From the cellular to the whole

From the cellular to the whole

From the cellular to the whole 2002 1430 Brook Thorndycraft

Dinoflagellates captured my imagination at age fourteen, in my biology unit on phytoplankton.  They grabbed on and never let go.  They are single-celled marine plankton, so seemingly insignificant, but an essential part of an ocean ecosystem.  At night, some of them glow like the stars.  One of the smallest organisms in the ocean reflecting the most massive masses in the universe.  The microscopic mirrors of the immense.

I am drawn to complex patterns.  In my work, I used to be surprised at how often I saw similar issues come up in a range of different workplaces, where I often encountered people slipping into toxic communication, urgency, or head-in-the-sand approaches to conflict.  People would avoid the situation and leave it to escalate until it was intolerable, and then I would be called in to mediate between two people deep in a cycle of blame and defence.  And then mediation would fail.  Not because of my mediation skills, or the “unreasonableness” of the people involved, but because the problem was bigger and more systemic than anyone was recognizing.  Over the years I have seen increasingly more examples that tell me that the problem with simple solutions is they fail to see how social problems are reflected in small to large patterns.   From the cellular to the whole.

Noticing repeating patterns

Like dinoflagellates reflecting the stars, the problems we face on this planet, and I believe the ways to heal those problems, come in repeating patterns, starting from the microscopic, and expanding up to the massive (and vice versa).   When we look carefully and honestly, we can see the big problems we face reflecting in our organizational cultures, our interpersonal interactions, and inside ourselves in how we think, feel and act, and in the choices we make. For example, I remember a client, a leader in her organization, who came to me deeply worn down by the stresses and pace of her demanding job.  She sought coaching to learn to survive the pace, but over our sessions, she realized she had to investigate the ways she had internalized a social norm of urgency and productivity.  As she started listening to her body, she discovered a deep longing to reconnect with slowness and rest.  She began to realize the ways that the values of the systems we live in – competition, urgency, perfectionism, valorization of experts – played out in what she was prioritizing and valuing for herself.  She started to recognize how she enacted the same expectations on her staff and began to think systemically about how to create a healthier organizational culture for everyone. As we explored ways to shift the culture, she came up against the obstacle of the massive.  The fast pace and culture of urgency in her organization repeated at all levels of the organization, and it also came from outside: from funding models, competition between organizations, and expectations of stakeholders.

We inherit and reproduce these ideas, in our daily interactions and in the systems we create.  Actions, thoughts, and beliefs make up the building blocks of organizational culture.  Systems are made of people, and people are constrained by systems.  These are fractal patterns*, ever looping up and down, from the microscopic to the massive.

If we want to change systems and create cultures of care and liberation, we have to do the work at all levels.  How do harmful patterns show up in us as leaders, for example in the ways we determine who is “qualified” to do a job, or how much experience you need to have to be considered a leader?  How does that relate to those same patterns in an organization, community or group?  How does that reflect bigger systems? 

Real transformation of these patterns is complex, ongoing, and takes place on all of the levels.  It is possible to create new patterns that have the potential to heal the old ones.    

Let’s take a deeper look at the example of urgency.

On an individual or internal level, system change around urgency is about investigating the values and beliefs we have inherited and learned that tell us everything has a deadline.  We learn through experience that we will be rewarded if we meet it, and will face disappointment and feelings of failure if we don’t.  As a result, many of us have developed well-worn nervous system pathways and management strategies that enable us to override our body, mind and spirit’s need for rest.  For many of us, the tendency to override our body’s messages is so strong that we have to make a conscious practice of slowing down enough to notice what our body needs in the moment and the costs to our health and relationships of continually ignoring those needs.  It is also about assessing what is actually urgent, and where we might be creating (or not challenging) false deadlines.  And for any system change, we have to unlearn the deep messages we absorb that convince us the world can only be the way it is right now. 

On the interpersonal or organizational level, to shift complex systems, we need to build different kinds of relationships and ways of interacting with each other.  We need to recognize diversity and difference as a gift and a source of creativity; learn new ways to disagree; develop our collective trustworthiness and sense of interdependence; and heal our relationship to power and to other beings, past, present and future.  It is also about shifting our organizational processes and norms.  In the example of urgency, this might be about having honest conversations about how much is possible and coming to agreement about when we need to say no to a new project or lengthen the timeline.  We would need to recognize and shift the ways that we praise and reward overwork.  What if the people that make up an organization could all collectively agree that the wellbeing of all of its members is more important than profit or outcomes?  What if ways of determining workloads, including those of leaders, reflected what is actually possible to accomplish in healthy and life-sustaining ways? 

