Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Great Turning and the Evolution of Organizations

I think that we are in the midst of a big cultural turning, and the basic paradigms behind the way we structure and operate organizations are changing. The more I talk with people and learn about organizations, the more convinced I am of the gradual, awkward steps that we are taking in this transition.

When I interviewed Kay Pranis last fall, she said:
"We are going from a Newtonian physics model of organizations and how we treat one another to a Quantum physics model. All of our relationships, all of our institutions--families, churches, schools, justice, social service, are all structured in the Newtonian physics model. Those structures have a life of their own that keeps reasserting itself."

In the book, Theory U, Otto Scharmer, says that life in many of our contemporary organizations is like working in Enron or East Germany shortly before those institutions fell. We know that the institution (and the worldview behind it) has started to collapse. At the same time, most of us are still denying the reality of that collapse. The book came out before the current economic downturn, but even after these economic changes, my impression is that most organizations are still thinking of this recession as a blip in the longer-term continuation of ever expanding economic growth and hierarchy as it has been.

David Korten, in his book, The Great Turning, says that current crisises are presenting us the opportunity to replace the paradigm of Empire with one of Earth Community. The values of Earth Community are based on sustainable, just, and caring communities which incorporate mutual responsibility and accountability.

In my limited experience, the glimpses of the kinds of organizations that are emerging are fleeting and hard to grasp on to.
I think that the form of organizing and governing called Holacracy, is offering some experiments in rethinking organizations according in ways to fit with emerging dynamics of mutual leadership and accountability. The book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, also captures some of how decentralized but cohesive organizations are emerging. I think both of these examples are helpful, but I also think they are very partial perspectives of what is emerging. I think they both miss some of the ethical, spiritual, and political dimensions of dynamics that are emerging.

In some ways we are seeking to step forward, in other ways, we are seeking to return to ancient and sustainable ways of organizing ourselves--relying more on the land, elders, and traditions that we came from. I don't think that a healthy "Earth Community" version of this evolution is inevitable, but I do believe that it is a future wanting to emerge, which we can help bring about.

This year, I'm grateful to be working with the FATHER Project. I think this project reflects one part of this evolving way of doing organizations. The FATHER Project is based on a deep partnership between many different nonprofit and government organizations, all working out of one site. The identity of who "owns" the project is shared by many organizations, not just the "lead organization" (Goodwill/Easter Seals). I think this depth of collaboration is one characteristic of organizational structures that are emerging.

Do you see institutional crumbling happening around you? Do you see any glimpses of new organizational life coming out of those ashes?


Liz Opp said...

I don't have answers to your closing questions but I have a question of my own:

Do you see organizations that are wrestling with the possible reality of "Adapt or die"?

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Michael Bischoff said...

Thanks, Liz.

Just from the news today, it seems like General Motors is one example of an organization that is wrestling with "adapt or die." Generally, it looks like they are choosing "die." However, I think most organizations are quite confused about what kind of adapting is necessary.

Locally, I know of some small organizations that are struggling to financially survive. I think the temptation is to scramble to piece together enough money to make it through, without considering what fundamental changes might be called for.

Things I've read about churches tend to say that most all congregations prefer to die rather than accept radical changes in demographics, worship style, etc.

I do think there are some examples of institutional re-birth, like the South African government after apartheid. I'd like to find more of them.

Michael Bischoff said...

I just thought of another example of organizational adaptation that inspires me--the Catholic Church in Postville, IA. Before and after the immigration raids on the meat processing facility in town, the demographics and purpose of the church changed dramatically. The church became a sanctuary for many of the families.

Another church transformation that inspires me is Church of All Nations, which went from being a Korean-only church to a very multicultural church where there is no one cultural majority.

Margaret Benefiel said...

I think these are very important questions, Michael and Liz. I think that banks in this country right now are wrestling with "adapt or die." I think the banking model of getting bigger and bigger, swallowing up other banks and focusing solely on making more and more money, is on the verge of collaps. I think that smaller banks focused on serving their communities, like Wainwright Bank in Boston and banks that are part of the Global Alliance of Banking on Values, are part of The Great Turning toward the way banks need to be in the future.

sal paradise said...

Michael and everyone else contributing or reading. You are entertaining some very exciting and important questions. It is thrilling to see that these things are being considered so intelligently from so many angles.
My interest is in how rank and awareness of rank is changing. Do you feel that this New Economy and the Giant Shift happening will affect the way that rank (power and privilege) is used and shared?
I'm presently writing my thesis on rank, but not from that angle.

thanks again, Tom Esch

Michael Bischoff said...

I love your question. I think the answer is "yes," and I look forward to sitting with the question more.

For others:
I think Tom's thesis is growing out of Process Work, and ideas articulated by Arnold and Amy Mindell. If you aren't familiar with them, I recommend their book, Sitting in the Fire. Here is a line from the description of the book:
"It [the book] brings an understanding of the psychology of conflict and the knowledge that many disputes can be traced back to inequalities of rank and power between parties, providing tools that will enable people to use conflict to build community."

And, continuing with book recommendations, I also highly recommend Margaret's books, The Soul of a Leader, and Soul at Work. They have some great in-depth stories of banks and other institutions incorporating spirituality into their operations.

Anonymous said...

"Never let a crisis go to waste. Social entrepreneurs take this economic upheaval to be a blessing, providing a chance for business to transition from an anonymous, complex system to one that is direct and transparent."
--Andrew Tolve, "Social Entrepreneurs Go Mainstream," Ode Magazine

Anonymous said...

Michael, Remember your experiences with Healing Touch; a very spiritual healing practice but not easily "institutionalized" - altho various training programs might tend toward "one" way. And yet - as I read about various techniques and their copyrights, it's ALL energy - and the spirit. Many feel that energywork and all it embodies is the future in medical care. It continues to amaze me (HT)what a spiritual practice it becomes for the giver and receiver. It interests me the way Yoga practices and Buddist Meditation with attendant breathwork so readily dovetail with energywork and in my limited experience, neither practice is dogmatic.

Michael Bischoff said...

I agree that Healing Touch is a great foundation for working with the energies of organizations. I recently discovered that a local PhD program offers classes in "Energetics and Organizational Development." They integrate Healing Touch-type practices into consulting about the management of organizations.