Flourishing First – Introduction

How we can change our businesses and communities to give us all more connection, meaning, growth and joy, and why nothing less will fix the crises we face.

Welcome, dear reader, to this first issue of Flourishing First. I had originally envisioned these writings as a book, but I’ve since realised that squirrelling myself away for months on end would not be the right way to go, so here I am, writing in public. What’s to come will probably make more sense if you think of it as a serialised book.

OK, here goes. Wish me luck! ~Tom

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Me first.

Two small words have provided much of the energy driving human progress. When we each pursue our personal self-interest, or so the story goes, things get better for everyone. But when everyone wants to be first, something’s got to give. Deeply intertwined with our ideas of success is an uncomfortable necessity: control over others. As a result, we now have a society where almost everything – business, politics, science, education, healthcare, and on and on – is organised into huge systems of top-down command-and-control.

There is a flaw in this plan. Our wild world defies control. The unintended consequences of our biggest successes are mounting up. What started as a few carbon emissions, a little pesticide leaching into a river and a bit of lost human connection, is now culminating in runaway global warming, a million species at risk of extinction, and a raging mental health crises.

What if we could flip the story, so that helping each other find the things we really need – connection, meaning, growth and joy – was not a side-effect of progress, but the whole point? And what if the businesses and institutions that pulled off this flip ended up more effective and more efficient than before? The shift towards a kinder world might become unstoppable.

It’s already happening. This is the story of extraordinary new companies and communities that are figuring out how to place human flourishing before control, with spectacular results. They are living systems because they borrow some neat tricks from nature: life blooms when we get our self-centred agendas out of the way, healthy balance comes when systems self-regulate, and flourishing environments spontaneously lead to more flourishing. Control deadens, but life begets life.

Looking carefully at these stories, five principles of living systems emerge: truth, connection, autonomy, service and growth. In these principles we find a link to some of our greatest insights, both ancient and modern, revealing the historic significance of the shift unfolding around us. Pulling all this together, a process comes into focus that can help us gradually bring our businesses, our communities and ourselves back to life. What follows, in this issue and those to come, will be a deep dive into why we need to put flourishing first, and how this process works.

Good Stories, Big Ideas

The how of living systems is, in a way, the easy part: others are already figuring it out. A huge shift, from top-down control to bottom-up flourishing is already well underway. We are finally leaving behind false assumptions that workers are lazy, self-serving and only useful when following orders. In fact, decades of research and practice have shown that when given the chance we are resourceful, responsible, creative and generous. Our best work comes when we have autonomy, purpose and the support we need to grow.

In parallel, digital communication technologies are transforming the ground-rules of cooperation. Thanks to our new found abilities to effortlessly discover, connect and transact with each other, much of the traditional machinery of organisation is becoming redundant. The impact of these changes has only just begun.

Together, these two trends rewrite the very DNA of organisations and communities. Management, authority and rigid job descriptions are giving way to self-directed teams and fluid roles. Command-and-control is losing out to sense-and-respond. People and purpose are starting to matter more than profit, and yet profits continue to flow.

I will be retelling some of the stories of this shift to examine how different organisations and projects are moving towards the ideal of living systems. Examples include: from business, Dutch healthcare firm Buurtzorg with its ten thousand nurses but zero managers, and tomato processing giant Morning Star where authority over others is entirely banished; from social care, Hilary Cottam’s Participle and the power of relationships and capabilities; from politics, the radical trust of Big Organising and India’s remarkable ‘neighbourocracy’; from sustainability, the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s research on ‘social-ecological systems’; from community life, the work of John McNight and Asset Based Community Development and from mental health care, the shift in focus from medication to social prescribing and stronger communities.

From these stories and many more, the aim is to uncover the lessons learned and the common themes. By connecting the dots, we can firstly see how broad this movement is, but more importantly, how practical the discoveries are. There is something here for every business and every community that wants to join in. The most important lesson of all is that human flourishing is something we have to do together. All of the breakthroughs from these pioneers are about how to do that.

The why of living systems is trickier. Any claim that a particular course of action will turn out well is obviously a prediction for a story not yet written. This is the realm of big ideas – not practice but theory – and that should raise some alarm bells. Grand theories of human progress have a very sketchy history, having more than once led to genocide.

The ideas I will be sharing are more a sort of anti-theory. Drawing together insights from philosophers, artists, poets, architects and system thinkers, and ideas from psychology, mathematics, complexity science and economics, I will piece together an argument, part logical and reasoned, part poetic and intuitive, that the best way to make the world a better place is to forget the complicated ideas and try to improve things a little for the people right next to us, and yes, for ourselves. That might sound self-indulgent, but there is good reason to believe it is this and only this that will turn out for the best for all of us, and for our natural home.

If ‘be nice to each other’ doesn’t sound like an idea poised to change the world then read on, because there is meat on the bone. True, it is more than fifty years since the Beatles sang All You Need is Love, and true, many of the folks singing along at the time later decided what they really needed was a killer property portfolio, but something important has changed.

Back then we didn’t know how. Now we do.

Love in Action

The hard part about all-you-need-is-love, it turns out, is scaling up. If love and scaling up don’t sound like they belong in the same sentence, that rather makes my point. The bonds of love between us are incomparably more powerful than any other kind of relationship, but we struggle to extend them beyond our immediate circle.

