Holistically Speaking ...

By Chris Chittenden

In his book "Gaia Hypothesis", James Lovelock claims our planet is a living system. The theory goes that affecting one part of this system will often affect other parts of the system in ways not considered. Our coaching work is based on this premise and accordingly we seek to be holistic in our approach.

We hear the term "holistic" or its derivatives used very often these days. For example, we regularly hear of the need for a "whole of government approach". But how holistic are such initiatives and our approach to our day to day work situations?

American philosopher, Ken Wilber, has boldly developed what he terms a "Theory of Everything". His theory covers all aspects of human knowledge and activity and covers aspects as diverse as physics to human activity and "beingness". It is in the human domain that his ideas are particularly applicable to our work and here we want to focus on its application in organisations.

The basic concept is that in any domain of human activity there are three distinct but mutually dependent aspects - the "I", the "We" and the "It". The "I" refers to aspects of our individual humanness that we can only experience for ourselves. For example, our moods or our private conversations. We can never know what it is to feel as someone else feels or think as someone else thinks. We can have interpretations of others' thoughts and emotions through what we observe, but we can never experience another person's "I" space. We can gain access to another person's "I" space only in second hand way through conversation to attempt to verify our observations.

The "We" refers to the community and the things that are shared within the community. This can be seen in terms of culture or shared mood. For example, we can look at the bigger stories that we share such as what it is to be an Australian or a Catholic or a Muslim. We are born or come into a "We" space and in very subtle and unknowing ways, we adopt the stories and moods that surround us. Once again we pick these ways up through conversations with others.

The "It" refers to what can generally be termed our "objective reality". These are the things that we can see and measure. Our social systems, physical structures and organisations. The "It" is the primary focus of business today. It shows up as the bottom line, the share price, the organisational structure, the computer systems and so on.

The basis of this "Theory of Everything" is that you can impact each space from the other spaces, but such impacts are limited. For example, the major focus of change exercises within organisations is generally on the "It" space. How will we restructure, who will do what job etc? The theory is that if we get the structure right then the change will have been made. The normal assessment following most change exercises is that they did not go as well as was hoped.

Wilber's theory points to the most effective change taking place when all three aspects are adequately impacted in a constructive way. In other words, it is not sufficient to just shift the "It" space. When we think of organisational change, it is easy to be fooled into thinking that the organisation itself is the entity in transformation, yet an organisation is a network of people - we would say a network of relationships. Change programs impact each individual within that network uniquely. The key to maximising the effect of change lies in the people - the "I" and the "We". Hence change initiatives must also include an adequate focus on these domains.

Let us look at an example that is common to most organisations - performance management. Most organisations begin a review of their performance management activities with a look at the "system". What forms need to be filled in, what is the process and so on. Yet most performance management systems that fail do not do so because of the design of the system. They fall down because of the inability of the culture of the organisation to support it or of individuals to have the hard conversations that are sometimes required of managing others' performance. In other words, the "We" and the "I". This is not to say that organisations do not attempt to address this, it is just that most do not seem to be able to do it very well. Dealing with the "I" and "We" spaces requires the so-called "soft skills". With businesses these days seemingly so focussed more and more on the data, in other words the "It" space, the "I" and the "We" domains play second fiddle. Given the difficulty that most organisations seem to have with their "soft skills", it may well be more appropriate to reframe "people skills" as the "hard skills"!

From our perspective an holistic view must come from an incorporation of the "I". the "We" and the "It" into our way of observing and designing. Try this exercise.

Consider your last change initiative and how successful it was. How would you rate the success of this initiative out of ten? How would you rate the success out of ten in the "I", the "We" and the "It" domains? What percentage of effort was put into each of the "I", "We" and "It" domains? What shows up for you? If you are interested in taking this assessment further e-mail us at info@talkingabout.com.au. We would love to hear from you.

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© 2003 Chris Chittenden