Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part 3


Credit: Simon Robinson

In this series we began by looking at the point of intersection between Design Thinking and Complexity:

Where Design Thinking and Complexity Collide

We then started to unpack Design Thinking in the next article by reminding ourselves about what analysis and synthesis are. I wanted to do this in order to arrive at an understanding of John Boyd’s decision making framework which has the following elements: observe, orient, decide, and act.

Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part One

It was only in the third article in this series that I started to look at this phrase “trying to get to the milk by way of the cheese”.

Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part Two

The reason for this article with extended quotes from Henri Bortoft was to highlight the fact that when I read articles about Design Thinking or synthesis, it often feels that there is something missing, and this missing ingredient is something quite magical. It is the dynamic way of comprehending wholeness. Note that here I am being very deliberate in not using a term such as “a whole” or “whole system”.

What we have here is a paradigm in the Kuhnian sense of the word (although if I were to be pedantic this itself is problematic as Kuhn had a number of ways of describing “paradigm” in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – but let’s not worry about right now).

Where we have now arrived is a rather bold statement that there is something beyond analysis and beyond synthesis, and this Maria and I have termed holonomics.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 09.24.28

Credit: Simon Robinson

In this diagram above, all three words are on a circle, and this is to highlight that there is no one single way of approaching a problem that is above the others. We need to be able to utlise all three ways of problem solving and comprehending reality.

In our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter we describe this movement into the encountering of wholeness using this following schematic:

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 09.39.52

Credit: Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson

An example of the power of the combination of all three ways of analysing is in the article Floral Quartets, published in Nature (Vol 409, 2001). This article proposes that modern science only in the last couple of decades is beginning to establish the scientific validation of Goethe’s contention more than two hundred years previously that “the different parts of a plant result from ‘metamorphosis’ (meaning transformation) of a basic organ, the ‘ideal leaf ’”.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 09.51.06

Credit: Günter Theißen and Heinz Saedler

When we stay just within synthesis, we miss the essential qualities of life, its livingness. The world we experience is not one of abstract models, it is our lifeworld, and when we even talk about mental models, we instantly introduce into our conversation something that is not a part of our daily experience, our life world.

But more importantly, what this example shows is the role of intuition in the scientific process. Through an extremely elevated and accomplished approach to observation, Goethe was able to achieve an intuitive insight into the living process in plants. This intuitive insight then developed further through analysis once the technology had caught up. But technology at this moment in time has no intuitive capability, technology is not yet aware of the livingness of life. Big data does not yet mean big intuition or big being.

If we take these concepts into business and our working lives, whatever vocation or employment we may find ourselves in, the impact is powerful. However, if you look in our diagram above, there is a dotted line representing the threshold of liminality. It takes time and concerted effort to shift into the dynamic way of encountering wholeness, and it is not something that is necessarily maintained continually. We shift in and out of these modes continually – the trick is to develop a degree of mindfulness where we are able to recognise both the quality of thinking and conscious appropriate to the problem and situation we are dealing with.

So what exactly do we mean by trying to get to the milk by way of the cheese? It refers to a way of understanding problems through classification, where we take an intellectual approach to discovery what is common across many different things. Maybe we are looking at many varieties of a plant, and we are trying to find what common characteristic we can use to group them.

When we abstract out the unity from a diverse range of phenomena, we have, mentally speaking, killed the dynamic aspects of the phenomena. We are downstream and we are in a mode of thinking which Henri Bortoft referred to as “finished product” thinking. In this mode of thinking, we can not reach the milk, the dynamic wholeness, since we are only able to analyse the finished product, the cheese, which is now abstract and dead.

If you are wondering about the photo at the top, it signifies that the whole has now become an active absence. It is not something we can see, taste, touch, smell or hear, and neither is it something we can model. We can only encounter it as an active absence in the way in which it comes to presence through the parts, parts which are only parts due to their belonging to the whole.

If we now make this philosophical exploration more applied, we can ask the question “to what extent are organisations living systems?” This is really a question for another article, so I will just start to explore it here.

In conversation with brand strategist and design consultant James Souttar about this question, he made the following observations:

One way of looking at the organisation is as something that has both mechanical aspects and organic aspects. In terms of its design (and a great deal of the thinking that goes on in relation to it), it’s a machine. But it’s a machine which depends on people, and people who are brought together begin to form communities, which are organic entities.

At the same time, the two aspects can be seen to be in constant tension – they are true poles, fundamentally irreconcilable in each others’ terms. So management thinking repeatedly violates the communities that begin to emerge – people are treated as replaceable components, rather than as necessary parts of a true whole (Heidegger’s ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ beautifully illustrates this kind of thinking, expressed them through the image of ‘enframing’ and ‘standing reserve’).

