Living Organizations: Designing Cultures that Foster Diversity and Evolution

orgs - Living Organizations: Designing Cultures that Foster Diversity and Evolution

We have come to appreciate diversity as an asset in organizations. Diversity of gender, age, ethnicity, or any other manifestation of the ways we, as human beings, express our uniqueness. But beyond affirmative action, which creates a legal platform for equal employment opportunity, why should we care about organizational cultures that foster diversity? And how do we create them?

Diversity, in biological systems, is a measure of the health of ecosystems. It produces resilience, or the capacity for the ecosystem to respond, recover from, and survive drastic changes in the environment, such as natural disasters or human disturbances. Biodiversity is not evenly distributed around the planet. Ecosystems in the tropics tend to be more diverse than ecosystems in the poles. If we see organizations as human ecosystems, we can also appreciate how different levels and kinds of diversity play a role in shaping a unique organizational cultures. Learning from the “best practices” in natural systems can be a useful strategy to reflect on the choices that we have when it comes to leadership and management challenges.

Using nature as model, measure and mentor, biomimicry is becoming a popular approach for designing technologies, materials and even business processes. The learning edge of this movement, in my humble opinion, is the application of biomimicry’s life principles to the design of human systems—living, self-organizing, and evolving organizations and communities. What kind of leadership is appropriate to create and sustain a healthy and thriving culture? What’s the balance between competition and collaboration to foster the learning and innovation for evolution? What are the structures and processes that allow all members of the organization to contribute their gifts and benefit from the abundant exchange of value?

These are some of the questions that guide my work. I like to experiment, observe, and reflect on the ways organizations can move away from mechanistic to living approaches to organizational development. This is the challenge that I see over and over when I work with social entrepreneurs. Their vision is beautiful  and inspiring but the implementation usually suffers from “common” problems such as conflicts between partners, lack of communication, or poor organizational design. One of my current clients, a mission-driven social enterprise, has embraced the challenge of fostering a culture of diversity and participation as a reflection of their commitment to “do well by doing good.” It has not all been an easy path. Here are the three most important lessons that I have harvested so far from my experiences with social enterprises:

1. Involve all stakeholders as co-designers

The most successful, beautiful, and compelling products and services that I have seen created by social enterprises were the result of deliberate co-design efforts that involved multiple stakeholders. It takes time and resources, and it is difficult for entrepreneurs to convince their investors of the value of co-design, especially at the start-up phase. However, giving stakeholders voice and engaging them in the creation of value is the best strategy for fostering a culture of collaboration.  

2. Create a shared vision… and share ownership

Involving multiple stakeholders as co-designers creates a shared vision and a resonant field in which all involved develop a sense of community and pride in the venture. Shared vision creates the conditions for shared responsibility and elicits creative contributions from all involved. However, if the structure of the organization concentrates power and ownership in a few individuals, as in traditional business corporations, the excitement of belonging can wither. If you want the people of your organization to feel belonging and long-term commitment to the success of the enterprise, you have to be willing to think differently about how you share decision making power and actual ownership of the enterprise. Cooperatives structures or profit sharing and stock  options have a place in communicating the commitment to truly co-create the future of the organization.

3. Create the conditions for mutualism or win-win interactions

The diverse species that co-exist in an ecosystem have different interactions:

  • Predation (+/-): One species benefits, one is disadvantaged.
  • Competition (-/-): Each species affected negatively.
  • Commensalism (+/0): One species benefits, one unaffected.
  • Mutualism (+/+): Both species benefit from interaction.

We have heard that new paradigm thinking involves “win-win” strategies. This sounds nice, but can also be dismissed as idealistic. However, when grounded in an understanding of the biological interactions in ecosystems, win-win strategies become smarter strategies. A healthy ecosystem has all of these interactions, but the overall dynamic as a whole is one of cooperative relationships. When fostering diverse organizational cultures, we want to make sure that mutualist interactions are the dominant relationship among the members of the organization. There is a place for competition as in productive conflict and confrontation, for example, when it comes to testing of ideas. But cooperation needs to be rewarded and competition needs to happen in a psychologically safe and nurturing way. Only cooperation creates a sense of community. Too much competition shifts the organizational culture to one of fear and lack of trust. 

A dear friend and colleague, Carlos Mota, likes to quote St. Augustine to communicate the delicate balance that allows for unity in diversity: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”

For me, this translates in agreement in vision, values, and strategy; freedom for creative exploration of the means that will make possible the vision but, above all, commitment to harmonious relationships within and without the organization for the wellbeing of the whole.

As we regain perspective and, with humility, recognize our place in the intricate web of life,  we discover new possibilities in the ways we go about designing and transforming organizations. There is something about human systems that makes them human: our values, intentions, and emotions. Perhaps, love for all our relations—human and biological—is the first step in the journey to innovate living organizations.

Read other posts by Kathia C. Laszlo

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