Friday, December 4, 2009

A book in progress on Life Sustaining Organizations

We continue to make progress on our newest publication, Life Sustaining Organizations, a manual devoted to the challenge of creating of work environments that will attract, house, support and retain key talent that organizations can rely upon to lead them forward into whatever challenges and exciting possibilities the future may bring. Life-sustaining organizations nourish the vitality of the people who give them life, purpose and direction, and they recognize their dependence on the well-being of the natural environment within which we all exist.

We're writing this book because we've both had really excellent working experiences and we've both had and observed many work environments that were deeply unsatisfying. A wide range of factors that contribute to the quality of an organization's life sustaining qualities, including, for example: Are people encouraged to be creative? Do they get to see the effect of the efforts? Does the workplace acknowledge our needs as social animals? Is there a conscious and continuous consideration of the relationship between the organization and the natural environment.

Architectural choices are certainly important to the creations of life-sustaining organizations. For example, Malcolm Wells, recently deceased, (at left) developed a potent ecological perspective that included a set of goals for all new buildings, e.g., the requirement to "use solar energy, to consume their own waste, to provide wildlife habitat and human habitat, and to be beautiful." Wells had an epiphany after designing the RCA pavillion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York and realizing that his work and all the other buildings were going to torn down just as whatever had been there before was destroyed to make way for yet another temporary design. He concluded that maybe whatever the natural environment was before humanity started imprinting its impression upon it needed to be treated with greater respect.

The book lays out a way of developing life-sustaining organizational strategies by combining systems thinking with scenario planning. The graphic at right presents an overview of the process, which we call structural dynamics.

The process begins with an effort to convene the whole system for a inquiry into the forces driving the future of the organization. Every organization faces its own particular set of "critical uncertainties"--big issues whose direction is unclear--although there are probably a set of uncertainties that virtually all organizations face, e.g., "How will we be able to attract and hold the critical talent we need to survive and thrive in the future?"

This sort of question has all sort of ramifications for whether an organization is life-positive: What environment can it design, and create that will support the vitality of its workforce? What forces will be shaping the context of the organization as the future unfolds, determining the behaviors and internal conditions that will define what it means to be life sustaining? The Discovery phase of the process develops an organizationally specific response to this sort of strategic question. Persistent poking at the driving forces affecting the organization yields a structural dynamics model, symbolized in the center of the graphic. For example, we think that the status of women, i.e., their political rights and their social status on a global basis, is a global driver of the future although we are not at all sure how it is going to work out. It's relationship to the position and condition of women is likely to be an important consideration for all organizations. It is another critical uncertainty having a powerful effect on the workforce.

Identifying and analyzing the structural dynamics of its Critical Uncertainties enables an organization to articulate a set of plausible scenarios of the future. The word plausible is very important because many scenarios, e.g., in the science fiction genre can make for great stories but it's hard to see how one might get there from here. And, the idea of a set of scenarios is also significant because planners need to challenge themselves with starkly alternative futures in order to articulate strategic Options, especially those that are robust, i.e., hold promise of being effective regardless of which direction the future actually does take. A strategy matrix, such as the one at left, is one of the key products of the Options phase.

The organizational challenge now is to Apply or Embody the strategies to the entire range of organizational action. If an organization wants to become an employer of choice for a certain demographic of women, for example, all of its activities ought to align organically with that aspiration. We approach the manifestation of strategic choices via fractals, i.e., allowing each component of the organization to deploy the central strategic theme in its own distinctive, subcultural fashion.

Sustaining is the phase of the strategy process in which signs, indicators and warnings are used to calibrate earlier hypotheses, e.g., the expectation that the gap in academic achievement between young men and women which has been developing in the United States will continue and become more of a world wide phenomenon. Sustaining also entails acting in ways that cement, ground and perpetuate the learning orientation that the structural dynamics process is designed to inculcate into the DNA of the organizations that use it.

We're obviously very excited about this work and the prospect that a distillation of our theory and practice may make a contribution to organizational science and to the vitality and spirit of people and their organizations.

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