Building capability to enable thriving in an interdependent world

Esther Ridsdale, v1-2 August 2018

So what are the capabilities needed to enable individual, organisational and society thriving? I have been asked to write a few pages on the capabilities, structures and processes that I am keen to support the development of. The title gives this in a nutshell. I’ll expand.

The context for writing this was to support a conversation on what I feel is needed and how I could support its development so as to a) further enrich community development in Frome, Somerset and align the infrastructure to sustain this, and b) how churches (and housing associations) could extend and adapt to better support the wellbeing of the whole person and the wider community both in Frome and beyond. However, my response serves to illustrate the capability I can and would like to build in all sectors and the work I am seeking to develop through the Civil Society Forum and Time to Thrive.

I will start by explaining the underpinning shifts I believe are needed, followed by ways of enabling these. I have then added annexes that provide some practical illustrations and supporting graphics showing how the shifts can be made in different settings (individual and organizational).

The challenge

Over the last few centuries there have been huge increases in material wealth across the developed world. These have been underpinned by amazing scientific and technological advantages and brought many gains, not least in improved physical health and longevity. At the same time paradoxically by many measures wellbeing has gone down.

Chronic stress, depression and other mental health problems are increasing, as are the rates of breakdown in family and community relationships and the prevalence of isolation. Strong evidence of the significance of lifestyle determinants on most of the chronic conditions that limit life has started emerging. However without any additional spend to address this, the rise in multiple conditions mean that the NHS faces a natural annual inflation in NHS cost of 4% (and this at a time of austerity). This combines with research published in 2017? stating that [X%] of the population have no meaningful engagement with their work.

A product of these combined factors is what American doctors termed ‘shit life syndrome’; where low agency set against consumerist pressure causes stress and unhealthy life choices and outcomes. This is not just a feature of US cities. In his article in the Guardian on 19th August titled “The bad news is we’re dying early in Britain – and it’s all down to ‘shit-life syndrome’[1] Will Hutton sited that within the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the difference in life expectancy between richest and poorest is 16 years. And the trends are deteriorating (see Public Health England map of the English health experience from 2014 to 2016 released Dec 2017).

In summary, whilst generating high material productivity, our organisations - and the ways we organize life - struggle in delivering soft, human, joined up and life enhancing outcomes. At the same time we live in a world bursting with potential for vibrant and abundant life. So how we can both a) work within structures of life and work, and b) evolve the design of structures to be most fit for the purpose of sustaining and enhancing life? What are the adjustments in our underpinning mental and organizational models and the information and organisational architecture to both address the issues and connect to the wider possibilities for vibrant life? This is the focus of my interest and attention in both my work and wider life so I’ll explore what I see as the root causes then look at ways to address them.

Root causes

A key root cause of the paradoxical disconnect between wealth and wellbeing has been the rise of individualism and the development of “ego intelligence”. This is the drive to get things to work from ones own perspective without matching attention and evolution of  “eco-intelligence”; to sense and respond to how things work within the greater whole. Just as in the development of a teenager, individualistic drive can give gains in self-expression and agency for some. However, it has led to individualistic ways of working that are insensitive to and de-valuing of our inherent connectedness. As a result they don’t adequately nurture the connectedness that we need to be resilient and thrive.

Neither a human nor an organization can thrive in isolation. Wellbeing and civil society[2] go hand in hand and all organisations need to work in a joined up way to both survive in the longer term and to play a part in enhancing society. The way we choose to organize in our workplace and wider life determines our experience and our impact and there is a lot that could be done to make it a more conducive space for ‘life to play’. I’ll expand on what I mean by this, then explain what can do done.

A key contributor to all these issues is the rise of reductionist scientific thinking. This means dealing with complex situations by focusing on the individual constituent parts. The development of reductionist approaches has been hugely helpful in developing specialist understanding and through this building productivity and efficiency, and enabling technological advances from the industrial revolution to the information age. However, reductionist approaches create narrow perspectives good at handling the material physical situations and qualities, but don’t lend themselves well to understanding the bigger picture or in assimilating properties of ‘wholeness’, which is so crucial in any living system, (such as the life of the individual, the organization or society). As such, reductionism has been a strong contributor to the focus on materialism and material expansion; with physical growth and profit as overriding measures of success. It has therefore led to the design of a organizational structures focused on quantitative output at the expense of attention to more holistic outcomes.

Progressive specialization has narrowed the focus of attention and the focus of organisations and organisational units (in all sectors). This in turn has narrowed the locus of influence of both organisations and the people within them. This has created three significant issues: 1) When the landscape we operate in is so fragmented it makes it very difficult to get the pieces to work together effectively 2) at the same time it increases the need to work together effectively, and 3) narrowing focus restricts the real and perceived agency of many (& contributes to learned helplessness). Separating management from doing of work, and professionalizing care aggravates the situation by taking people out of the loop of meaningful engagement. This has led to impotence in people engaging meaningfully in both their work and personal lives. This has led to a polarity between independence and dependence of those who cannot cope, and impotence across the spectrum.

