Organisational development as the art of living

“The greatest danger in times of upheaval is not the upheaval itself, it is acting according to yesterday’s logic.” (Peter Drucker)

Organisations are living systems

Not everyone has to agree with this, but for me it has become an important insight. To understand the point of my article, I will briefly explain my starting point: One of the first important decisions I made was to revise my image of organisations. I had experienced my employer of many years as a more or less well-oiled machine. But this image finally crumbled when this organisation was compelled to restructure in order to survive in a competitive environment.

I found the approach in social systems theory, which views organisations as living organisms or living systems helpful in understanding what I had experienced. With this mindset, I now think and act as a systemic organisational consultant. So far so good. But when “agility” spilled over from software development into other organisational sub-areas and I became aware that it is, at its core, an elementary concept of the living, I started thinking about the consequences of viewing an organisation as a living system.

…and what are the consequences?

First, I no longer consider organisational development (OD) as a theoretical organisational concept. Rather, I consider OD as a system characteristic, as a living process of the organisation. It is the result of communicative behaviour and, in particular, the decisions of its actors. It takes place whether the actors are aware of it or not, whether it suits them or not. Even if one does nothing, an organisation develops. This may or may not be wise.

Secondly, organisations are sense-producing systems for their relevant environment. Fulfilment of meaning is externally a crucial prerequisite for maintaining the viability of a company that competes by fulfilling customer needs and internally a prerequisite for goal-oriented, motivated and effective cooperation.

Thirdly, life implies change, transformation – shaping and adapting. This requires the ability to distinguish between knowing and not knowing. Thus, learning and unlearning becomes an organisational core competence.

Fourth, the image of a living organisation offers a view of organisational development that can be understood, observed and described as a life cycle. Interventions should take these characteristics of a life cycle into account. In this respect, as well as in their phases of growth and ageing, start-ups differ greatly in their characteristics from those of corporations and also in their phases of growth and ageing.

Fifth, I thus consider each organisation, each company as a unique and singular individual that operates according to its self-referential logic. In particular, it is the way the different actors interact and their mutual expectations that shape a specific culture.

Last but not least, the relationship of people to an organisation plays a role worth considering: the system functions at the level of structures and roles. In its life process, the system depends on the role bearers – i.e. the employees – being interchangeable. Otherwise, the organisation would cease to exist when its employees leave.

What is life like in a living system?

These consequences shape my relationship as an employee to an organisation. I am aware of the tension between following the norms and rules of the organisation and acting according to my personal values and convictions. How do I find the right balance? For me, agility is a key word here, in the sense that it is about the reference to topicality and a critical distance to this topicality – reflection and daily learning! And via the contrast of organisational norms and my personal values, morals and ethics come into play. I would not be able to reconcile total submission to organisational norms with my ethical principles. And with equal determination, I cannot expect I will always be able to act according to my personal values there.

Here the sense, the vision of the organisation becomes the Pole Star for the orientation and justification of my actions. From this I also derive the right, beyond my role and out of shared responsibility for the viability of the organisation, to express my observations and contribute ideas for improvement and further development. This also gives my work meaning. This oscillating play between organisational demands (moral behaviour) and my self-assertion (ethical attitude) is for me the art of living. The art of living a meaningful life even in organisations.

Original text: PUE
English translation: BCO

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