Decades ago, I recall when I first heard the term “organic.” It captured my imagination and intrigued me.
Later, in 2002, I attended facilitator training by Harrison Owen, founder of Open Space Technology (OST), where he kept using organic to describe the nature of his work and process.
I heard his term “organic process” as whimsical, random, and willy-nilly. It seemed clear that mechanical processes were superior: they were precise, direct, predictable, and controllable.
I approached him about it, and he asserted that the organic process requires increased responsibility and is more sustainable because it isn’t predictable. I left the conversation suspicious.
Then, as a teacher, consultant, and researcher, I came to embraced this idea. Indeed, Owen’s claims included much wisdom now obvious in fields such as biology, psychology, organizational development—and leadership.
Simply put, “organic” and “mechanical” paradigms represent different ways of conceptualizing and understanding various aspects of systems and human functioning.
Although much of this literature applies this thinking to larger living systems, each “view” can inform how we interact with everyday processes as we approach decisions, goals, and projects.
In most cases, the literature links mechanistic thinking to inorganic systems and organic thinking to living systems or within organizational models. This post will describe how adopting an organic view can relate to a general approach to life.
Mechanic and Organic Paradigm
Each paradigm has qualities that support understanding situations.
The mechanical paradigm, influenced by Newtonian physics, sees living systems as machines with discrete, separable parts. It applies reductionism, breaking down complex systems into simpler, more manageable components.
Reductionism: The mechanistic paradigm seeks to understand complex phenomena by breaking them into smaller, more understandable parts. It uses a rational process that focuses on separating and analyzing components.
Predictability: The mechanistic view assumes that if you understand the parts and their interactions, you can control the behavior of the whole system.
Integrates Quantitative Data: The mechanistic view recognizes the importance of quantitative data, evidence, and research and uses data to inform decisions and optimize processes and goals.
Causality: The mechanistic paradigm emphasizes cause-and-effect relationships, assuming that events can be explained through a linear causal sequence chain of events.
The organic paradigm views systems, including humans, as dynamic, interconnected, and holistic entities. While this often includes living systems, it can also support developing a view we bring to any situation. As a view, it emphasizes the integration of various components to create a functioning whole.
Holism: The organic paradigm sees individuals and systems as holistic, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It appreciates the interdependence and interconnectedness of different aspects.
Adaptability: The organic paradigm views systems and processes as adaptive and capable of responding to environmental changes. There’s an emphasis on flexibility and resilience.
Balancing Quantitative and Qualitative: Recognizing the importance of both quantitative data and qualitative experiences, organic thinkers balance analytical thinking with an appreciation for qualitative aspects. While data informs decisions, they include the experiential dimensions to consider the quality of relationships between elements.
Purpose: In living systems, there is an inherent purpose or drive for growth, development, self-organizing, and self-actualization.
Much of the literature on organic and mechanical systems focuses on living and inorganic systems. Inorganic systems are essentially inanimate and governed by physical laws, such as gravity and thermodynamics.
Each mindset has its own application. More often, because of our conditioning, education, and sense of urgency we habitually revert to mechanical thinking.
Mechanical Thinking: In project management, a mechanical mindset might involve breaking down a project into tasks, setting clear timelines, and optimizing resource allocation for efficiency. The focus is on achieving specific, measurable goals.
Pitfall: The mechanical paradigm analyzes isolated parts. Such reductionism may oversimplify complex phenomena, leading to a loss of the true nature or holistic context.
Organic Thinking: A team leader with an organic mindset fosters collaboration and values the diverse strengths of team members. They consider the team an interconnected system, where each member’s contributions influence the overall success.
Pitfall: The organic paradigm can be complex and challenging to quantify or measure precisely, especially when compared with the mechanical paradigm.
Subjectivity: Concepts such as purpose and holistic well-being can be subjective and vary across individuals and cultures.
We sometimes err in extending the mechanical approach to decisions such as whom to hire or how to structure organizations. We believe we are making rational cost–benefit decisions but fail to realize that we are dealing with living systems that respond and react to our decisions, often in unpredictable ways.
Builders and Gardeners
Even though the term “organic” is often associated with a living system, developing this mindset alters how one views and engages the world. While mechanical thinkers function more like builders, organic thinkers operate more like gardeners.
Building is about defining a specific end goal and creating plans and steps to measure and allocate resources to achieve that goal.
Builders begin a project with specific plans, tools, measurements, and supplies and follow the plan to completion. The quality of the goal relies on the planning, tools, craftsmanship, and material.
When building, very little deviates from our plans and our goals. When it does, a review of the plan analyzes the situation. A rational diagnosis adjusts the plan with proposed “fixes” based on the goal. Still, once the building is built, the statue is sculpted, or the project is completed, it is done. There’s no future growth.
Mechanical thinking conceives of concepts as abstract and separates and analyzes parts to compare and construct wholes in a fixed and controlled manner that is predictable, using rationalistic means.
The mechanical mindset, like builders, thinks in terms of producing projects. They become used to the certainty and predictability of a rational process that can be explained by seeking knowledge or solutions.
