The Living Organization

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I should begin this with a brief explanation: I read a book recently called “Design in Nature” by Adrian Bejan. It’s a physics book – he’s a thermodynamics guy. I don’t know much about physics, but one of the things that intrigued me about this book, was that it started with a definition of what life is from a pure physics perspective. That beginning, starting from first principles, was enough to get me thinking. I started to wonder, what would it be like to start with a definition of organizational life? Would that uncover some interesting insights into how organizations work? So I took Adrian’s definition of life and I hacked it a bit to work for organizations. Something like this:

For an organization to live, its structure must evolve so that it provides easier access to the work/ideas that flow through it.
-Derived from Adrian Bejan’s Constructal Law, Design in Nature [1]

Let’s take that statement and break it down step by step. First, all organizations are living systems. Living elements, namely people, make up organizations and they have some sort of discernible life-cycle of birth, life, and death [2]. For example, most organizations have some sort of entrepreneurial origins or birth. Some never get any further than that. They never find a foothold in the business ecosystem and as a result, they never reach a viable, sustainable state. A lucky few find their way to reach a profitable niche. These businesses are able to form a stable enterprise that capitalizes on this success. These businesses often optimize for their domain, transforming from groping for opportunity to maximizing the profit they can make from that opportunity. In essence, they evolve to maximize the benefit they receive from the success they have found. However, markets, like any living ecosystem, are subject to change and disruption. As these changes take place, the profit that once made the company thrive may disappear. At this point, to survive, the organization needs to evolve again. It needs to find a new niche in its ecosystem where it can thrive. Otherwise, the only alternative is death.

So, every organization is a living system that is changing or evolving to survive within an ecosystem [3]. It follows that the organizations that are fastest to evolve are most likely the organizations that survive in any ecosystem that is subject to ongoing change and disruption. All living systems require the capacity to change, potentially very rapidly, in the face of new threats. If we change too slowly, we can’t keep up with disruptions in our environment and subsequently die. So the advantage goes to the swift when it comes to change.

This brings us to the third and final attribute of living systems: flow [4]. The thing that all living systems have in common is flow. It is the flow of water, or blood, or even information. In its most abstract sense, flow is the fundamental characteristic of any living system. Systems with better flow change faster than systems with poorer flow. So the ability to change or evolve is directly dependent on the efficiency of the organization’s flow.

So if organizations are living systems, and living systems have flow, and the system that evolves to the best flow wins, how we structure our organizations to optimize flow is the most important question we can ask.

Notes:

[1]”For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents that flow through it.” Adrian Bejan, Design in Nature
[2]Koshland, Jr., Daniel E. (22 March 2002). “The Seven Pillars of Life”. Science. 295 (5563): 2215–16. doi:10.1126/science.1068489. PMID 11910092. Archived from the original on 28 February 2009. Retrieved 25 May 2009.
[3]Futuyma, Douglas J.; Kirkpatrick, Mark (2017). “Mutation and variation”. Evolution (Fourth ed.). Sunderland, Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates, Inc. pp. 79–102. ISBN 160-5-35605-0.
[4]Mihaly Csikszentmihályi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0-06-016253-5.

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