The Wise Organization — What is it?

Aborigine Performer

Downtown Sydney, Australia, on the Quay, with the local didgeridoo player

I’ve been reading and listening a little bit on the Internet about the issue of wisdom — what people perceive it to be and such, and thinking about how to map this to our business organizations.  As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of Ken Wilber, and have spent some time with Ken’s dialogues with another great thinker on wisdom, Roger Walsh.  Ken and Roger both are obviously enlightened, Second Tier thinkers, but the lower v-Meme that consistently comes out is pretty legalistic.  There’s a lot of classification of different heuristics in their models for wisdom, which are are somewhat useful, but still lack a guiding principle ethos.  I think that one can discuss wisdom from a topical level — for example, few would question “be kind to others” is a sign of wisdom.  But after that, one can get bogged down in the details pretty quickly, as with all surface-level analyses.  Someone who is wicked might quickly interpret a statement like “be kind to others” as a pathway to “so you can exploit them later.”

Is there a way, then, to understand wisdom in the context of the work we’ve done on empathetic connection?  I’d argue ‘yes’. It would be as an evolutionary process — and that implies the processes we create with an eye to wisdom would also create wise behavior that would hopefully be naturally emergent.  We’d also want to use a metacognitive lens.  How do we handle and process what we don’t know? If we create wisdom-generating processes in our meta-world, wise solutions will appear in our constructed reality, without having to be imposed from one viewpoint.

The other guiding principle must be that wisdom is fundamentally tied in with validity.  It should increase the validity of solutions or products that an organization creates, as well as its ways of being. Validity also helps up and down the v-Meme value chain.  Products that are valid will solve customers’ problems, as well as not kill the people who make them, as a small example.  The problems with microwave popcorn come to mind.  While a person may enjoy sticking in a bag into a microwave and two minutes later pull out a hot, tasty snack, it’s not going to be held up as an exemplary, wise product if the workers are sick from the oils in the factory with Popcorn Lung, or the waste is one more thing added unnecessarily to a landfill.

So here are the two guiding principles, somewhat tied together of course, that we can use, to evaluate our social/relational structures and our tools and cultures for our organization.

1. Wisdom is a direct outcome of how well we – ourselves, and our organizations – develop and use our metacognition — knowing what we know, awareness of what we don’t know, and a deeper awareness of knowing that there are unknowns out there we can’t know until we encounter them.

2. The amount of wisdom inside an organization will express itself in the validity of the solutions it provides, which emergently includes the health and well-being of the sentient actors inside it,  its ever-increasing temporal and spatial scales of consequences associated with its actions, AND its self-awareness of potential consequences outside it.

These two principles tell us some very important things about how we can discriminate wisdom in the various v-Meme levels.  Chief among these is that wisdom is going to be dependent on the knowledge structure spawned.  That doesn’t mean that lower v-Meme levels can’t have wisdom — far from it.  But the limitations of the knowledge structures (and the social structures that created them) are going to constrain tools and processes that can be used by contemporary business for planning product development strategies.

Let’s walk through a couple of examples in order to understand how this might work.  Few would question the Native American wisdom about the need to take care of the Earth.  It is fundamental on such a basic level — without water to drink or air to breathe (Survival v-Meme) we will all die.  The concept is deeply valid, and indisputable.  At the same time, it does not inform specifically on the first principle in a way that helps us plan our action.  So while it must be part of our bedrock scaffolding — organizations that destroy the place they live are fundamentally unwise (anyone questioning that can look at the picture below of a mountaintop removal site in West Virginia) it doesn’t help much with structuring processes on smaller scales, where trade-offs will inevitably be made.

Mountaintop Removal Site.jpg

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining in West Virginia — Geologic Time Devastation (2009)

Once again, I do want to repeat — we ignore deep Survival/Tribal v-Meme wisdom at our existential peril.  At the same time, it was the inability of development of the first principle that led to the overwhelming of the Tribal/Authoritarian societies back during the Columbian Exchange.

Next up on the social/relational evolutionary scale is our Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme pair.  These, too, offer insights on how to develop wisdom inside our organizations.  Authoritarian systems process systems in knowledge fragments for the most parts, and I’ve already discussed chengyu in past posts as effective ways of coding validity.  This type of wisdom, that captures guiding principles in a short story, is another example of triggering larger understanding, metacognition and validity.  My favorite is 塞翁失馬 — the story of Sai Wang, who lost a horse.  The villagers came to him, consoling him for his bad luck.  He said ‘Good news, bad news, who knows?’  The next day, the horse returned, with another horse.  Hit repeat on the villagers’ script, except this time as good news.  Sai Wang replied again in the same way.  A good explanation of the story is here.

As a piece of wisdom, Sai Wang’s story holds up to the two principles.  Sai Wang encourages the villagers to think regarding longer consequences of events (though not actions)  reminding us that there are things that we just don’t know, and events in the future that we can’t know.  But, as with all fragments, it can’t satisfy the second statement, on what to do next.  Even the best Authoritarian perspectives are frozen for that moment of impulsive time.  For that, other insights are needed.