Another key factor is the proliferation of information with what is most readily available biased to the perspectives of the ‘producers’ of information. From unhealthy food choices to consumerism, to organizational information & scrutiny dominated by financials and weaker on enabling joined up outcomes - it gets in the way of us making ‘wholesome’ decisions at a personal, organizational & societal level.

Fragmentation of society and separation of people within it has led to increased demand for public and third sector support to pick up the ‘pieces’. However all sectors are both prisoners and agents of the issues and the patterns causing them. Better to stop creating separation and isolation than to just deal with the symptoms.


As I’ve said, the issues described can be classified as issues of fragmentation. To enable flourishing we need to reduce the fragmentation. The critical call is to find ways of releasing our resourcefulness (agency) and doing this with a focus on bringing wholeness, balance and life into what we do and how we live.



The solution / opportunity

The opportunity is to do what we can to enhance the ability people and organisations to be resilient, to thrive, and to make a contribution to the resilience and thriving of others. In so doing we will address the issues outlined above. Rather than focusing on problems (like ill health), framing the challenges in terms of the positive opportunity is more conducive way of releasing our resourcefulness (appreciative and holistic understanding).

Nature’s way (of healing and transformation) is to continually create and recreate patterns to enable growth, regeneration, fruitfulness and resilience. It does this through structures that are resilient at whatever the lowest possible viable level of functioning and through exchanges that enable a balanced flow of value and life. We need adjustments in our societal structures and ways of living and working that mirror this. So what are the shifts to better enable this now?

We have valued productivity but this has been at the expense of wholeness and sustainability and ultimately the thriving of life of the whole the productivity is supposed to serve and, therefore, to actually gaining real productivity and effectiveness. We need to redress this balance to more conscious and life-enhancing ways of living, working and, underpinning this, ways of organising life. We need structures that are more geared to sustaining the life of the inhabitants as well as the environment in which they sit (see bullet points below).

We have valued independence. We now need a shift towards greater recognition of our inherent inter-dependence. To thrive as adults and thrive as society we need to move beyond dependence and independence and become adept at operating with healthy inter-dependence. I believe our potential to thrive is directly proportional to our capability and capacity at “interdependence” so this is a critical discipline to develop.

To enable thriving we need to move to ‘conscious inter-dependence’ in both personal and corporate arenas, and to do this in a way that is both self-aware, well-informed and intentional so that, in so doing, we create new life enhancing patterns that can in time become second nature.

We also need to create the means to help reactivate agency in our personal and working lives and creating meaning and connection even when the environment doesn’t seem to lend itself to this. And we need to remove the toxicity of trying to be in control; instead activating our creative influence in working in inter-dependent, mutually supportive and life-enhancing ways. We need to shift our structures, capabilities and information flows to better support this; to support us to live and work in connected and mutually supportive ways.

This requires the following key areas to be addressed:

Structures that are more geared to sustaining the life of the inhabitants as well as the environments in which they sit. One facet of this is to build the health-carrying capability of our communities and workplaces. The focus of these has become so narrow that the locus of influence people have and the breadth of needs that are met in the places people spend the time has narrowed. We need to open this up again and widen the scope for meaningful engagement and meeting of needs. This needs to be done within organisations (of all types) and also by creative working between organisations, e.g. clustering to enable overlapping community across a set of organistions - as is the design of natural organisms, as opposed to that of a machine. Just as they are in nature, the cell (the smallest cluster that can hold viable life) and mid sized community or cluster are powerful generic structures for enabling this in organisations. Just as in nature the shifts can be relatively subtle and simple but the life released can be abundant.

(Re)-Activation and widening of people’s agency and do so in a way that draws on and builds compassion and ‘appreciative understanding. The goal is so to release our creative power and infuse it with greater more life-enhancing possibility for own benefit and the benefit of others. My first inspiration in this was seeing the incredible levels of engagement and quality of team-based self-management in Nissan, Honda & Toyota supply chains when I was trained by them in enabling supply chain improvement. 3-6 below contribute to this (and were contributing components of the approaches / success in Nissan et al).

High-level skills in working together in collaborative mutually supportive ways; both as individuals and organisations, in work and in wider life.

Strategic frames that enable organisations and individuals to appreciate what is important;

1) to pick out from the sea of data (+ fake news and ‘noise’) that which is important in taking meaningful action in enabling the health of the whole &

2) to assemble it in a way that is helpful in inspiring action and in guiding and assessing impact. And to do this in ways that builds our ability to sense and respond to the direct impact and possible unintended side effects on both the local ‘organism’ and the wider eco-system.

Key in this is to build ability to make visible/articulate qualitative ‘progress’ and outcomes that meet real human and natural needs facets of wholeness & life. And to revealing relevant perspectives, fake news, blind spots.

Strategic frames and working structures to support alignment of efforts to address cross-cutting needs. For example, setting up & running collaboratives, joint strategic thinking / dialogue initiatives.

