“Thinking systemically also requires several shifts in perception, which lead in turn to different ways to teach and different ways to organize society” –Russell Ackoff
As living beings we each present with a physical body comprised of cells, tissue, organs and organ-systems structurally and functionally organized to support (our) life. The natural order of things is a hierarchy of constituent entities that are themselves living systems. So the issue is not whether everything is reducible to individual entities—the atomistic view—or everything is a whole—the holistic view—but rather that neither view is the absolute view. As Arthur Koestler (The Ghost in The Machine) noted “parts and wholes in a absolute sense do not exist in the domain of life.” What we have are semi-autonomous systems that are each a part of larger higher order systems. Koestler called these ‘whole-parts’ holons—wholes that are parts of other wholes—and the hierarchy they constitute a holarchy.
Dual (I-We) Responsibility
Hence each constituent ‘whole-part’ or holon has a dual responsibility, one to its wholeness and the other to its partness. For the individual person the former means developing one’s potential as a human being and the latter means contributing to and supporting the development of a sustainable society. According to Russell Ackoff “development is more important and beneficial than growth” as it “makes a system better able to do what it was designed or intended to do.”
These responsibilities don’t pose a dilemma since they are complimentary not competing for sustaining viability (of both part and whole). That is to say, since the viability of the whole rests upon the health and wellbeing of its constituent parts, the responsibility of the whole includes ensuring a supportive environment of its parts. Such an environment is one wherein the parts, which are wholes, can realize their full potential as whole systems and as constituent parts of a larger whole.
At the same time, the viability of the constituent part rests upon the health and wellbeing of the whole of which it is a part. That is to say, the part acting self-assertively on its individual wholeness in seeking the fulfillment of its potential mustn’t use means or seek ends that would be detrimental to the viability of the whole. Similarly the whole mustn’t disregard the wholeness of its parts since to diminish or destroy that upon which it depends would be self-destructive. One can’t destroy one’s parts and expect to continue to exist!
Taking a living systems view supports ecological thinking. Consider as example the natural environment (i.e. Nature) is a system upon which we are interconnected and thus greatly depend upon its viability for our viability. If we destroy the environment we destroy ourselves.
The part can’t be a parasite to the whole and the whole can’t impinge upon the health and well being of its parts, because in the end they both die—either action is suicidal.
Rules Are Required
Consider the dualistic and atomistic worldview prominent in industrialized society. According to this orientation a person is an independent self-determining being and as such exists on his/her own. Hence given this perspective it makes sense that each person would and should be free to seek his/her self-interest unencumbered by the interest and will of others. Everyone must be free to purse whatever pleases him/her and to fight or rise up against that which could or would restrict such pursuit, no matter the pursuit. Similarly organizations are independent self-interest pursuing entities—or persons according to the recent US Supreme Court decision affording personhood to corporations—and thus are free to seek the maximization of their desired ends. In such an individualistic society everyone is competing against each other for the satisfaction of his/her particular self-interest. Moreover in a market-oriented society, where more money equals greater leverage, organizations equipped with monetary resources have more powerful and longer reaching fingers of influence to turn circumstances in their favor, rendering circumstances unfavorable to others.
Applying this orientation to all aspects of society has led us to create an intensely competitive zero-sum culture. It is a dog-eat-dog world where the bigger dog is believed more important and thus allowed to dominate. It is survival of the most aggressive, the most ambitious, the most competitive and more importantly those with the most. It is not so much ‘the one with the most at the end is the winner’ it is ‘the one with the most will most often win in the end’! Winning in competitive games is auto-correlated—winners are more likely to be winners next time. Why else would the NFL have a draft process and revenue sharing model that tends to minimize the auto-correlative nature of winning—it keeps the league as a whole viable.
Taking a (living) systems view, action can never be unfettered, it is always rule bound. Even the simplest game has rules to regulate the game in practice. There are even rules of war! The endeavors in life in society—though not a game—are far more complex and intertwined, so of course there must be rules that protect all life. Freedom to act can never be without limits for when it is, the ultimate restriction would be imposed through the demise of the system. For example, when cell growth is unfettered the cell becomes toxic (i.e. a cancer) to the system’s viability eventually causing the system’s death—the ultimate restriction upon action. The growth in size and influence of the financial sector within the economic system and upon the government system respectively illustrates the detrimental impact. Similarly when any individual (person or group) imposes its will on the system, the system will inevitably be destroyed—the executive’s actions at Enron being a case in point. The greater the freedom to act as one pleases the greater the need for responsible action.
That is to say, the guiding principle of one’s action cannot be the right action is whatever action is good for me. Such a limited perspective is ultimately limiting. We don’t exist in an independent either/or world and so to define choice by this system of thought creates chaos and is thus destructive to life itself.
Partnership the Operative Relationship
When viewed through the lens of systems we readily see an interpenetrating interdependence among holons and not merely the dichotomy of dependence versus dominance among parts and the whole. So the issue within the system is not a matter of competing self-interest intended action—it’s all about ‘me’—but of mutual interest focused interaction—‘I’ and ‘We’ are inextricably connected. Parts and whole, the I’s and ‘We’, stand in mutual relation, in partnership—this is by definition a system. Recall Koestler’s assertion, parts and wholes don’t exist as absolutes in the domain of life. Separating and viewing them as if they are independent entities, inevitably leads to self-destruction.
Once each acknowledges the other is worth caring for then each becomes a steward of the other. Hence the unit of survival then becomes clear: it is not what egoic self-interest would dictate—the individual entity—but rather the partnership—the individual plus the collective. Although the partnership responsibility cannot be formally imposed, rather it must be internally acknowledged, the development of the individual through education can facilitate the necessary understanding. Once we transcend egoic self-interest then we will have little difficulty embracing the dual responsibility we all have as partners with each other and the system—the system is the social holons we call the organization, or the community, or the society and of course the larger system of humankind within which these social holons reside and are each a part. As explained in a previous essay partnership implies equal status not subservient status—parts aren’t more important than wholes and wholes aren’t more important than parts, it is not either/or.
A partnership relationship is required for synergy and the emergence of (yet unrealized) capabilities, both individual and collective. That is, the capability of the whole (e.g. organ or organization) is not from the summation of the parts’ (e.g. cell and tissue or individuals and departments) capabilities but from the collaborative action and synergy among the parts and the whole.
To be apathetic to one’s dual responsibilities or to advocate for the removal of rules in pursuit of unfettered action or to act as a parasite on the system is suicidal, especially when successful. In the holarchy of living systems, which includes the social holons of business organizations and society, the imperative of our stewardship can’t be ignored.