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​Emerging Insights, 17 August 2020


As you embark on exploring this article, I would like to point your attention behind what is being said. Although, you may find the content interesting, useful and even entertaining, what you are looking for is not found in the words but where the words are pointing. They are pointing you where to look, but not what to see. Its purpose is not to provide you with a methodology but an opportunity to get an appreciation and deeper sense of our self-organising nature. Therefore, read it, as best as you can, with nothing on your mind and explore what I am about to say for yourself!

The world got a little crazier when Covid-19 arrived on our doorsteps. Apart from the personal hardship on individuals and communities, it no doubt has caused havoc for many organisations, big and small, and with many ill prepared. Some have managed to ‘pivot’ their operation to adjust to the changed environment. Some with great success, some struggling to stay afloat and some who have or will go out of business.

“The world has changed Mrs Jones. If we play by old rules, we lose new battles!”
Quote from the Alex Rider TV Series, Prime Video

Furthermore, in an ever more complex and uncertain playing field, Covid has just intensified this uncertainty a notch. It has exposed our flaws and ability to respond and adapt to the murkiness and unpredictability we are finding ourselves in. Many of our organisational designs, our thought processes and simply the way of being in the world are, by and large still running on linear, mechanical and hierarchical thinking underpinned by the ‘cause and effect’ Newtonian paradigm. Perhaps this has served us well in bygone eras but as the quote above says … “If we play by old rules, we lose new battles”!

So, what is wrong with this paradigm?

“Paradigms are useful for making sense of the world … but not to be confused as absolute truth!”
Mike Schwarzer

Dee Hock, the founder and first CEO of VISA in is his book ‘One From Many: VISA and the Rise of Chaordic Organization’, recognised that the human race’s hunger for command and control and its lack of ability to process the volume, speed and complexity of information that we have to deal with to make wise decisions put us on a collision course with our very existence let alone sustaining our businesses and our livelihoods.

As Hock points out, in bygone centuries, the world moved much slower. The speed and volume of data and information (lower cognitive forms) that societies and their powers that we were exposed to was significantly less than today. This allowed them time to digest and process that data and information. Gradually turning it into knowledge, then into understanding of that knowledge as it relates to other knowledge and ultimately gaining deeper insight or wisdom about that understanding (higher cognitive forms). In other words, they had a good understanding of what they knew, as they had the time to get this understanding.

As the following description shows, the fundamental characteristics of the opposite ends of the spectrum are very different:

    • Data – separable, objective, linear, mechanistic, & abundant
    • Wisdom – holistic, subjective, spiritual, conceptual, creative & scarce

With the immense volume of data and information that we are facing today and without the luxury of time to gradually arrive at the levels of understanding and wisdom to make those wise decisions, it is increasingly challenging to develop a deeper and embodied understanding of what we know. If decision making is mainly reliant on the lower cognitive forms, then our capacity to make well informed decisions is in trouble. Furthermore, in a mechanically led system, important decision making is left to a few, generally the ones at the top of the food chain. However, in a world that changes quicker than the speed of light, by the time data and information has been processed, decisions made and instructions to act filtered to the frontlines, that world has already moved on.

With the advent of 5G and the evolution of technologies that will come with it, running the world, communities and organisations on an outdated paradigm looks rather daunting.

Paradigms are useful to make sense of the world but should not be confused as absolute truth. When we accept them as such, we can get blindsided and tunnel visioned. It is best to keep paradigms in perspective by asking for their usefulness, relevance and ecology. How are they serving us? How are they serving the community? How are they serving the environment! And for that matter, how are they not serving?

Focus on the nature of things!

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” Bruce Lee

Apart from drawing on our deeper innate intelligence, one of the things that excited me about Dee Hock’s work in establishing the VISA organisation was the questions he asked. When looking at institutions, what they provided and how they operated, as well as how life worked in general, he focused on the nature of things rather than the anatomy of things? For example, instead of asking what is the structure of money he asked what is nature of money? At the time, the structure of money was still very much physical i.e. coins, paper notes and cheques. By asking, what is the function of money, the emerging answer was ‘the nature of money is the exchange of value’. Anticipating the evolution of technology, he recognised that the structure of money would shift towards an electronic or digital form. Which greatly affected the way VISA did business.

When we pay attention to the nature of things, ideally with nothing on our minds, rather than the anatomy of things, we are less likely to have our thinking trapped in the solidification of the structure. Instead we enjoy a greater awareness of the energy, flow and interconnections of the system and its underlying function. Structures tend to be more rigid, and they certainly have their place in the packing order. The way I see human created structures, they are built on and are manifestations of the nature of our thinking. A state of flow by ‘nature’ is fluid and it has movement. Being in a fluid and moving state, gives us greater flexibility to respond and adapt to our world, change direction if required or move with the tides.

