Organisational Structure & Culture for Living Systems Leadership – Navigating with the Astrolabe
by Claudius van Wyk
By Dr Claudius van Wyk
The cybernetic approach
Typically organisational strategy establishment has been linear (cause and effect thinking) and based on quantifiability (being able to reduce behaviour to numbers). Now in a volatile and uncertain world organisational planning wants to become organic (the multi-dimension effects of complex webs of relationships) and based on qualities of value experience in the whole living system. The ‘Astrolabe’ comes to mind as a metaphor for the direction of the new ecological design modelling required. This medieval navigational tool was used by seaman who aligned it to the Pole Star and Magnetic North, thereby sailors could find their way to their destination and deliver their cargo. Even earlier in history the ancient Greek ‘kubernetes’ was the ship’s helmsman who used only wind and tide to transport cargo by applying only subtle adjustments of sail and tiller to the natural forces available. From that word ‘kubernetes’ emerged the Roman word ‘gubernator’, as governor, and more recently the biological concept of cybernetics. This is about the understanding and application of complex and subtle feedback processes. It is of course now also increasingly applied in the electronic and digital aspects of technology that has become so indispensable in the information age.
Volatility and complexity
We put the case now that the world need such a navigational tool for leadership in the growing complexity of the living systems environments of the 21st century. The old simple rules of mechanical cause and effect increasingly cannot and do not apply to this digitally interconnected world. The simplistic view of supply and demand, for example, where we blame the drop in oil prices and the slowdown in growth of the Chinese economy, simply cannot hold. The organisational environment is becoming increasingly multidimensional. It is alive with rapid and complex global interactions and has also becoming increasingly ambiguous as a result of the multiple perceptions from the interactions of so many diverse communities and traditions.
Value-based organisational planning
So, we argue, in such a world simple ‘bottom-line’ organisational planning doesn’t wash. What is clearly needed is a type of organisational vision and purpose capable of mobilising people. And this mobilisation needs to be around the value to society that the organisational endeavour offers. Consequently planning and design, rather than being driven by an endeavour to simplistically drive the stock market share price, needs to become increasingly values-based. This is where the Astrolabe metaphor comes in. The sorting and sifting of opportunities and challenges in the operational world taking place in the strategising process now requires two vectors, or directions. One, the Magnetic North, is a progressively deepening inward examination of the organisation. The other, the Pole Star, is an expansive and embracing outward progressive evaluation. Employing these two vectors, we suggest, will enables ‘living systems’ leadership.
Looking inward to organisational culture
The model for the inward journey, the Magnetic North, is here derived from the work of British cybernetician, Gregory Bateson, as his approach that has been further developed by American teacher of consciousness, Robert Dilts. The evaluation moves from a deep assessment of the dynamic operational context, to a review of the activities appropriate to bringing generative value. It progresses to a reviewing, assessing and reinforcing of the skills and competencies required for optimal performance. Then it advances to a clarification of the organisational values and ethos that will in turn inform the application of those organisational capacities (the self-determined ‘rules of the game’). It includes a clarification of the vision of possibilities, that is what the organisation believes it might achieve in it’s gifting of service to its community or stakeholders. A natural outcome is the creation of an identity or branding that aligns coherently with that vision and its values, carefully informing how the organisation presents itself to the world. And ultimately there is a constant alignment of all it’s activities and capacities to its final reason for existence, its ultimate purpose.
Looking outward to the operational environment
The model for the outward journey, the Pole Star, is derived from the work of Richard Barrett – which he in turn drew from the spirals values model and the hierarchy of needs. In the initial phase it identifies the hard facts of organisational capacity, firstly; considering the financial viability, secondly identifying the stakeholder body, namely the customers, suppliers, staff etc, through which and in which, the organisation functions. Thirdly there is an assessment and development of the systems, procedures, management structures designed to ensure maximum operational efficiency. This first phase of the model is an organisational focus enabling the business to maximise essentially short-term objectives. The second phase, however, takes the bigger picture and establishes an on-going process of self-reflection and transformation. This includes the fullest possible employee participation at the appropriate levels. This activity is intended to enable a quality of organisational coherence in which shared values and vision of potentiality mobilises staff and client commitment beyond immediate financial incentives. It also provides the quality of organisational awareness that best enables creative collaboration, partnerships and community involvement in sharing the value that the organisation has to offer to society. And finally it ensures that the organisational ‘eye’ is firmly focused on leaving a long-term legacy it can be proud of.
Now it will be clear that the vectors of the inner journey, namely the ultimate organisational purpose, and outer journey, namely the long-term legacy, then converge. Thereby these two vectors serve to provide a holistic assessment and planning matrix – the Astrolabe of Living Systems Leadership.
The five ways of living systems leadership
What sort of leadership can implement such a dynamic and on-going living planning process? The key quality is mindfulness. And mindfulness in turn calls on five qualities of response. The qualities, that can indeed be developed in leadership training opportunities include a ‘pentagon’ consisting of Presence, Agility, Engagement, Resilience and Creativity. The consequence of the application of these qualities, specifically through mindfulness, is the generation of a condition that Taleb calls ‘anti-fragile’. This is the capacity to self-organise in such a way to effectively manage the organisational adaptation to the stresses resulting from the engagement with the complex challenges of the uncertain modern operational environment. This form of adaptive management leads to an increasing capacity to adaptation whilst still maintaining organisational stability. ‘Stress’ then, rather than being a threat, becomes an opportunity in that it serves both to strengthen the resilience and enhance the intelligence of organisational capacity. This, in any event, is how stress management works in living systems, consequently this is also the nature of living systems leadership.
About Claudius Van Wyk:
Claudius van Wyk moved to the UK from South Africa in the belief that the UK and Europe are probably the most fertile environments to be able to shift to more holistic ways of working and living. These transformed approaches are intended to be more life-enhancing focused on living systems leadership. He works with individuals and organisations as a coach, educator and consultant to apply complexity based insights and applications to hard problems. He currently commutes between the UK and South Africa where he runs educational programmes and retreats for organisational and academic leaders. He is currently running a Leadership Wellness Programme for BMW in South Africa and hopes to do more work like this in the UK . Claudius set up and ran a holistic leadership programme at Schumacher College for transforming organisational practice and lectures on a complexity approach to economics. He is a Coach and Master NLP practitioner and a core member of the Civil Society Forum.
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