Myself with Wilmar and Maria
Last week I spent a very amazing three days in Joinville, a city of around 500,000 people in the south of Brazil. I was there to spend two days teaching Integral Thinking to around 30 or so MBA students at Sustentare Escola de Negócios (Business School), run by my good friend Wilmar who had invited me to lecture there. The complete name of my course was Integral Thinking: Chaos and Complexity in the Business World, and was designed to introduce the students to a more systemic way of thinking and problem solving, utilising insights and models from complexity theory and the natural world.
I still only have conversational level Portuguese, and I was very grateful for the excellent live translations of Prof. Valéria Barreira. She had previously read much about Gaia theory and the systems thinking teachings of Fritjof Capra, and was more than able to provide some amazing and accurate translations over the three days at the college.
I arrived on Thursday and gave an evening lecture which was open to everyone, the lecture having been advertised in the local papers. It can be really hard to introduce people to this topic in the space of just one hour, but I had done a very similar talk at ESPM (a marketing and advertising business school in São Paulo) the week before which had been really well received. After my talk I was joined on stage by Maria and Marcelo Castilho who also lectures at Sustentare, and there was an extremely interesting discussion about business strategy, innovation, co-creation and sustainability, obviously very much touching on the current economic and political climate in Brazil.
Discussing complexity, innovation and strategy with Marcelo and Maria
I’ve been working on this course for many months now, and it has been quite a journey exploring how I can bring the deep insights from chaos and complexity theory into a business context, for people with no background in systems thinking, or indeed the extremely deep phenomenological European philosophies of Goethe, Hegel, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and of course more recently phenomenology as taught by Henri Bortoft, of who I have written about a lot on this blog, and who I have been taught by at Schumacher College.
Also in this course I have attempted to also integrate the teachings I received by Stephan Harding, Philip Franses, Satish Kumar, Tim Kasser, Rob Hopkins, and many other great thinkers and writers who come there to teach. My general approach therefore was as follows.
I split the course into four sections; mental models, systems models, transitional models and business models. I began with an introduction to the word “complexity” and looked at a number of reports on complexity in the business world. You can read more about my thoughts on these in my article “The Cutting Edge of Chaos”. From there we move rapidly into the real meat of the course.
I actually called the first section “The History of Science” and in this section I reviewed the history of science from the perspective of scientific thinking and scientific methodology. Although the word “phenomenology” can perhaps be perceived as either elitist, prentious, or having no practical use in the real world, in fact the great contribution I feel that the great phenomenological philosophers have brought us is clarity regarding scientific methodologies. For me it has been a great discovery to realise that science does not progress in local and rational steps, from one discovery to the next, independently of the scientist, their subjective experience and societal norms and beliefs. What I have come to realise is that most scientific discoveries do not come from the collection and perception of independent facts in an objective world that can be separated from an independent observer of those facts, but are actually new perceptions of meaning.
A Clockwork Universe and Newtonian Thinking
Much of this is taught by Henri Bortoft, who deals with this subject in his book “The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science”. What I did with the students in this module was to take them through many key scientific insights, from medieval trajectories, through Newton’s laws of motion and gravity, the second law of thermo-dynamics, Darwinian Evolution, relativity, quantum physics and finally to chaos and complexity theory.
At this point, at the end of this review, I felt most of the students were left a little bamboozled, despite me telling them in advance that this was not a linear course, and much of this early material would begin to make more sense during subsequent modules. However, I had to emphaise time and again that before we can begin to look at complex systems in the natural world, we first have to be aware of our own mental models of reality, and how these have been heavily influenced by science. My main model for helping students understand this is Jung’s mandala, which has been developed by Stephan Harding as a way of developing a much richer, expansive and holistic way of knowing the world which does not value “thinking” at the expense of the other ways of knowing; sensing, feeling and intuition.
In order to really bring home the point that scientific “discoveries” can be greatly affected by our mental models, as opposed to us really staying in a sensory way of knowing, I use the experimental methodology developed by Goethe, as described in his ‘Theory of Colours”. These experiments can be extremely surprising to students, who discover that Newton’s theory of colour and light can be rapidly exposed as limited by Goethe’s experiments with light, colour and prisms. This is not an easy subject to summarise, but there is an interesting article “The Tao of Colours” you can read if you wish to find out more, as well as reading Bortoft’s book which explains Goethe’s methodology in details.
