Putting Holonomics into Practice

How Holonomics can be applied in programmes of profound organisational change

While many of the world’s biggest brands are making great strides in introducing sustainable products, services and initiatives as a part of their core strategy, there still remains a significant gap between sustainable strategies and the effective operational execution of these strategies. This gap exists in part due to the inability to see the company whole.

In 2011 my wife Maria and I began to write Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. In our book we bring together the dynamic way of seeing, phenomenology and hermeneutics of Henri Bortoft, the science of chaos and complexity theory, and the practice of human values into a language written to help business leaders, brand managers, educators and advocates of sustainability adapt and respond in new and innovative ways.

Simon teaching complexity

That year we also began to introduce what we call ‘holonomic thinking’ into MBA courses. At Sustentare Business School in Joinville, Holonomics is taught as the foundation module to many different MBAs such as Business Administration, Strategy and Change Management, Innovation, Design, and Leadership for example. Below are some of the comments from students who were HR professionals taking a course in Business Education, Training and Development:

  • Before attending the module, my mental model and way of thinking only saw the negative features of complexity, seeing only limited possibilities. Complexity has come to mean knowledge, a set of provocations that result in change. It is the possibility of expanding the consciousness to the whole, to make sense, see answers and different ways of thinking. It is the possibility of recognising the characteristics that relate to thought, sensations, feelings and intuition. For me now complexity means an increase of possibilities, a wealth of options that lead to the results. It is the ability to undress our mental models and experiment, creating new possibilities.
  • Before the course I understood the concept of complexity as being linked to uncertainties and contingencies. After the module, I now define complexity as opportunity. It is the opportunity to be an adaptive, creative, dynamic and more agile in our organisation.
  • One of the things that became very clear for me was how people see things, the way in which different mental models see different situations and solutions. I also absorbed the four key qualities leaders need: sensemaking, being humble, telling stories and being mindful of yourself.

The great challenge of course in relation to introducing the concepts of Holonomics into organisations is that often we only have one or two days at the very most with students and participants on courses, as opposed to weeks or months. Maria and I therefore use high-impact exercises from our book, as well as new exercises we have developed and adapted such as showing videos of the murmuration of starlings and slime mould, and at times blindfolding people and asking them to model in clay.

Photo: Simon Robinson

Photo: Simon Robinson

One tool we created was The Ladder of Seeing, which we introduced in our Harvard Business Review article Holonomic Thinking. We created this tool to help summarise for business executives the process of entering into the dynamics of seeing, and it really helps to clarify to leaders potential limitations in their ways of knowing the world. One person said to us that we had made a mistake, and that “I know what I see” should be at the top. It was only when we pointed out that this was not a mistake on our behalf that they really began to think about their own process of the perception of phenomena.

Credit: Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson

Credit: Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson

Often our courses in Holonomics are run at the premises of single clients, allowing a company to train up to 30 people at a time in a cost-effective manner. In order to help businesses really explore wholeness in their organisational structures, and to shift from traditional mindsets to transformational mindsets we work with dialogue, storytelling, gamification and experiential learning.

Gamification is sometimes thought of as adding game-like elements and incentives to traditional business programmes, such as marketing campaigns and customer service training. My own approach was to create a central character based on the real life of Dr. Thomas Monro, a distant relative of mine, who not only was a specialist consultant to King George III during the king’s second illness in 1811, but was also an amateur artist and a patron to numerous artists including William Turner.

The new character Dr. Thomas Monro I created is a doctor, adventurer, detective and artist. Not only does he have a great intellectual mind, he also provides an exemplary example of a holonomic leader in relation to Jung’s mandala; as a surgeon and artist he is a great observer of detail, and never gets too lost in thought, as a doctor he has great compassion and cares for other people, and as a scientist he is able to comprehend great mysteries in his intuition and does not get caught up in abstract theory.

The process of transforming a whole organisation therefore begins with interviewing key leaders in a business. Following this diagnosis, we can start to engage the whole organisation through one of the educational and entertaining ‘Marvellous Adventures of Dr. Thomas Monro’, depending on the learning objectives required, such as the communication of a sustainable business strategy, vision and purpose.

Stories show the relationships and connections between people and explain why things happen. When you tell a story therefore, you are creating a vision. Projects are stories in that they have a beginning, a middle and end. By using experiential games with clear narratives, we are therefore able to create stories which help people to make sense of what the organisation is trying to do, regardless of their background, education or experience.