And of course, all of this must happen at the systems level as well.  Urgency is driven by external forces: the funders, the government, the stakeholders, the market.  We tend to think of these forces as outside of our capacity to change, but actually, this year-and-a-half of pandemic and racial, environmental, and economic struggle showed us that change can happen surprisingly quickly, and for many people, seemingly out of nowhere.  For example in the pandemic, governments provided emergency financial support for people without work, after saying there was no money for decades.  As another example, the idea that we need to reassess police budgets and how policing happens came to mainstream consciousness and is even being piloted in Toronto and other municipalities.  While these changes are surprising for many people, in reality, communities and movements such as the Movement for Black Lives, and even before that, organizations such as Incite! have been advocating, collaborating, and pushing hard for many years, until the moment when hard work and circumstances catapulted them into our collective imagination.  Police brutality is now getting public attention, but organizing and advocacy around policing have been going on for many decades.  Systems work is a long haul process and requires many actors and many generations.  As Angela Davis, one of the early and ongoing voices against police brutality and for prison justice, said in an interview with Ava Duvernay in the September 2020 issue of Vanity Fair, “I’ve always recognized my own role as an activist as helping to create conditions of possibility for change.” Not doing it herself.  Not expecting it to happen quickly.  Recognizing that the future possibility makes the work worth it. 

So what about our example of urgency? As I mentioned above, in the nonprofit sector one of the leading external sources of urgency is funding models.  Funding and reporting requirements can create huge amounts of administrative work for relatively small or precarious funding that often doesn’t allow long-term planning or permanent hiring.  As a result, funding models are a major source of cultures of urgency within organizations.  For many years, grassroots movements, community groups and organizations have pushed back and been in conversation with funding bodies to advocate for new models of funding.  Over the last few years, some private foundations in Canada and around the world have begun to shift toward trust-based philanthropy** that simplifies application and reporting requirements, and that provides more stable and unrestricted funding (more information here and here).  This is just a beginning, as most funding bodies, especially governments, are still relying on traditional models, but it is a major move toward creating sustainable organizations that are not as beholden to external timelines and pressures.  This shift has happened through many processes, over a long time, of diverse actors collaborating, learning, partnering, and challenging major systemic assumptions about the nature of the relationship between grantmakers and grantseekers.  And it’s not done.  This is just one small example of how the long haul of systemic change is happening in relation to cultures of urgency.

Change from small to large is quantum

No organization will have the capacity to make changes on all of these levels. And that is ok. I am deeply impacted and moved by the application of quantum field theory to social systems.*** Field theory tells me that what I do on one level impacts all the other levels. And yet, we do need to hold the complexity from the cellular to the whole in our hearts, minds, and actions, or we will miss emerging opportunities to collaborate, experiment, and create new possibilities.  This can be a simple practice of asking questions that zoom in and zoom out.  Questions might sound like:

  • How is this problem that I want to change showing up in me, in my beliefs, behaviours, and expectations, and what might help me shift any patterns that aren’t helping?
  • How is this problem showing up in my organization or my relationships, and how might we engage with it differently? 
  • How does this issue show up in larger systems?  How do we understand why this situation seems so out of our influence? Who is pushing back against these systems and how might I or my organization offer support in small or large ways? 

The work I do now is trying to notice, name, and intervene in the ways problems (and potential solutions) show up on all of the levels.  From the cells and synapses to the parts, to the whole system, and even beyond.  How do we have our inner experience, our interpersonal interactions, and our cultures reflect the systems we want to see in the world?  If we want to shift those external systems, we can’t leave them intact on the small scale.

Like dinoflagellates in the ocean ecosystem, each of these levels, even the smallest, are an essential part of change work.  What new ways of being would you like to see reflected from the cellular to the whole?

If this post resonates and you want to deepen your capacity to think, act, and feel on all of the levels, reach out for information about coaching and facilitation services!

*Thanks to Adrienne Maree Brown for first introducing me to the idea of systems as fractals in Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds.

**Thanks to Annika Voltan of the Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia for introducing me to the concept of trust-based philanthropy.

***Thanks to Arnold Mindell for introducing me to social applications of field theory in Sitting in the Fire: Large group transformation using conflict and diversity.