Teaching Goethe’s Theory of Colours with a little help from Pink Floyd
After a coffee, and a chance for the students to talk between themselves and discover that it was not just them personally who were somewhat bamboozled, I then went on to talk about just a limited number of examples of chaos and complexity in nature, looking at termites, the human heart, slime mould, Gaia theory and the North Atlantic food web. These examples gave me a chance to outline some core concepts such as self-organisation, emergence, order out of chaos, self-regulation and feedback. My previous discussions about models of complexity began to make a bit more sense, and did so even more after we looked at real-world human examples, such as systemic failure in the global banking system, the London riots and Occupy Wall Street.
One student who had been extremely quiet but who had obviously been paying close attention closed the evening with a quite remarkable insight seeing as we had only finished half the course. he said that no matter what the system, ants, the heart, slime mould, the biosphere, or human society, the elements were the same, and that life, creativity and resilience came from the interaction between order and chaos. At last Dee Hock’s model of order and chaos, the one that I had said led to the creation of the VISA credit card system, was beginning to make sense.
Dee Hock’s Chaordic Model
So on Day two it was time to move on to looking at what I call Transitional Models. We had looked at “thinking”, and how an intellectual ability to manipulate abstract words, images, numbers and symbols can often lead to mis-perceptions of our senses, and how in fact new insights can be gained by staying in the sensory world, avoiding the trap of dominating but incorrect mental models. It was now time to look at feelings. I was continually emphasising to the group that I was describing a process, which can take many years, and I was not offering them yet another business theory that they could absorb logically and immediately. For me, when you become systemic in your thinking and knowing, and are able to have a deep encounter with the wholeness of nature through insight, which can not be described rationally, you begin to really the inter-connectivity of all beings, plants, minerals and inorganic material. It is this feeling of connectivity that can then spark the motivation for a change of behaviour. But the danger is that these feelings can be extremely threatening, and the person withdraws to a more materialistic set of values as a defense mechanism, not wanting to know of the deep destruction and threats to life of our current consumerist values and lifestyles.
I took people through a day in their lives, again which I have written about already in my article “A Day in the Life: Our Toxic Lives“, and I could see a deep unsettled feeling in people as I demonstrated just how toxic our lives have become. However, to counteract this, I then took people through the Transition Towns movement, how it began, its principles and methodologies, and how it can be applied in a business context. The Transition Town movement was developed by many people who already come from a systemic way of thinking, with their own deeply embedded connections to nature, and people could begin to see how self-organisation, emergence, decentralisation and also trust and human values could be applied in an extremely positive and practical manner.
Now having looked at mental models, systems models and transitional models, we were ready to examine some of the most innovative and creative businesses, and their unique business organisations. We looked at Gore with their lattice organisation, Kyocera with their amoeba management system, and VISA and their chaordic model of both competition and co-operation. Grounding all that we had discussed in a business context really helped the students to get to grips with the theory, and so when I then asked them to self-organise into small groups for the exercise I had set, it was amazing to hear an explosion of discussion as they began to really examine the complex problems they were facing in their own organisations with a brand-new systemic and holistic or integral way of thinking.
Group Exercise: Developing Integral Solutions to Complex Problems
It was shattered by the end of the course, and at times I felt that I had almost lost the ability to speak English, as I went deep inside of myself to try and draw out the profound insights I was attempting to share. Another student expressed the same as he said he could feel that he understood a key point, but was trying but not succeeding to express himself. This was a major achievement I said, as it meant that he was now operating from an intuitive way of knowing, and intuitions are not something that can be reduced to a rational, logical, reductionist and symbolic way of thinking.
At the very end I said to students that the road map of models was not in fact linear. We need for example new mental models in order to be able to fully understand the insights from complex systems, but it is only when we contemplate complex systems that we are able to transform our mental models. The Transition Towns movement shows that any person in any position of society can work with and benefit from the methodologies used, but when we engage and take part in this form of transition, we begin to be able to feel the systemic models on which it is based.
As the saying goes, you learn by teaching, and it too was a great privilege to have spent the last few days in Joinville with such a receptive, active and enquiring set of students who joined me in our explorations into integral thinking. I really am looking forward to returning to Sustentare next year where I will doing more teaching and lecturing on this subject.