of movement helps positional leaders develop strategies targeted toward improving the team’s ability to work effectively together. If one person on a team is creating confusion and chaos while the rest of the team is focused on the work, the leader needs to reflect on how these different patterns of movement impact the team’s performance. The strategy for the leader is to intervene with the person who is draining the energy of the team. For example, sometimes individuals are technically competent but relationally incompetent. Their inability to manage their emotions and build effective working relationships create a pattern of dysfunction for the team. By intentionally observing the dynamics in the team, the team leader can see their strategy more clearly.
Key logs can help us see solutions differently by looking at movement and where things are stuck. In the logging industry, they often send logs down rivers to the sawmill. Sometimes a log jam would ensue. Experts would walk to log jam and see which log was the source of the jam. They would dynamite that log and the rest of the logs would flow free. This works because the river flows towards gravity. Gravity is like purpose in an organization because it shapes the direction of the flow of movement. When there isn’t an obstruction, the logs flow freely in response to the pull of gravity. A log that is skewed in relationship to the other logs can temporarily stop movement. Leaders who view teams from a key log framework look for those who are flowing toward purpose – and those blocking movement. The team leader doesn’t need to change the whole team, just the individuals who are moving against purpose.
Can observing patterns of movement help us know when our system is about to change?
Another lesson on observing movement is in the behavior of the system before it transforms to a more productive or higher level of complex functioning. When we have strong organizational defaults or habits we must eliminate so we can adapt to changing demands, the behavior dynamic we see is a type of “jitterbugging” back and forth across the threshold between old and the new behaviors of adaption. People and organizational systems sometimes behave like they normally do. At other times they often exhibit new behaviors that reflect the adaptation that the organization is being invited to make due to external forces. This movement of behavior back and forth is a sign that the organization is getting ready to shift to a new state.
These are just a few ways observing the movement that already is occurring in your organization or team. Shifting our viewing point from objects to living systems is the first step. Once we do that, we stop looking for where to get change moving and start looking for the direction the system is already going and how we can use that movement to increase our ability to serve the higher purpose of the organization.
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2019) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems at www.kathleenallen.net.