This relates well to Bruce Lee’s quote … “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water”. When we empty our mind, we drop into a space before thought has been conditioned and shaped yet. This space is formless and has no agenda. When our thinking is shaped from this formless space, we tend to see the world from a deeper integrity and ecology and move through it with greater fluidity, like the flow of water.

Being in the awareness of ‘the nature of things’ stimulates our sense making, engages critical thinking and arouses our creativity. As a result, we ask different questions, and we engage with ourselves, our community and our world with greater curiosity, aliveness and connectedness. This allows us to enrich the depth of understanding of what we know and to tap into a deeper wisdom where we can see our world with greater clarity and connection.

Wisdom is real time, here and now!

“We cannot see what we cannot see, until we see it!” Mike Schwarzer

Wisdom is not necessarily something that we acquire over a long period of time. Deeper wisdom is ever present and in real time. Although, it is often obscured by a busy mind and overthinking, even more so in times of crisis. Answers to questions and solutions to problems often stare right in our faces, seeing them is another matter. Those answers and solutions, via insights, fresh thought or new ideas, are more likely to emerge when our minds are quiet.

A clouded and busy mind can overreact when under pressure or in distress. It can rush and try to force an answer or solution that is ill-informed. A quiet mind draws on the understanding that behind the clouds there is a space of clarity and deeper understanding from which insights emerge. And that is where it points its attention.

What would we see … if we walked through life with an empty mind, seeking without seeking and orientating our attention by the following questions:

    • How does life and nature work?
    • How are things connected?

What profound insights and understandings would emerge …?

The key to wise decision making!

Dee Hock, when making decisions, asked four questions – What was? What is? What could be? and lastly, what ought to be (what is the right thing to do)? This last question is the key to deeper insight and wisdom, it is the key to wise decision making!

Why is that?

In an earlier paragraph, I mentioned that Hock, who built VISA based on living adaptive systems principles, was drawing on our deeper innate intelligence. This intelligence is available to all of us and where we find this deeper wisdom. It is the intelligence and energy behind life that connects all things living, our planet and our biosphere. It is the source of deeper integrity and ecology.  Hence, important and wise decisions are derived not at an intellectual (thought / agenda driven) but at a spiritual (insight / higher level consciousness) level.

When our sense making and decision making is grounded in and informed by deeper understanding and the presence of wisdom, it shows up in our behaviours and our actions. We tend to make decisions that are expressed in actions that ecologically seem ‘the right thing to do’! Decisions that serve the health and wellbeing of our fellow human beings, all other things living and our environment.

Self-organising nature of living systems!

“The universe, nature and everything alive within it is an interconnected living system. Yet the human race is trying to out-think it, work outside of the system and disturb its ecology” Mike Schwarzer

The state that the world of today finds itself in, with its unpredictability, its uncertainty, its inherent complexity presents complex challenges that are increasingly difficult to solve with command and control mindsets and methods. Now might just be a good opportunity to take a bolder approach and explore the self-organising nature of living adaptive systems to run our businesses.

In the article …

… the author highlights how organisations that have adapted a less hierarchical structure seem to fare better than organisations that haven’t. Organisations that are self-organised, tend to rely on their employees’ initiative, entrusting them and nurturing their autonomy and responsibility in their quest to navigate the treacherous waters and the complexity of our times. This means decision making is spread across the organisation and insights are drawn from the wider or collective wisdom of the organisation.

“Living ‘adaptive’ systems are open systems that interact with and exchange energy with their environment. They organise and reproduce themselves around identity. They are willing to learn and adapt and are capable of self-organising into new order rather than succumbing to disorder. This creates newness and diversity.” (source: Dee Hock, One From Many: VISA and the Rise of Chaordic Organization)

Furthermore, Margaret Wheatly in her book ‘Leadership & the New Science wrote, ”An open system has the capacity to respond to change and disorder by reorganising itself at a higher level of organisation. Disorder becomes a critical player, an ally that can provoke a system to self-organise into new forms of being”.

As living beings, we are a living system within a larger living system. Hence, we are built for self-organisation, it is part of our DNA. However, centuries of mechanical conditioning, has alienated us from our inherent self-organising capacity. As it forced us to organise ourselves around the dynamics of hierarchical thinking and the powers of those hierarchies. Self-regulation, independent thinking, decision-making and autonomy is largely discouraged in a hierarchical system. These are left to the keepers of the information and authority higher up in organisations.

