A new duality: Systems and consciousness

Over the last couple of days I have been reading the greatly important and seminal “management” book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. It helped me to become aware of a new kind of duality that I haven’t been really be aware about, though this duality is not explicitly mentioned in that book.

But let’s start with an old duality: Nature and nurture. Is man good or bad by nature and do education and society make him better or worse? It’s an old question with many old answers, all of which only seem to be partially right. My stance on this matter is that of a total both and: Humans have good and bad parts by nature, and society can make humans better and worse. That’s my final answer to this old paradigm or nature and nature, which I want to transcend by jumping to another paradigm:

My first idea to overcome the nature vs. nurture debate was by using systems thinking: It’s the systems acting on humans which have the power to shape the behaviour of humans. If the systems are well designed, humans will behave in good ways. If the systems are problematic, humans will display problematic behaviour sooner or later.

So, the solution was clear to me: We just have to design better systems and all problems will be solved by the superior incentive structures and dynamics of these new systems.

Now I have realized that while this position has a lot of merit, it is incomplete, because it underestimates the role of human thinking and consciousness.

Reinventing Organizations assumes a psychological development theory that is comparable to Spiral Dynamics: Humans develop in different stages and in different areas. But the same idea is applied to organizations: They can develop in different stages, too, which correspond to certain psychological developmental stages of humans. Whether and how much these theories are true is not clear to me, since I haven’t had the time and motivation to deeply delve into the scientific evidence for against them. But at least these theories point to something really important: The role of patterns of thinking, or memeplexes, if one prefers to use that terminology. I simply call it “consciousness”, even if that term is quite ambivalent.

The book does make the important case that limited understanding, and “lower levels” of consciousness can sabotage the effectiveness of more “advanced” systems that fit to a “higher level” of consciousness: People who are used to thinking in classical hierarchies of power will reject and sabotage systems that operate on “flat” self-organization. So, it’s not sufficient simply to provide new systems for people: Their consciousness needs to be open and ready for them.

One can also try to work on the level of consciousness alone while leaving the external social systems in place. That will be beneficial in itself, because the higher level of consciousness will limit the extent of the harmful effects of problematic systems based on “outdated” paradigms, even though they still can be abrasive to actual behaviours. People with a higher level of consciousness will be less inclined to use dysfunctional problem solving strategies, and less motivated to accumulate wealth as purpose in itself, or for status display purposes.

Also, higher levels of consciousness can allow systems to evolve to a higher stage. This is most visible when a CEO with a higher level of consciousness transforms a company to operate on a level that corresponds to his principles and assumptions. Often, it’s simply the change in the underlying principles and assumptions that opens up the space to let self-organization and evolutionary self-improvement become active forces that reshape an organization. A shift in consciousness can trigger a shift in management practices and the structure of the whole system.

All of these insights combined imply that a dual approach is really needed: We need to work both on introducing systems, and on increasing understanding and consciousness.

This can be exemplified by a 2x2 matrix that shows how human behaviour can be improved in the new dual framework:

  1. [Systems] Better systems have better incentives for people to act in better ways.
  2. [Systems->Consciousness] Better systems have lift the level of consciousness of people to act in better ways.
  3. [Consciousness->Systems] A higher level of consciousness allows the evolution of better systems.
  4. [Consciousness] A more developed consciousness produces better behaviour through more advanced understanding and motivations

Systems and consciousness can be seen as coupled complex dynamic systems. Together they constitute one single super-system that doesn’t seem to have a fitting name, yet.

While the work on systems seems to fall into the domains of politics, economics, sociology, and systems thinking, the work on consciousness is found in the humanistic aspects of philosophy, psychology, the humanities, and the arts. My new framework however shows that the isolated work in these fields is incomplete, because only a full synthesis of all of these areas can unfold a maximal change potential. How will that synthesis look like? I don’t know, but at least it should incorporate the very best aspects of all these disciplines in order to be a serious contender.

Edit (2015-06-07): A good name for this synthetic discipline might be holology: The science of the whole.

i don´t believe that. what are the good and bad parts a birch tree has by nature, or a magpie or a trout? i can´t see the natural good and bad parts of a rabbit either and if i separate the human species from all the other living beings in the world, i will have the problem to explain this. i think that good and bad is a construct we created to simplify our survival. this construct will make sense when we ask the question " for what is something good or bad?" but not as isolated values. so maybe i can “judge” humans that they have abilities and disabilities to live and work together and that a system/ society can increase or decrease those abilities.
as i remember the book, my phrasing would also fit.
it is a much more interesting question for me how we developed the idea of “good” and “bad”. and then : how could we recognize it without preconceptions? i think we have only two foundations to create this concept of good and bad:

  1. the interpretation and distiction of own feelings ( qualia) . a “bad” feeling motivates us to react and get rid of it, which feels “good” to achieve that.
  2. our whole “education” and interaction with others from the beginning of our life, who tell us what is considered as good and bad.
    between 1. and 2. we all experience more or less contradictions, but there may be no human growing up with none.
    and these contradictions differ from person to person like the mindsets explained in the book with different colours. my thesis is, that every system that has the ability to dissolve contradictions between 1. and 2. has the ability to increase the ability of humans to work and to live together and tend to evolve into a “teal” system so that in the end everything that could be considered to be “right” and useful for all participants …or if you want to use this term nevertheless “good” … also feels “good”. so it is obvious that those systems challenge the participants to give up parts of their education (2.): “values” they learned and for a long time managed that they felt “right” for them although they always contradict 1.
    in a way teal systems have a decluttering function for dysfunctional mindsets.
1 Like