November 12, 2017

Plasticity in Organisations

This is the second of two Blogs I wrote in early November 2017 in preparation for a talk/workshop in Switzerland. The first Blog explored the topic of Agility in Organisations.  

There is a short article by Maturana and Bunnell called The Biology of Business: Love Expands Intelligence which has been a source of continued inspiration for some time.

In the article, they describe intelligence as being 'something very basic, a particular kind of phenomenon that has to do with the plasticity for participation in changing behaviour and changing relations. It is the plasticity of consensual flow that we refer to when we speak about an intelligent being. Intelligence requires a central nervous system to take place, but it does not take place in the brain, it takes place in behaviour... Rigid behaviour, behaviour that does not flow with evolving circumstances, does not appear intelligent'.

They've introduced some crucial elements that did not seem to have a place in my exploration of Agility. Now we include context as well as others, social interaction (consensual) and flow.

Plasticity of the brain refers to the extraordinary ability of the brain to modify its own structure and function following changes within the body or in the external environment.

I want to take a step away from this and introduce my partner, Louise who works in the publishing world as an editor and writer. She is good at what she does and when I pushed her to describe her skills in terms of an animal, she came up with the following:

She's recently been struggling with one particular project where it became increasingly clear that there was not a good fit between what she was delivering and what those in charge wanted. It seemed they just wanted her to deliver on time without querying anything or putting her mind to improving the product. I suggested that this project was calling for her to be a carthorse rather than a thoroughbred and she went away to think about it. The next day she came back having come up with an interesting array of helpful possibilities.

For me this process Louise has designed fits in with Maturana's concept of Intelligence in that she has come up with a range of conceptual animals that will allow her to change her behaviour according to the context and who she is working with.

Carl Sandburg in his poem Wilderness suggests we can do even better in terms of the range of animals at our disposal: 'I got a menagerie inside my ribs... I am the keeper of the Zoo: I say yes and no...'

Louise soon found out that it is not that easy managing even two animals and that it would take an enormous amount of effort and skill to develop the ability to be a carthorse in both mind and action instead of a thoroughbred in carthorse clothing. While still apprenticing to this intent, her true thoroughbred nature would inevitably come out - especially in times of stress - and the Joy of engaging with the world as her true and authentic self would disappear.

So what's to do if one doesn't have shapeshifting abilities?

For me this challenge involves opening oneself up to practices such as awareness and mindful conscious presence combined with the development of an outer witness or sovereign advisor. The crucial skill to learn is to be able to STOP - especially in pressure times so that one acts from what Wendy Palmer calls Core space instead of Personality space. In her model below she expands into all three of our intelligence centres - head, heart and body. When we are unconscious and comfortably engaged on our treadmill we are likely to be in Personality mode where we just want to feel safe, and in control and be liked. We are likely to react instinctively and immediately in a familiar negative way when one of these aspects is challenged. The process of grounding ourselves in awareness with the central knowing in our gut that we are good enough brings us to our Core mode. We can let go of wanting to be liked and replace this with compassion for our fellow human beings.  Our minds can now be open with curiosity and seek out alternative views because we do not need to be in control.

Personality Core
Head Control Curiosity
Heart Liked Compassion
Gut/Body Safety Good Enough

It's difficult enough for an individual to embrace Plasticity. Is it possible for this to happen in an organisation? The immediate downside comes from the culture of the organisation. Maturana says that when fear, ambition or competition are present they restrict attention, vision and intelligence - and this is how most organisations go about motivating their staff!

There is an advantage - the organisation already contains a whole menagerie. There are people who know how to be thoroughbreds, and others who make great carthorses or eagles or cheetahs or animals that still have to be discovered. That is the advantage of diversity when it is embraced. The organisation needs to value the whole menagerie particularly those that are waiting in the wings.

Plasticity in organisations needs the ability to lead from the future as it emerges. There is no fixed best practice already in place but rather appropriate practice waiting to emerge from a consideration of changing behaviour and relations.

And the organisation needs to embrace disruption and the awkwardness of social interaction. Tim Harford expands on this theme and introduces the need for messiness to encourage good thinking.

Returning to Maturana, intelligence lies in actions rather than words and intelligence is expanded by love where one just has to open a space of love in an organisation and intelligence will appear.

I start getting excited about Plasticity rather than Agility. These concepts are familiar and are the central focus of the leadership work I currently do in organisations.

... until I come across a book called Corporate Plasticity: How to Change, Adapt, and Excel

It starts off promisingly: 'What do The Beatles, Apollo 13, the Roman military, a pack of wolves, and the very best companies in the world all have in common? Answer: Plasticity. They can change, adapt, and excel as the situation requires.. Plasticity also enables great organizations to break down barriers and collaborate in the pursuit of a common objective, and to reconfigure or rewire themselves to face down challenges or reach ever-stronger competitive positions'.

And then it all comes tumbling down:

'Plasticity allows an organization to choose its own destiny, become versatile, and dare more than others. Its success lies in a set of abilities called the Magic 7:

  • Purpose;
  • Focus;
  • Culture;
  • Spirit;
  • Networking;
  • Knowledge;
  • Leadership.

So the authors have created a seductive best practice and of the Magic 7 bullet point abilities and all thoughts of joy and love have disappeared from the discourse.

And we are back on the treadmill. It's comfortable and familiar with a 7 step plan and definitely not messy!

And I understand again why all my programmes contain at least one 90 minute biodanza session where we still the mind and connect with ourselves and each other through heart and body in an affective space that foregrounds Maturana's emphasis on Love.