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Organisations as Sustainable Systems

Sustainable SystemOne of our most utilised models when working with organisations, leaders, and teams is Margaret Wheatley’s Organisations as Sustainable Systems model. This blog explores the importance of this model in creating effective organisations.

Margaret Wheatley is a prominent and successful management consultant who studies organisational behaviour and theorised the concept that organisations are sustainable systems. The traditional view was that ‘organisations are machines’, suggesting that companies and people could be engineered into efficient solutions. However, Wheatley explained that organisations should be adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient and learn with intelligent attributes, which are found only in living systems. The current issue that companies are facing is that they want organisations to behave as living and sustainable systems, but continue to treat them as machines.

The central component of sustainable systems is the capacity to self-organise, which is a company’s ability to sustain itself and progress to higher forms of complexity and order when required, such as in times of change. A sustainable organisation would have the capability to organise and reorganise itself through adaptive patterns and structures, without any set plan or supervision.

Rational and non-rational-01

Achieving this self-organising ability is achieved through a balance of the rational and non-rational aspects of an organisation, as highlighted by the figure. The rational aspects are derived from effective management; including setting direction and coordinating the business agenda, as well as being concerned with supporting systems and what people do as a part of the organisation. The non-rational aspects require effective leadership, such as creating identify through vision, direction and values, the use of accessible and abundant information and attention to relationships.

It is important for organisations to have equal focus on both the rational and non-rational, as a higher or lower focus will create an imbalance and disrupt its self-organising capability. Imagine an organisation where importance is only placed on the rational aspects; work would get done, but it probably wouldn’t be a very welcoming place to work. On the other hand, an organisation where importance is only placed on the non-rational aspects would feel very welcoming, with great team relationships, but not a lot of work would get done. Having a balance of these components in an organisation, and consequentially a balance in management and leadership, is essential to progress to a sustainable system rather than a machine. A balance of the rational and non-rational combines to form an organisation with effective systems and processes and a healthy culture and working relationships. In essence, the non-rational puts ‘oil on the wheels’ of the rational.

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