An activity of the Primer Group


A Special Integration Group (SIG) of the
International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS)
originally SGSR, Society for General Systems Research.







By Richard N. Knowles




For the last several hundred years, we've been living in our world seeing it as if it were a machine; if we could just get enough information, if we could just get more powerful ways to look more deeply into matter, we could master and control our environment and all that's in it. Our desire for order is a hope and passion. Yet mastery, control and order seem to be constantly out there somewhere just beyond our grasp. Chaos and turbulence are deplored; we try to avoid these at all costs.
The idea that we're masters of our environment has its roots in the Old Testament, and was further developed by Locke in that man is born good and we become evil as we engage with nature. Galileo and Newton formed the basis for the tremendous progress and development that's possible from science. The Industrial Revolution, building on the new sciences, developed extraordinary technology that's enabled us to put a rover onto Mars. It's also given us the capability to destroy our environment with unprecedented speed.
While the machine metaphor has enabled us to do a lot, it seems to be losing its effectiveness. Our organizations are breaking down. The world seems to be moving much faster, information is flowing through the Internet at the speed of light; chaos and turbulence are everywhere in spite of our efforts to control it.
Another view of the world is emerging which looks at it as a living system. This has opened up as a result of the discoveries in quantum mechanics, chaos and complexity theory , field theory, changing theories in life and evolution, dissapative theory, studies in cognition by Maturana and Varela, and Capra's recent work on the Web of Life.
In the work of Margaret Wheatley, Myron Kellner-Rogers and others in the Berkana Institute, we have been looking at the implications of chaos, complexity, dissipation, field theory and the new learning from Capra's work on how organizations work. We believe that organizations are living systems and have seen the results of the practical application of these ideas in the dramatic improvement the performance of organizations. The writer has written papers on this in the Journal for the Association for Quality and Participation ( June 1996, March 1997) and the Barrett Koehler newsletter "At Work" in January 1997.
.Living systems are self-organizing, dissapative, chaotic systems. In the WEB of Life , Fritjof Capra beautifully explains these and weaves them together into a unified picture. What is it in living systems that moves past the chaos and complexity, and produces a beautiful rose? What are the emergent properties?
Capra believes that the key life processes are pattern, process and structure. For example, in a bacterium, the pattern would be the DNA, and the process would be the life processes that use that pattern. From those processes the structure of the bacterium emerges. These three keys are present in all life.
If we apply these ideas to ourselves or our organizations, we can see that in the patterns we find our identity. In the processes we develop our relationships, our beliefs, our principles and behaviors, becoming more conscious. In the structures we become more fluid, more focused on the present moment; we become alive. These ideas are summarized in the triangle shown here which emphasizes their interconnectedness.

As people with courage, caring, concern and commitment come together with integrity around the work of bringing forth the ideas and patterns of the organization, emergent and fluid design structures come into being. The emergent structures will continue to evolve spontaneously. The design criteria are specified in and the resulting fluid design structures will evolve to respond to the changing environment in appropriate ways.
In working in these areas of chaos, complexity and living systems, I've found that a very useful way to think about things is to use systematics. Tony Blake, a student of John Bennett who developed this subject, points out that systematics is the study of organized complexity. This is a method of understanding which is based on Number. The elements of a system represent the various degrees of wholeness. In looking at systems in this way, we can find focus and clarity in what we're trying to talk about. Systematics begins with the monad ( a one element system) which looks at wholeness. It moves into the dyad that looks at polarity and difference. Next is the triad that brings a third element in to help resolve the dyad. Each time an element is added the picture becomes more concrete. The emphasis is on the connectedness and relationship of all the various elements. The networks of relationships are extremely important.
One of the tools of systematics, which I've found to be very helpful in keeping the whole in mind, is the enneagram. I use it as a process to look at emergence through the interaction of all the systems parts. This is a different way to use it than those who study personality types. I see it a dynamic, alive process.
Each of the nine elements describes what you'd see as you study an organization. The inner triangle that I've described above and the six term inner pattern tend to be invisible to the casual observer, yet it is these internal relationships that brings the system alive. In paying attention to these relationships, using the enneagram to keep the whole in mind, we can function in the arenas of chaos and complexity. I've used it both prospectively in planning as well as retrospectively to look at problems to find where we'd gone off base. A generic enneagram is shown below.










The next model using the enneagram shows how it begins to play out when looking at an individual, organization or community.







Living systems are chaotic systems. Chaotic systems are driven by mild chaos. The enneagram shows that this energy comes into the system through point 2 ( the point of polarity). Living systems are driven as they come into contact with the environment, and decide how to react to it while maintaining their identity ( autopoiesis). Organizations , as living systems,are driven as they come into contact with their environments in the same way. As the chaotic energy flows into and through the organizations, as seen in the living process of the enneagram, emergent and fluid design structures come into being. As organizations engage in the process of self-remembering and self-reflecting entropy leaves the system (social autopoiesis).
In using systematics as a way to look at living systems, we can see the patterns of order that lay under the apparent chaos and messiness. We can see the critical elements from which order will emerge. Being a living system, however, means that we have to be in it, live in it, and go with it; there are no outsiders. While we can't predict what the precise nature of what will emerge, we can be sure that it will be in the pattern of the whole; we will not go out of control and fly to pieces.
Thus it can be seen how chaos can lead to emergence in living systems and in organizations which are living as well.
The sorts of things that we can do in organizations to move towards living systems are:

Valuing diversity and having the principles to hold it.
Interdependent behavior
Strong core values
A strong sense of self
Permeable boundaries
Abundance mentality
Partnership with Nature
Flat, flexible structures
Control comes through our vision, mission, principles, standards and expectations
Being more aware of and connected to the whole
Entropy flows out through the work on our selves
Living in ambiguity
Feed back loops
Systems thinking
Servant leadership


Organizations are living systems that are chaotic and complex. As we engage in the processes of living systems in our organizations, they come to life. Emergent and fluid design structures are manifest which help to increase the sustainability of the organization. Our roles as leaders must shift profoundly.
The old order is crumbling, but we can move to the new one finding that our organizations and the people in them will come to life.

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