Other examples of wisdom can flow out of Authoritarian cultures.  Confucius was famous for giving advice to rulers on how to be good authorities, all with the notion of developing that leadership with empathetic ladders.  One of the main directions of Confucius’ wisdom was that leaders should be virtuous — embodying the positive side of a people’s culture.  Very wise indeed, in that modeling triggers mirroring behavior across an organization, and as such, makes more people inside the company act in a virtuous manner — even in the short term.

Yet people acting virtuous is alone not enough to guarantee wise, or humane actions.  Many cultures have constrained their virtue to their in-group, and that lack of larger empathy has been documented in the genocides of other out-groups down through the ages.  I am sure the returning Crusaders enlisted by Pope Innocent III in his genocidal campaign in 1209 against the Cathars, made famous by the pronouncement of the abbot, Arnaud Amalric, quoting “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius  (kill them all — God will know his own) felt virtuous.

Bumping up to the Legalistic v-Meme,  wisdom becomes embodied in process.  Our Constitution is a great example of long-time wisdom embodied in both specific rules and guiding principles.  It contains the beginnings of starting the exploration of the unknown, and development of metacognition.  By establishing bodies of individuals, such as the three branches of government, the Constitution essentially established a data-collecting sensor network and larger collective intelligence exercise that could evolve as American society changed.  There’s also no question that there is long-time wisdom embodied in our penal code, dating back to the Code of Hammurabi and the Ten Commandments — ‘thou shalt not kill.’  Yet with a fully developed legalism, laws, processes and rules can also metacognitively develop.  Circumstances, lost in long-time integration, on whether someone should be punished for killing someone (self defense being, for example, an exception) start to emerge out of the collective.

Understanding things from this viewpoint can also show the profound lack of wisdom in bodies like the Supreme Court upholding the Citizens United case about corporate money in politics.  By hijacking the collective through repetition of belief-based messaging favorable to a corrupt business class, validity of solutions applicable to a larger population takes a dive.  Not very wise indeed, and a major source of information constriction that may well bring down our society in the U.S.

If we had to finger the main problem with developing  a more comprehensive wisdom in the lower v-Meme structures, it goes back to metacognition — knowing what we don’t know.  As was discussed here, Authoritarian structures just don’t do ‘not knowing’ very well — it directly goes against the concept of authority, as well as the power and control dynamic.  Admitting that you don’t know is a pathway to down migration in the power structure.  And over time, you end up with an organization that has metacognitive shrink wrapping — the only knowledge possessed in the organization is what is already contained inside.  There is scarce interest in finding out what you don’t know.  That’s not the route toward supporting the expansion of wisdom, which necessarily has to be associated with an open-mindedness toward changing circumstances and addressing validity.  Understanding this is also an insight into how collapse is fundamentally incorporated into any Authoritarian societal trajectory.  The lack of wisdom, or ability to acquire it, is built into the v-Meme NA.

Legalistic thinking does better than Authoritarianism, by giving the potential to create governing bodies with processes that can tackle those unknowns and turn them into knowns.  That gives Legalistic systems built-in metacognitive processes.  The problem with these systems is that in order to establish their authorities, they’re not so hot on imagining circumstances where Legalistic approaches can’t work.  Their metacognitive deficit is understanding that you can’t create processes to cover everything, and there is a constant tension between passing another law to achieve a potentially more pure result.  Any Legalistic system fundamentally has to have rules that constrain itself — the Constitution, for example, reserves certain powers to individuals in the Bill of Rights, or it will end up constraining personal agency out of the system.  And any system that, to paraphrase Clint Eastwood, can’t know its limitations, or makes it so difficult to change itself, is going to hit wisdom ceilings.

A great example of this might be the Deepwater Horizon crisis involving the blown oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.  There’s no question that BP and Transocean are deeply legally culpable in the largest oil spill in history, and should be held accountable for their crimes.  Rules were broken, and 11 people were killed.  But more rules that don’t include formulation with participation by the culprits are likely not the answer toward preventing the same crisis again.  In the world of deep water drilling, it’s simply impossible for the regulators alone to have the technical knowledge to create a legal framework that could work.  That knowledge rests only in part with the people doing the drilling.  And barring a higher expression of wisdom — banning deep water drilling altogether and redoubling our efforts toward renewables — there is going to have to be a participatory process that includes understanding the existence of unknowns, which, precisely because they are unknowns, can’t be preemptively regulated.

For businesses moving past the Legalistic v-Meme, crossing the Trust Boundary, and into the Performance v-Meme, some recognized metacognitive processes start popping up.  Everyone in business school learns about SWOT — Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.  Strengths and Weaknesses can be tied directly to self-knowledge, and as such can serve as a source of wisdom.  Opportunity is directly tied to a limited validity — can we make money on this? And Threats, while at some level tying back down to Survival, also force an organization to look outward toward things they don’t know about.  How’s that for metacognitive development, and potentially an increase in wisdom?

