Organizations as Ecosystems – Part 1: Re-imagining the Constructs

By Sahana Chattopadhyay originally published on This is Part 1 of her blog Re-imagining Organizations as Ecosystems. Part 2 is here.

We are on the cusp of a massive transformation. Humanity is at a fork in the road. And everything depends on the choices we make today. No individual, organization or industry is immune from it. The world, as we knew it, is literally and metaphorically dissolving before our eyes.

The old paradigms are disintegrating faster than we can comprehend. We are on the edge of tremendous opportunity as well as heart-shattering loss. In the face of this chaos, I believe our organizations today have the power, capacity, and reach to wreak havoc or to heal the planet.

Organizations can become a healing force if they choose to be.

Will it be easy? Of course not. Transformation is never easy. It requires boldness, imagination, intention, and the ability to hold space and be the container for such evolution to take place. This requires us to view the organization not through the mechanistic lens but through the lens of a complex, living, and adaptive system that — given the right conditions, nurturing, and stewardship — can transform itself and its ecosystem.

This calls for us to re-imagine and reinvent our organizations to become what we collectively envision — places where individuals come together to express and explore their fullest potential, and bring their deepest gifts in service to a larger Evolutionary Purpose.

Today’s organizations grew out of the need of the Industrial Era, and must have seemed visionary, liberating, and full of potential then. The rise of Newtonian Science, Rationality, the Enlightenment — all celebrated the rise of the logical, intelligent, analytical human.

And our current organization model was another outcome of just such thinking. Out of this concept and design has emerged what we have today — technology, healthcare, education system, the Digital Era.

This narrative/construct came with an inherent need to impose control and order on a seemingly chaotic and random universe, infuse predictability and efficiency to get the desired outcome, and celebrate scale, speed, perfection.

There was no place for the complexity, uncertainty, and the ambiguity of life. Growth, productivity, and profit were of paramount importance. And this propelled humanity to unimagined heights of achievement in all spheres.

However, this infinite growth model in a finite world is no longer working, and the evidence is all around us.

It’s time to replace the metaphor of the organization as a machine with one where the organization is a living system. Frederic Laloux, in his path-breaking book Reinventing Organizations, gives examples of organizations like Morning StarBuurtzorgFAVI, and many more that are on the path of reinventing themselves. I highly recommend reading the book for inspiration, ideas, and guidance.

In this post, I have attempted to highlight some of the constructs that need to shift for organizations to become “thrivable” in the VUCA world. For organizations to become places of heartfelt work done with joy, passion, and love. For organizations to become truly relevant and regenerative.

Shift from economic growth to holistic well-being as a measure of success

I would like to quote the well-known example of Bhutan, the country that measures Gross National Happiness as opposed to GDP. Here are some articles questioning the benefits of GDP and “unlimited growth”.

With the help of the German government and the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan, Scharmer co-founded the Global Wellbeing and Gross National Happiness Lab, which brings together innovative thinkers from both developing and industrialized countries to prototype new ways beyond GDP of measuring well-being and social progress. When an organization is committed to holistic well-being, people, planet and the entire ecosystem is positively impacted. Profit becomes a by-product.

What is required is creativity, capabilities like sensemaking to sense into the emerging future, and an evolutionary purpose that will draw people together.

As far back as 1968, Robert Kennedy had laid bare the dangers of using GDP as a measure of success: GDP… “measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” 

Remembering this is more critical now than ever before as we experience where quantifying and putting a cost to everything has brought us.

Shift from “forced hierarchy” to “natural hierarchy”

Natural hierarchy emerges in an organizational setting when individuals are free to collaborate and contribute as per their capability, experience, and passion. This is not driven from the top but is an organically emergent process within a community of diverse, differently-talented, and passionate individuals. This kind of hierarchy doesn’t operate from positional power or through control.

It’s an ever-evolving process, dynamically shifting and unfolding, including everyone in its emergence. In an inclusive community, people are free to be who they are meant to be in their wholeness and authenticity. In such situations, hierarchy is contextual, need-based, and voluntarily taken up and let go of when the context shifts.

Shift from fear to trust and love

The way organizations operate today forced by the economic system they are embedded in instill fear at various levels — fear of not meeting shareholders’ expectations and quarterly targets, fear of competition and disruption, fear of losing market share and falling stock prices, and such.

Individuals within the organizations are equally driven by fear — of losing their jobs to AI and robots, of not getting that coveted promotion, of the appraisal cycle, of disruptive technology, of the ever-increasing pace of change, of their colleagues, of their supervisors, of the system.

Our ever-growing fear drives us to cling harder to the known and resist the new. Fear triggers our fight, flight, or freeze response making us aggressive, reactive, incapable of empathy, compassion, or curiosity.

It will take courageous, compassionate, and committed organizations and leaders to disrupt this cycle, and design for trust and love. Leadership is not about externally vested and positional authority but one that comes from the heart. At an organizational level, this will mean not committing to limitless growth but to the overarching well-being for all.

Only when the intention of an organization shifts toward creating positive impact can everything else fall in place. The intention stems from and is held by the leaders and pulls everyone in the direction of the evolutionary purpose of the organization.

I will explore some more constructs and paradigms that need to be dismantled for organizations to be regenerative in my next post.

Read Part 2 here.

Sahana is a Coach, Facilitator, Speaker, and Writer with a background in designing workplace learning experiences, and Organization Development.

Catalyst | Community Steward | Scribe to an emerging era… Exploring new ways of Being | Lover of mountains, rivers, forests, & seas.

Her passion is to help individuals, teams, and organizations hold space for emergence, and move towards their fullest potential. Reach her at [email protected] 

Featured image by the SeaWiFS Project, Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE

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