Gardening is about creating the right conditions to develop or grow something.
Gardeners explore the space and conditions, such as soil, nutrients, climate, surrounding environment, and season, to determine what can grow. They get messy, feel the soil, and set intentions about what to plant. Then, they adapt as they seed, fertilize, weed, and prune, facilitating growth in unpredictable ways.
Working with an organic view involves second-order thinking. This approach understands that actions taken will not only have a first-order effect, but also unpredictable consequences later that disclose new conditions and unpredictable changes that may even undermine the original goal.
Although some seeds planted in the same field will thrive, others won’t. Some pesticides will either support or undermine growth. Some plants will flourish within certain conditions, producing a larger harvest than anticipated.
Organic thinking conceives of the wholeness of a concept with parts that hang together from an inner truth or purpose in a dynamic, developing, and evolving manner.
The organic mindset, like gardeners, thinks in terms of developing conditions. They become used to the flow and emergence of a natural process, with its uncertainty and predictability.
Growing something involves no specific end state and is prone to discoveries that reveal surprises, new conditions for growth, or different kinds of growth.
Gardening also understands fertile ground or when something is ripe.
Applying an organic view to everyday situations cultivates a gardening mindset that appreciates fertile ground and ripeness.
Fertile Ground. Some initiatives or strategies do not land on fertile ground. Perhaps there is a lack of awareness, understanding, patience, or other necessary conditions for the strategy.
Lacking fertile ground is an important sign. For an organic mindset, this may point to a missing condition required before rolling out an initiative. Perhaps your team requires increased competency, new tools, or a different membership profile to be prepared or ready for a desired outcome.
Here, we require patience to understand these signs: developing the conditions for fertile ground will ensure more involvement, better participation, and a sustainable effort.
Leaders and managers who ignore these signs will resort to mechanical thinking and force an outcome or manipulate conditions. This can work at first but will not be sustainable.
Second-order effects can be problematic: forcing an outcome may result in unnecessary blame, pressure, and stress, which may also result in an erosion of trust.
Organic thinkers will take the temperature to ensure fertile ground for ideas or strategies and then initiate, observe, discern, include, and adapt.
Ripeness. In other situations, we learn to observe if something is ripe. This involves tuning into our experience to discern when to harvest the fruit of our labor.
When working out at the gym, we may observe the ease of a routine and determine that we are ready to add more weight, change routines, or add cardio.
To discern ripeness requires paying attention to our experiences and surrendering to the lessons they bring.
Becoming an Organic Thinker
An organic thinker can employ mechanical thinking when appropriate. Like gardeners, they pay close attention to the conditions and context and appreciate the value of second-order thinking.
But the gardening approach also requires a different way of being. This includes patience, presence, and the ability to discern and adapt to patterns that can involve letting go of expectations.
Otto Scharmer details much of this letting go, presence, and letting come process in his Theory U model.
- No matter how much we plan and what we do, we can never be in full control of the outcomes.
- We accept that we are entering situations where the outcome is uncertain.
- We are guided by our experience of the conditions and environment rather than by some abstract goal or result.
Practice and Process
Operating organically honors changing conditions and supports the possibility of emergence. Recognizing emergence begins with cultivating spaciousness. The spaciousness of the organic mindset is anything but whimsical or random. It requires a set of rigorous practices.
1. Cultivate spaciousness through increased awareness.
2. Develop intention through presence to be responsible for what arises.
3. Practice acceptance through patience in letting go of expectations.
4. Practice observing—paying attention to detail—through inquiry and discernment.
5. Foster a deep connection—tuning into experience to understand complex interconnections.
6. Practice responding and adapting to integrate what arises.
This cycle allows us to cultivate conditions to grow in unpredictable ways.
Three years ago, our team invited our community to connect via a Slack community workspace. When creating it, I recall a question about the number of channels and topics we should establish.
Being a gardener, I first wondered: What are we growing? What does this community want?
Instead of mapping this out, we created a couple of general channels and then monitored what had emerged. This organic process requires patience and attention. Once we plant an intention, patterns emerge.
Organic thinkers pay attention to their gardens, realizing that growth arrives through unpredictable signs and signals. In our case, questions and participation revealed new interests.
During that first year, we discovered a demand for channels for current learning efforts. In other situations, some clients created private channels with us to optimize client work. Then, new programs populated the workspace with community hubs.
With 145 members connected via 15 channels, the shape of this community workspace was unpredictable. Indeed, each new channel revealed interests and interconnections that changed how we collaborated with each other, which taught us how to serve and support our community.
The organic paradigm emphasizes conditions within a holistic, interconnected, and purpose-driven understanding of systems and situations. The mechanical paradigm focuses on breaking down complex systems into manageable parts, with an emphasis on predictability and control.
Organic thinking demands greater responsibility because its nature of evolving in unpredictable ways requires paying attention, adapting, and responding to important signs and signals.
We tune into our experience, observe what’s growing and manifesting, notice the conditions, and inquire into interconnections to become attuned to what’s emerging. With organic thinking, we become the gardener that develops the conditions for our aspirations in life.
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