My desire is to consciously and intentionally support the development of these 5 facets. They are what I see as the genomes for living and organising in ways that enable flourishing both of the individual and society, customer and the supplier, staff and owner; the strands of the DNA necessary to serve the common good.


How I can help

My passion is supporting this; 1) helping open up the space for raised awareness, inspiration, strategic thinking, collaboration and mutual support, and 2) helping bring to the table the information, models and pictures tailored to the particular situation. This involves finding, designing, tailoring and championing information and processes for engaging systemically.

The goal is that, recognizing and building our interdependence, people are inspired and resourceful in taking on their challenges and opportunities in ways that enhance their own lives and the lives of others. This is largely about creating enabling environments that take us on the journey. And in ways of making it appealing enough to be a journey that people want to join.




Part 2 of this document (the annex) considers the practicalities of doing this with info-graphics and design tools I have produced to help address particular challenges. Click here for this (or ask me to send you a word copy).


The annex contains a version of this relating to individuals (as opposed to organisations).

How I can help - Examples:

The Civil Society Forum (CSF) has been an experiment in an asset based community development organization to learn about and apply the ways of thinking, capabilities, structures required to help build a world where all can flourish. The main focus has been on 1) joint strategic thinking between third sector organisations and public sector organisations on cross cutting issues 2) promoting systemic and collaborative approaches 3) prototyping structures and processes that model the principals. I set up the forerunner to the CSF in 2010, when promoting collaborative working for the NCVO and when the NCVO lost its main government funding I responded to encouragement to form the forum to continue the work Though the organisation has not been successful in getting to a sustainable footing a lot of valuable learning has taken place.

Time to Thrive: At a personal level, I have been prototyping different forms of mutual support group and wellbeing groups that get people used to reflective practice on their own lives, learning and exploring together and buddying with others in wellbeing enhancing activities. To support this I have been developing training materials conducive to activating the resourcefulness of people and stimulating fruitful relationships. I have also been developing design tools and materials for building enabling environments. These draw on systemic approaches to personal development and organisational development. As such, the work is geared to both personal processes and organizational structures and processes.

My background

I have spent the last 25 years drawing on wide range of systemic approaches to enable people to engage constructively in challenges in and across all sectors. I started in Continuous Improvement and participative supply chain management in the car industry then consulted in participative management, planning and improvement and supporting the development of collaborative processes and structures and information frameworks in all sectors. This includes 7 years on using information for commissioning, managing and improving care and care services for the Health and Social Care Information Centre in partnership with the MA / NHSI and programme management of multi-organisational multi-disciplinary initiatives and facilitation of teams of consultants and NHS staff.

A core competence has been in drawing on and developing approaches that are useful in the ‘left-brain’ job of handling the detail and getting things done but importantly forming the invaluable ‘front end’ of working out what is important and how to avoid losing a sense of what is important to ‘the life of the whole’. This enables a shift from chasing our tails in ‘symptom management’ to making shifts that embed more deep-rooted transformation. I am convinced of the compelling value of these approaches for enabling individuals and groups of people to tap into their resourcefulness and sense and respond in systemically intelligent ways.

On a corporate level, I have spent my working life working on helping empower people to develop their agency and work collaboratively within and across organisations. More recently I have been prototyping resources to build capability in this, including workshops on team-based management, planning & improvement, making collaborations work, joint strategic thinking, creating environments where people connect, stimulating & supporting collaboration, to engage dispersed groups of people in taking on challenges, & making collaborative networks work, how and building enabling environments to stimulate transformation.

A footnote: The roots of my interest

My passion for this started as a child, roaming round the hills, creating wide games, building aerial runways and other adventures with a gang of kids with diverse ages and backgrounds. The challenges were much richer and bigger and fun together. I had (and still have) a strong interest in organising, sport & other adventurous activities and in how the world worked for everyone and combined these organising sponsored swims for Save the Children from 8 years on. I was so excited to start as a sponsored student engineer but shocked at the disenfranchisement of staff in the company that sponsored me. I resolved to focus on finding inspiring ways to take on the big challenges together.

I packed in engineering and studied business administration, specialising in systems approaches and have spent the last 25 years deepening academic and practical working knowledge of approaches to build frameworks to enable both working teams and dispersed networks of people to gain a systemic understanding of the requirements of the situation and to inspire and guide action in ways that consciously seeks to serve the bigger picture.

Much of this has been working with management teams to establish participative management processes and supporting and organizational frameworks. The two threads of supporting cross supply chain management and improvement in companies and supporting adventurous education, personal development (of body, mind & soul) and active citizenship eventually combined into a passion for ways of doing and organising life that help build a world where all can flourish.

[1] The article published on 19th August 18 states “Britain should be launching a multipronged assault on shit-life syndrome and the conditions that cause so many to die prematurely”.

[2] One definition of Civil Society is “the arena where we (come together to) pursue our own interests (or needs) and the interests of others” (Nicola Perlas, CADI), hence the vision of the CSF is to enable this; practicing and championing approaches that model this in and across sectors.