Through games we can help people develop new organ of perceptions for understanding how parts belong together, so that the whole organisation, its vision, strategy, brand and essence can come to full expression through the parts. We can say that organisations are living in the same way that Gadamer understood the meaning of a text to always be unfinished, therefore in some manner ‘living’.

One case study comes from Hospital Sírio Libanês in São Paulo, one of the most important hospitals in Latin America, jointly headed by Dr. Paulo Chapchap and Dr. Gonzalo Vecina Neto. Their whole business model is philanthropic, and they had spent some years developing their business strategy and their strategic map, which of course had people, sustainability and philanthropy as major pillars.

But how could they communicate this strategic map to the entire hospital, every single person at every single level? Together with the strategy, marketing and HR teams at the hospital, I was asked to help develop a communications event to enable them to do this, and our solution was based on the philosophy of wholeness of Holonomics. You can see photos from this project in this slide deck which we presented at Sustainable Brands London:

Over the course of one week we ran one-hour sessions with up to 100 people each, training 2,500 people in total. People gathered in a reception area, and then in order to enter the main room, they walked through a ‘time tunnel” a short corridor which told the story of the hospital from 1921 to the present day. We played some extremely uplifting and thematic music as people waited for the event to start, and so began the process of emotional engagement with the continuing story of the hospital right from the moment of arrival.

People were able to select where to sit on one of ten tables, which had up to ten people each. Through gentle guidance, each table ended up with a wide mix of collaborators from every area and department in the hospital. The insight here is that each table can be thought of as a hologram of Hospital Sírio Libanês whereby the essence of the hospital is being expressed both through each group and also through every person.

We made no attempt to communicate the strategic map – very few people would have understood or related to it in this format. Instead we told the strategic map as a story which was laid out on tables which had up to ten people. Each story was so long that one person could only read a part. We had doctors and surgeons listening to secretaries and nutritionists tell the story of how the hospital aimed to get to 2020, and so the traditional hierarchies started to melt away into an experience of wholeness.

We asked people to create a picture, model or story that embodied the solutions they discussed. A key phrase which came up time and again was ‘calor humano’ which translates as ‘human warmth’. This is one of the core values of the hospital, and is the sense of friendliness, empathy and care that every member of staff has with each patient and guest of the hospital. ‘Calor humano’ is the strategic map as it comes to presence in each and every member of Hospital Sírio Libanês.

Another young employee drew ‘the sandal of humility’ in reference to a Brazilian comedy show with a recurring sketch where comedians would chase glamorous celebrities and ask them to take off their shoes and wear the golden sandals of humility, to show that they were not arrogant, and had not lost touch with reality.

This employee told everyone present that sometimes he wished that those who were at the most senior levels could sometimes wear the sandals of humility and recognise the contributions of his own peer group a little more. It was incredible for me listening to him.

For this particular person, the sandal of humility, literally, is the strategy. This is how the strategy, brand and essence of Hospital Sírio Libanês is expressed through this person. You have to create both a very special environment, and have staff who live and breath ‘calor humano’ for this participant to have been able to articulate his truth in front of everyone present.

Introducing Holonomics into organisations can therefore be extremely powerful, due to the way in which people become engaged in issues and problems in an entirely different manner to business as usual. After communicating the strategy in this way, Dr. Paulo told us that from now on the hospital is only going to run this kind of programme, process and event using holonomic thinking, and they will not return to the traditional way of doing things.

The way in which we explore lived experience takes us into a deeper level of understanding of people’s mental models. This phenomenological approach can be combined with a hermeneutical approach to the understanding of a brand, and how a brand comes to presence in the parts. It is quite amazing how many senior managers have no concept of either the customer experience of their products and services, and the lived experience of their employees. Through the holonomic process outlined, their conception of their organisations as an authentic whole and a dynamic system can therefore be deeply transformative.

Photo: Sustainable Brands

Photo: Sustainable Brands

At Sustainable Brands London, which took place in November 2014, we closed our plenary session with the following quote, which captures the essence of an authentic, holonomic and sustainable brand from the perspective of the dynamic way of seeing.

Brands are a perpetual becoming, or they are nothing. Brands are not a thing to be known or controlled. They are a magnificent, mysterious odyssey to be experienced.

Jo Confino, Executive Director of The Guardian asked us how we were managing to introduce such profound changes in thinking to some of the largest national and multinational organisations in Brazil. As Maria answered, we have to have the humility to recognise that the reality of business leaders may be one where they have never thought about sustainability. In addition, leadership is in crisis because things are no longer happening as they used to, and so many really are looking for a new model or new way of seeing. It is important when speaking with business leaders to take the care to use a language that they can understand, but when we do, the results can be remarkable.

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