However managers are also human beings, and employees are also influenced by mechanical thinking, so it’s not a ‘them and us’ situation, but rather a group of human beings struggling with their own internal contradictions. (The image of the ‘composite king’ made of a poorly mixed collection of metals, from Goethe’s ‘Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily’, comes to mind – “But in the founding, these materials did not seem to have combined together fully; gold and silver veins ran irregularly through a brazen mass, and gave the figure an unpleasant aspect.”)

While some authors may consider organisations to be living, by developing a higher level of consciousness to comprehend the dynamic conception of wholeness, we have at our disposal a way of seeing with which we can develop a more intuitive conception of organisations. We can ask ourselves questions such as “if we belong things together, do we still just have an artificial mechanism unlike organic systems which have evolved over eons and where the parts belong together into authentic wholes?”

I would like to finish this series by highlighting the fact that the dynamic conception of wholeness has been with us since Plato’s time, and yet often it has remained disguised and not recognised since the form in which it appears has been in many different contexts.

The dynamic conception of wholeness was also applied to the study of meaning in texts and our understanding of being (as James referred to). Gadamer extended hermeneutics to include art, especially performance art, and in Truth and Method one of the most powerful examples he discusses is the periodic festival.

While there is one single festival, the festival “only exists in being celebrated”. This is the question of being. However, there is a historical or time dimension to the festival, in that each celebration is not the same as the last:

The festival that comes around is neither another festival nor a mere remembrance of the one that was originally celebrated.

The wholeness of the festival is found in its unity and identity, but this unity and wholeness is dynamic since “however much it is transformed and distorted in being presented, it still remains itself”. Here is the milk. We have gone upstream and are now encountering the whole through the parts, and discovering the dynamic conception of wholeness.

I know that this can all seem a little philosophical, but what we are referring to is a way of seeing which retains wholeness while still being able to analyse and understand the parts.

In an organisational context, we can use Gadamer’s example of the periodic festival, and ask is there an analogue in business? Businesses more often than not have Christmas parties, and one pience of research which I would love to carry out would be to analyse natural and not posed photographs of different office Christmas parties. What would you see if you looked at photos of your own office parties? Many rich interactions between people from different departments, sections, teams, and would senior management freely mix with not just their direct reports, but more junior staff, or would you see cliques, bunkers and people huddled around their positions and status within the organisational hierarchy?

There are two great examples I would like to finish with. The first comes from Brazil, which I have already written about in my article Engaging Whole Organisations for Innovation in Times of Crisis.


Photo: Simon Robinson

Each year Algar group run their innovation event which brings together around 150 members who are all involved in innovation projects. It is an excellent example of how dynamic conversations around innovation projects can be facilitated and fostered across the whole organisation, something which really requires skill, effort and enthusiasm in large groups and conglomerates.


Credit: BrewDog

The second example which I think is one of the very best examples of a corporate festival comes from BrewDog. According to their co-founder James Watt, BrewDog’s AGM is the only one in the UK to sell-out, and absolutely has the same philosophy as a music festival.

AGM15Preview_Pilot Kit

Credit: BrewDog

In addition to all the usual business items which need to be addressed, it is a chance for Equity Punks, those who have invested in BrewDog’s innovative equity crowdfunding programme to celebrate the year, meet fellow punks, get involved in the company and to really be a part of the community.


Credit: BrewDog

So whether you are trying to get to the milk by way of the cheese, or trying to get to the hops by way of the beer, by entering into the dynamic conception of wholeness, by moving from analysis, through synthesis and into holonomics, a whole new way of seeing opens up and new vistas of opportunity become possible.

It is interesting though since there is a safety mechanism intrinsically built in. With cofidications such as integral theory, there is the trap of failing to arrive at the highest level of consciousness due to falling into the well of elitism. This trap is real and exists.

What is needed to enter into holonomics, the dynamic way of seeing is humility. Without a huge dose of humility, the expansion of consciousness will not be achieved, and the way of seeing will to some extent remain counterfeit, fragmented, and dominated by ego.

I have therefore really tried to convey in this final schematic the wholeness of experience. There is no hierarchy or levels to move through.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 11.00.31

Credit: Simon Robinson

Here we arrive at the essential question of Being. Ultimately the dynamic way of comprehending wholeness is the question of being, and it a way to understand the dynamics of being. If we can develop and fine tune our sense of what being means, then we have new opportunities to explore purpose in our organisations, and we gain a new sense of what it means for our organisations, creations, performances and our selves to be sustainable and whole. This is holonomics.

Related Articles

Where Design Thinking and Complexity Collide

Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part One

Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part Two

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