Designing healing organisations


‘We are on the cusp of a massive transformation. …. We are on the edge of tremendous opportunity as well as heart-shattering loss. In the face of this chaos, I believe our organizations today have the power, capacity, and reach to wreak havoc or to heal the planet. Organizations can become a healing force if they choose to be.’

This is part of the opening para to a blog written by Sahana Chattopadhyay that I mentioned in a tweet recently.  Usually, I don’t dwell on the tweet items for long.  They are recorded if I need to refer to them again (tweets make a useful library equivalent), but this one I found myself pondering.

I’ve been wondering what she means by organisations becoming ‘a force for healing’.  Reading on, she seems to mean that they could heal society’s suffering as well as organisational suffering.  And before healing comes acknowledgement of suffering – which could be a stretch.  Recognising the suffering of employees can be problematic, let alone society as a whole.  (Some UK figures on work related stress show this is increasing).

So, I mulled over the question I posed in my tweet – ‘Is there a will to design organisations as a force for healing?’ from three perspectives:

The Project Manager Perspective:  Chattopadhyay discusses six ‘constructs that need to shift for organizations to become thrivable  in the VUCA world. For organizations to become places of heartfelt work done with joy, passion, and love. For organizations to become truly relevant and regenerative’.   The six are:

  • Shift from economic growth to holistic well-being as a measure of success
  • Shift from “forced hierarchy” to “natural hierarchy”
  • Shift from fear to trust and love
  • Shift from optimization to human transformation
  • Shift from [a mechanistic view] to an Ecosystem View
  • Shift from “action orientation” to “being orientation”

My project manager-self notices a ‘from’ state to a ‘to be’ state, implying a detailed transition plan with interdependencies mapped, benefits realisation statements and risks logs.  But at what level are we talking about here?  I think at a whole organisation.  But then I ask to what timescale do we envisage this happening?  How many workstreams will we need?  What will be the cost in time, human endeavour and other resources?  I don’t see this as being a viable, deliverable project.

The organisation development perspective:In 2009 Margaret Wheatley wroteWe continue to be confronted by the complexities of our interconnected fates, resisting solutions. Our hearts continue to be challenged by the terrible things that humans should not be doing to other humans. Our Western worldview of material ease and endless progress has been shaken. Economic failures have worsened life not only for ourselves but everywhere in the world, among those who knew abundance and those who knew only poverty.’

For Wheatley healing is about achieving ‘a world where more people would be free from suffering—the physical suffering of poverty, disease, and loss, and the emotional suffering of ignorance, mis-perception, and invisibility.’

I wonder whether things have improved at all in the ten years since she wrote that?  It’s hard to give a conclusive picture – take poverty, for example, in the UK ‘The Trussell Trust’s food bank network provided 658,048 emergency supplies to people in crisis between April and September 2018, a 13% increase on the same period in 2017.’  But the World Bank reports ‘The percentage of people living in extreme poverty globally fell to a new low of 10 percent in 2015 — the latest number available — down from 11 percent in 2013, reflecting steady but slowing progress.’

If we agree with Wheatley that the world is suffering then do we agree it is incumbent on organisations to be part of a ‘healing movement’, and what would that mean in practice?  Wheatley herself suggests that ‘great healing is available when we listen to each other. … Listening is such a simple act. …  We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. If we can do that, we create moments in which real healing is available’.

There are examples of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that have success in helping societies heal via listening to testimonies of people.  I have not seen any similar organisational examples but it could be an idea worth exploring?

The organisation design perspective:  Raj Sisodia (FW Olin Distinguished Professor of Global Business Babson College Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus Conscious Capitalism Inc.)  writes and talks about ‘The Healing Organisation’.  In a TEDX talk he provocatively says ‘if we do not consciously choose to be part of the healing, we are probably inadvertently part of the hurting’.  I’d be surprised if organisation designers wanted to be known for designing ‘hurting’ organisations but what does Sisodia offer in terms of designing healing ones?  Not much in terms of specifics we could design to.  He offers examples of organisations he considers either ‘healing’ or ‘conscious capitalists’ but I couldn’t quite workout which.  Nevertheless, they may serve as case studies to discuss (they’re all American) and include Pay ActiveAppletree, and Ram Construction.

Differently, the authors of a chapter in a book Virtuous Organisations, define organisational healing as ‘the actual work of repairing and mending the collective social fabric of an organization after experiencing a threat or shock to its system’.  In their thinking, it’s not the ongoing design process taking an organisation from suffering to healthy.  Their work ‘uncovers four themes of organizational healing that reflect an organization’s capacity for virtuousness: reinforcing the priority of the individual, fostering high quality connections, strengthening a family culture, and initiating ceremonies and rituals.’ All of these four are designable, and worth considering in if we’re thinking about healing organisations after sudden shock.

Another avenue to pursue could be around self-healing of ecosystems – it’s perhaps too futuristic to imagine that organisations could ‘build tools and platforms that can automatically monitor their … environments and make intelligent real-time operational decisions to remedy the problems they identify’.  Netflix, however, claims to have done this for its production environment.  (I deleted the word ‘production’ in the quote above to give a better flavour of a possible future).

After all this musing I’m left not much the wiser about designing healing organisations.  It seems a ‘good idea’ but is it ‘deliverable’.  Perhaps that doesn’t matter, we should just aim to design organisations that don’t foster suffering.  I enjoyed Margaret Wheatley’s story ‘Years ago, the Dalai Lama counseled a group of my colleagues who were depressed about the state of the world to be patient. “Do not despair,” he said. “Your work will bear fruit in 700 years or so.”

What’s your view of healing organisations?  Can we design them?  Let me know.

Image:  Tibetan Healing Mandala

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