If we stay at the Performance v-Meme level, we can dramatically increase the sophistication of our metacognitive reach, and through that become aware of larger issues involving our business.  Couple that now with a desire for product validity, and it’s inescapable that we have to fold customers into the mix.  Relating to those customers drives our own empathetic development, and the coupled rise in both knowledge and awareness, if we’ve scaffolded that with some long-time stories (don’t destroy the planet!), some basic virtuous authority, and a moral code, can lead to a wise organization.  And we can keep growing and evolving this by using such tools as Lean Startup, nicely summarized and developed by Techstars Managing Director Zach Nies.  There’s too much to talk about, but for those looking for a great introduction to Agile thinking, the webpage lays out tools that now promote a process for developing both metacognition and validity.

On his Impact and Uncertainty page, Zach walks an organization through a process that identifies four paths for taking action:  Obvious, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic.  It’s not surprising that these four bins map to four different v-Memes.

  1.  Obvious — Authoritarian.  Obvious things to do are the result of compacted limbic knowledge inside an organization, and while they may involve complexity, solutions (though potentially laborious) are down on the automatic level.
  2. Complicated — Authoritarian/Legalistic — involve going outside for experts, who in the technical world are likely complex rule followers and algorithmic thinkers with very specific, already discovered knowledge.
  3. Complex — Now we’re up in the Performance/Communitarian space, where multiple solutions, heuristics and such are going to drive more complex empathetic interactions and trade-offs.  In the process, it is inevitable that specific unknowns will be discovered, as well as undiscovered countries of knowledge.
  4. Chaotic — what’s awesome about this category is it is the beginning of an expression that there may be a higher awareness that an organization doesn’t possess.  It’s not directly stated, but the path forward Zach recommends is a good one — plan exploratory actions (great for increasing metacognition, validity, and potentially wisdom) and execute them.

What’s above this in our Spiral/Empathetic Development world?  The self-aware company builds into it a knowledge of its own bias that comes from its past through a deep understanding of how it got to be the way it is.  Boeing is a great example of an uneven application of this awareness in its leadership team.  It’s hard to imagine Boeing NOT making a passenger hauling solution that isn’t a tube with a couple of wings hooked on the outside.  Former CEO Jim McNerney, a card-carrying relational disruptor if there ever was one, announced publicly in 2014 that deeper, more fundamental research was not in Boeing’s cards, and that the company would focus on reaping the harvest of work with the advances in composites from the 787 and applying them to the 777x.

At the same time, external pressures forced deeper soul searching inside Boeing regarding its competitive position with Airbus.  Boeing’s planes had a prestige and performance edge, but that edge wasn’t enough to always guarantee a sale.  Airbus has had a manufacturing cost advantage, and now Boeing is attempting to overtake Airbus in this arena with construction of a new facility in Everett.  I don’t have that many friends with news from the top to understand completely the decision making process, but change is afoot.

What could be the next level of evolutionary tools?  There’s much to write on that, but here’s a preview — truly understanding information flows inside a company, and the level of empathy/information coherence in networks inside an organization.  Every organization has a formal org chart. But I’ve yet to see one that documents social capital, and how that plays out in an organization (probably because that would be perceived as an explicit threat to the titles on the org chart!)  Such a deeper understanding would help maximize validity of product to the customers and stakeholders, by showing exactly who understands and empathizes with the customer, and how information is aggregated into the product.  In the process of doing that across an organization, one sees what one really knows, and what one really doesn’t — more benefits for metacognition.

Other factors will certainly come into play. That understanding can’t be complete without a deep history of understanding trauma inside an organization.  Trauma also will shape our approach toward unknowns, and through that, receptivity to metacognition.  Large failures may prevent explorations of avenues for advancement that may not have been possible 30 years ago, but with fundamental technological change, should be explored now.

There’s no question that the process will also drive development of the people inside the organization, making them more empathetic, and hopefully data driven in their actions.  While larger organizational meditations have to have some limits in scope, a modest amount of soul searching can uncover root causes that stifle innovation, as well as unearth ways that products created, and processes needed affect others on the outside.  A great example would be the hunt for replacement substances for coltan inside cell phones.  Awareness of terrible death and conflict inside the Democratic Republic of Congo, the primary source for Coltan — truly WWIII for Africa, with over 6 million dead — spurs on research efforts, sustainable sourcing, and regulations so our cell phones don’t have to be coated in blood.

Metacognition and validity — and an appropriate focus on both — will drive wisdom.  The only thing holding us back is our understanding of ourselves, and the willingness to take that collective leap.

Further Reading:  I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t mention the B-Corps movement, which attempts to externally guide companies to larger levels of empathetic development, validity and wisdom.  Much to unpack — but the link is a start.

Here’s also another link on how philosophers view wisdom.  It’s fascinating that the models presented do not directly address not knowing, and as such are Legalistic v-Meme limited, as would be expected from the majority social structure philosophers sit in.  But they are making progress.  This link also is great scaffolding on attempting to make some advancement on the subject of wisdom.

One more thing — it’s going to be a future piece — but the Wise Organization is much more robust in the face of a Black Swan event.  Because there is an awareness that events out there can be unpredictable and not knowable by an organization’s experts, there is a capacity to a.) build in robustness, and b.) adapt more rapidly than an unwise organization.



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