Roots of Aliveness: Leading as a Living Process

by Aerin Dunford December 6, 2007

by Michael Jones, 2007

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whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
dangle

And the dirt

Just to make clear
Where they come from

—Charles Olsen, “These Days”

It has often been said that our span of awareness is a mile wide and an inch deep. The quality of our inner life is frequently overlooked in our efforts to cope with the daily demands and expectations of our outer life. One enabling metaphor that helps us look at this is the ecology of a tree. The outer life is symbolized by the leaves and branches; they correspond to a life of reactivity and busyness—of action plans, performance goals, desired outcomes and results. Sometimes we direct our attention down a little, to the trunk and lower limbs. Here we look at structures, strategies and processes. Where we spend the least of our time is the ground underneath. Yet it is the roots and the soil that give the tree resilience and the strength to grow and weather sudden changes year after year.

The shift from focusing on the trunk and the branches to the ground beneath corresponds to a shift of awareness from a factory-production mindset to a more adaptive-artful one. Giving our attention to the ground beneath an organization or a community involves an artful process of creating form out of ambiguous and variable circumstances. This includes the very precise and complex interaction among many subtle variables including energy and space, tone and atmosphere, rhythm and time. Our language shifts from action and meaning to story, metaphor, felt experience and the underlying stillness that holds it all.

Root systems, like artists, learn to create in the moment, to search for the soil conditions that feel most fertile and alive, to inquire, to sense and absorb, to follow their attractions, to invent and change course in the moment and to feel their way. In other words, in their search for connective and fertile ground, roots travel a road less traveled, just as we do as we seek to find our way.

Yet we are still influenced by an industrial-age mindset that impedes our ability to adapt creatively in a time of complexity and sudden change. We still tend to rely not on our own deep intuition but on external authority, preconceived actions and mechanisms for scheduling and control. Management theorists Henry Mintzberg and Alexandra McHugh write:

Strategies (and this may apply for life as well as leadership and organizational strategies) grow like weeds in a garden; they are not cultivated like tomatoes in a hothouse… Sometimes it is more important to let patterns emerge than to foresee an artificial consistency… Sometimes an individual actor … creates his or her own pattern. …Other times, the external environment imposes a pattern. In some cases many different actors converge around a theme, perhaps gradually, perhaps spontaneously. …To manage in this context is to create a climate within which a wide variety of strategies can grow.

What can we do to create the ground for roots systems that are resilient and life affirming?

The Irresistible Future of Organizing

by Aerin Dunford August 1, 1996

by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, 1996

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Why do so many people in organizations feel discouraged and fearful about the future? Why does despair only increase as the fads fly by, shorter in duration, more costly in each attempt to improve? Why have the best efforts to create significant and enduring organizational change resulted in so many failures? We, and our organizations, exist in a world of constant evolutionary activity. Why has change become so unnatural in human organizations?

We believe that the accumulating failures at organizational change can be traced to a fundamental but mistaken assumption that organizations are machines. Organizations-as-machines is a 17th century notion, from a time when scientists began to describe the universe as a great clock. Our modern belief in prediction and control originated in these clockwork images. Cause and effect were simple relationships; everything could be known; organizations and people could be engineered into efficient solutions. Three hundred years later, we still search for “tools and techniques” and “change levers”; we attempt to “drive” change through our organizations; we want to “build” solutions and “reengineer” for peak efficiencies.

But why would we want an organization to behave like a machine? Machines have no intelligence; they follow the instructions given to them. They only work in the specific conditions predicted by their engineers. Changes in their environment wreak havoc because they have no capacity to adapt.

These days, a different ideal for organizations is surfacing. We want organizations to be adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning, intelligent–attributes found only in living systems. The tension of our times is that we want our organizations to behave as living systems, but we only know how to treat them as machines.

It is time to change the way we think about organizations. Organizations are living systems. All living systems have the capacity to self-organize, to sustain themselves and move toward greater complexity and order as needed. They can respond intelligently to the need for change. They organize (and then reorganize) themselves into adaptive patterns and structures without any externally imposed plan or direction.

Self-organizing systems have what all leaders crave: the capacity to respond continuously to change. In these systems, change is the organizing force, not a problematic intrusion. Structures and solutions are temporary. Resources and people come together to create new initiatives, to respond to new regulations, to shift the organization’s processes. Leaders emerge from the needs of the moment. There are far fewer levels of management. Experimentation is the norm. Local solutions predominate but are kept local, not elevated to models for the whole organization. Involvement and participation constantly deepen. These organizations are experts at the process of change. They understand their organization as a process of continuous organizing.