Organisations as living systems

fiona picture

Continuing the alternate week pattern of posting blogs picking up themes from the previous weeks’ chapter extracts from the forthcoming third edition of my book “Guide to Organisation Design,” this week’s blog, drawing on Chapter 5 – Continuous Design,  is written by Fiona McLean, an OD expert and member of the group I am working with on the book.  Next week will be an extract from Chapter 6..

What would it mean if we could learn from living systems and apply that learning to organisational life?  How might it be if we were to see an organisation as a ‘body of bodies’ and how might we take the learning from living systems and apply it in particular to the key governance bodies within organisations?  What might it mean for governance roles, membership and, most importantly, the interplay and relationship between governance bodies?

Manoj Pawar talks about lessons we can learn about organisations from the human physiology perspective. He suggests organisations wishing to survive in today’s complex business environments must be able to adapt in the same way that living organisms evolve in response to changes in the environment.  His article considers five processes from human biology and proposes practical ways that may have applications for organisations.

Taking a whole systems design perspective alongside the analogy of an organisation as a living human being, I like to think about anatomy as the structure and psychology as the culture and behaviour.  I see governance as the physiology of an organisation – the flow of information that keeps the organisation continuously evolving and emerging just as the process by which the nervous system alerts the body to move or adjust in some way.

It is nothing new to compare an organisation to a living system.  In chapter two the author refers to organisations as being analogous to a living human being.  The various human systems (circulatory, digestive, organs etc.) of a healthy body work in harmony enabling interaction with their environment and, like organisations, have multiple parts that are interdependent.

In ‘ReOrganizationKarlöf/Helin Lövingsson draw the same comparison around organisational anatomy, psychology and physiology and go a step further to consider the human factors which affect the workings of an organisation but which are difficult to find in a traditional organisation chart.  Organisation Designers are generally agreed upon the limitations of design by organogram (simply put, don’t!) and to an extent traditional governance processes may mirror the hierarchy that the organogram makes visual but they conclude that for an organisation to achieve its best possible results, its physiology (information flow through governance and decision making) must go hand in hand with its anatomy (structure) and psychology (culture and values).

Pawar also talks about the importance of cellular turnover and regeneration in human beings, and I wonder how much organisations are at risk of stagnation if they haven’t developed sufficient capability to understand what is required of them in the future and so have no way of developing their own cellular renewal.  I am fascinated by the idea of organisational homestasis where, in my role as an organisation designer it can feel like we are constantly making adjustments (re-designs) in order to remain exactly the same – the human body is expert at this.  Whilst I am not expert on biology/physiology I understand the importance of homeostasis in humans in maintaining our body temperature, for example.  So what might the implications for organisations be?

Jeremy Miller, a strategist from an organisation called Sticky Branding, says that homeostasis in organisations is only a problem when you want to change and that you ‘have to build the habits and organizational capacity for the next level to get to the next level.’  He also implies that the ability to get to the ‘next level’ may succeed or fail on a single individual entrepreneur, CEO, owner or leader’s individual and personal capability to change – I’m not sure that I agree with this when taken from a whole systems perspective and seeing an organisation as a body of bodies (including governance bodies) as this perspective would surely mean that there is no one single point of failure in such a system?

Where I find I do agree with Jeremy is on the three things that he believes to be important in order to overcome homeostasis:

 Growth strategy: where clear thinking drives results – how do we create the conditions for clear thinking?

Strategy implementation – are we falling into the trap of thinking that strategy is simply building plans around projects and tasks deemed as priorities for growth when we should be building organisational capacity to operate at the next level?

Leadership coaching: described as the ‘best offense’ to overcoming homeostasis – how do we understand our own worldviews as leaders?

Karlof/Helin Lovingsson also draw reference from the work of Gareth Morgan  on important sources of power and his description of the alliances, coalitions and networks that exist and that, in themselves, can create a chance of expanded organisational influence.  I believe that governance processes and bodies designed well create such influence intentionally and deliberately and can create an important condition for continuous design.


As a group, when we first discussed the chapter on Continuous Design Jim Shillady posed a great question – ‘how will we design non-structural aspects of organisation in a way that clarifies how we actually need to function?’  To me that must include the human factor – governed by collective leadership that may be tied not to hierarchy but where it makes sense to have a leader and where it makes sense to have a body of decision makers.

Visualising a flow of information that ran between groups/communities or governance bodies convened as the collective leadership of organisational success at the crucial moments could be a key to designing an important part of organisational life in a non-structural way.

If good governance is about strong alignment to organisational strategy and direction the infinity loop of governance boards (see blog image) may be a good place to start. It is in that configuration of flow that a dynamic feedback from strategy to action/delivery and back in to strategy develops. What that means is getting really clear about how strategic activity hangs together coherently, making stronger connections between strategy, design, delivery and corporate performance

The infinity loop success is predicated on the constant interplay of individuals as part of a community of decision makers. Balancing vertical functional leadership with the right horizontal accountabilities means creating a platform that enables the development of distributed leadership where decision making is more diverse.  Governance community members are individually responsible and collectively accountable for outcomes.  In this way it shifts leadership behaviour to a flow rather than vertical silos of decision making and shifts the power dynamics from ownership to belonging, to seeing your part in a larger social field or whole.

There is a role for such governance communities in ‘signal detection’ where pattern recognition may lead to mitigating the risk of design decisions made without understanding the impact on the wider enterprise – a vital role in the ‘counterforce against the common decay of Enterprise Design.’  I see the role of the organisation designer to sit along side such an effort towards the final step in the sequence – meaning making.  OD Practitioners have well-honed skills of listening well, revealing hidden patterns and bringing new perspectives to life and helping people in organisations to reshape their worldviews and as the author says ‘not just of business, markets and competition – but, their own humanity and their respective places in the world’.


How could you see your organisation as a living system? Where governance bodies and processes are less bound by hierarchy, more inclusive, transparent.  Where decision making and information flows smoothly from strategy to design and back around in a dynamic feedback loop that results in strategy being delivered into action.

What would it take to design your governance bodies and processes to be the strong pair of lungs transferring life giving oxygen into the system for vitality, in order to create the conditions for continuous design?