Living Systems : Learning From Nature Exercise

Posted on by Brandon Klein

To understand organizations, it’s often instructive to look at life and how living things work. In this module, a DesignTeam (or teams) compare the model of Living Systems (based on the work of biologist James Grier Miller) to the activities of their organization (or industry, society, et cetera). This is an analysis exercise that can be part of Scan or Focus.

To analyze the functions of an organization in terms of the characteristics of all living systems; by implication, to treat organizations as living systems, and thus possessing characteristics greater than the sum of its parts.

This module is appropriate for Scan (Identity-Vision), and can also be used in Focus (though it tends to re-open Scan questions and issues). Requires a typical DesignTeam round (90 - 120 minutes).

Strengths — Promotes systems thinking and systematic assessment of the functions of an organization. Often brings new insight. Weaknesses — This model is not easily understood in a short period of time. What is meant by an “input transducer” (one of the named functions) anyway? It’s hard for people to pick up on this quickly.

Specifications for Success — 1. Use this as one of several ways of challenging participants to think of their organization in new ways (i.e., parallel process this with different assignments that serve the same purpose). 2. I recommend preparing a good hand-out for participants to use: giving some explanation of the terms (not just the list of terms, as in the model). Perhaps Miller’s book has this. (See also Bryan’s write-up of this).

If possible, a copy of Living Systems (Living Systems, by James Grier Miller, (New York: MacGraw-Hill, 1978)