The dynamic of this kind of a system is rather static in movement, has little flexibility to adapt to changes in the environment and doesn’t fully appreciate the wisdom within its workforce by the nature of its structure. On the other hand, communities and organisations that are built on self-organisation, are not organised around a power structure but around a shared identity; a compelling vision, purpose and values; and core principles that act as operating guidelines, all generated from within the community. This enables strong interrelationships between community members and with their outside environment.

Self-regulation, independent thinking, decision-making and autonomy is encouraged and nurtured in a self-organised system. Although there might still be leaders who maintain a level of overview, community members across the board are accountable to the elements listed above and to each other, rather than to a figure of authority. The leaders’ role as well as everyone else’s is to hold the space, to support and to enable each other and all parts to achieve their common goals. The dynamic in this kind of a system is fluid in movement and one that can easily adapt to emerging changes. It operates as a community that draws on the collective wisdom of its members and that relies on its distributed decision-making abilities within the parameters of the organisational principles.

Creating the conditions that enable self-organisation!

“No problem can be solved from the same level consciousness that created them!” Albert Einstein

Shifting from a hierarchical to a self-organising system is not without its challenges. It requires an empty yet curious mind, to be like water. A willingness to surrender the need for control, to unlearn the old and learn the new, to suspend judgement and explore the unknown from beyond conventional thought. Sometimes our intellectual mind will get in the way, resisting and confusing us with old habituated thinking. When it shows up, recognise and acknowledge it, and pause it!

‘Be the plane, not the pilot!’ metaphor

Conventional thinking lets us believe, that in life, we are the pilots flying the plane, we are in control of our destiny. But are we really? Having said that, sometimes being the pilot can work for us. But how often do we end up in places and spaces that we didn’t want to be in. Or the journey is greatly interfering with the integrity and health of our living space, as we can see in the events unfolding across the world. What if we got it wrong? The scholars keep telling us that living systems cannot be controlled, they can only be influenced. What if we actually were the plane and all we needed to do is to let go and entrust in the piloting skills of the intelligence, energy and integrity behind the wider living system that we are a product of to guide us to greener pastures?

With that in mind, attempting to shift to self-organisation from a mechanical mindset can be fruitless and self-defeating as by habit, it seeks to control and rationalise its thinking and maintain a level of certainty by protecting the feeling of familiarity of the status quo.

Shifting to self-organisation is more of an exploration into the unknown than a walk in a familiar territory. What we want to do is to create the conditions where self-organisation can emerge. Where we can step beyond the boundaries of intellectual thinking and experience the world with the fresh eyes of higher-level consciousness.

What I have learned in working with leadership groups, is that people are growing and gaining insights at their own pace and in their own time. The mechanical mind can get frustrated with that. The journey is not a competition and to see who is getting there first! This is about community collaboratively learning and discovering with and for each other. And holding the space for each other, where we can be present, where we can connect and where we can see the world through our deeper nature. The magic is in the collective intelligence of the community and the insights that emerge from within it that will pave the way for a world in trouble to become a better place!

“The universe is full of wonderful answers patiently waiting for us” Dee Hock

It begins with a conversation and deep listening with nothing on our minds. Listening not so much for the words and ideas that are shared, but for where they are pointing. That is where we will find the clarity and insight that we are looking for!

Lead the way and hold the space … with love, with patience, with humility, with kindness and with compassion … where others can just be!

I trust that what you have been reading has intrigued you and aroused your curiosity!  To further explore how you can draw on our self-organising nature or simply reach out to start a conversation contact Mike at mi**@mi***********.com or visit www.mikeschwarzer.com.

I look forward to serving you with my next reflection!

to your highest learning and growth




About Mike Schwarzer

Mike is a Transformation Professional and Learning Leader who is passionate about helping leaders and organisations to solve the problems that they have not been able to solve elsewhere.

He works with the underlying mental, behavioural and deeper innate dynamics that drive people’s and organisations’ thinking and actions. He creates and holds the space where they learn how to tap into their inner and outer capabilities in transformational ways and lift their perceptual abilities to see their world, its problems and emerging solutions with fresh eyes.

At the organisational level, Mike’s approach challenges the status quo and hierarchical thinking. He takes you into the world of living ‘open & adaptive’ systems and their self-organising nature. From there you will be able to create a workplace culture that naturally draws from the collective wisdom of all its people and that is highly adaptable to the changing winds of a complex world.

For more information about Mike visit www.mikeschwarzer.com.