This presents a crucial difficulty for the more loving world we might wish for. The days when we organised ourselves in groups no bigger than the extended family are long gone. Today, huge systems keep society ticking. They are here to stay and will continue to shape our lives. There’s no way around it: for a kinder world, we need kinder systems. That means kinder ways for large numbers of people to work together.

We are so accustomed to institutions that are essentially heartless, the idea that something like an education system or a food production system could be organised around love sounds hopelessly impractical. And yet, something extremely practical is happening. The new approaches to cooperation behind this shift are so down to earth, even those in the middle of these companies and communities might overlook the full significance. These are not stories of acoustic guitars and tie-dye, but of regular people doing perfectly normal work extremely well. Only when we look carefully at the organising principles at play, do we discover love as the underlying motivation.

The principles which I see cropping up again and again are five: truth, connection, autonomy, service and growth. We will be taking a careful look at how these principles work in large systems later on, but right away we can see something fascinating: these principles are not new at all. In our personal relationships with those we love, they are entirely familiar.

What does it mean, practically speaking, to love someone? We confide in them and have the courage to be honest (truth). We obviously have a deep connection with them, but we also know that if you love somebody (to borrow some lyrics from Sting) you should set them free (autonomy). We offer them kindness and support (service). And finally, how do we live up to such lofty ideals? Bit by bit. Love is not something we can just “do”, but something that grows.

All this is simply a way of talking about things that come perfectly naturally, as old as the hills. Love in action. The breakthrough is that these principles scale up.

Living Systems

Suppose you wanted to see more love at work, say, within a project team. If you’re not cringing already, your colleagues might well be when you bring it up. But even if, like some progressive organisations these days, you manage to get past such unhelpful conditionings, what would you actually do? Free hugs? Bake cookies? At some point you’ll need to get back to work, and old habits will return. The heartlessness of traditional organising runs deep. This is about where the flower-power generation got stuck. Work shapes the world. Being more loving on the weekend is not enough.

But an organising principle, like truth, is another matter entirely. A whole host of simple practices can be brought to bear. Transparency is an obvious one that’s already well established, and more far-reaching ideas are popping up. Facilitated meetings, writing down work agreements, and prioritising psychological safety are just a few examples. They all make teams more honest and more aligned. They promote truth.

We can scale up further. The same practices can apply to a whole department or a network of teams. We might turn to technology to improve transparency, with a shared knowledge store or an open question and answer forum. Service agreements between teams can be agreed upon and published. In short, we make a systemic commitment to truth.

The other four principles work the same way. Connection and autonomy join to become connected autonomy, the dynamic dance playing out at every level of scale in living systems. These are the two fundamental forces of cooperation, in opposition and yet creating each other, as in the Taoist principle of yin and yang. To be completely autonomous is to be disconnected; to be completely tied by connections is to lack autonomy. Conversely, without a strong self there is nothing for connections to hold on to, yet without the support of others, the self withers. Connection through autonomy, autonomy through connection. All this applies to people, to teams, to communities and beyond, as symbolised by the fractal yin yang from the header of this issue.

Service is the structural principle that allows connection and autonomy to coexist. Individuals, teams and organisations are connected by the services they offer, not the rules they impose. Offering rather than controlling expresses the humility that is essential if life is to emerge. If I do what is asked of me as best as I can, things will work out. Each part acts in service of something greater.

Finally, growth is the living process by which the whole thing takes shape. Living systems cannot be designed intellectually and then implemented. They emerge from the collective intelligence of the community. The system is not built in pieces but starts whole and stays whole, developing through small, adaptive, experimental steps, each grounded in the lived reality of here and now.

All of this is, of course, a work in progress. Whether or not these five really are the fundamental principles of living systems is a question we can work on together. The more important idea is that there are core principles of love in action, that can also be used in systems of large scale cooperation. This is now beyond doubt, and the implication is startling. Asking people to love everyone at work might be a tall order, but organising ourselves as if we did turns out to be surprisingly simple (if not always easy). And it works wonders; living systems are not charities that rely on handouts to make a kinder world, they just work better.

If that wasn’t enough, the same five principles turn up again and again, as a golden thread running through cherished inherited wisdom, works of art and philosophy, and from there on to modern advances in mathematics, psychology, computer science, systems thinking and even (one of my favourite stories of all) architecture. It turns out we have known this stuff for a long time, and it is all now coming into sharp focus from multiple angles.

We are discovering the systemic patterns of large scale cooperation that express genuine togetherness, kindness and compassion. By honouring these principles, we can create living systems, in which large numbers of us can work together in a manner that is fundamentally life-giving. We flourish. And when we flourish – not because we got the promotion or the car or the accolade, but because we find connection, meaning, growth and joy—our world will flourish too.

Life vs. Control

By contrast, the vast majority of the systems that run the world today are based on a very different core principle: control.

To an overwhelming degree, the modern world is shaped by industrial-scale, top-down, command-and-control: production, distribution, commerce, science, education, governance, healthcare, all of it. They are not living systems but control systems. Pretty much our entire history has been shaped by one way of working together: rules and rulers.

If — as Yuval Noah Harari tells us in Sapiens — cooperation at scale is our magical power, bossing people around has always been the secret to the trick, because it scales like crazy. Rulers get rules of their own. The big cheese is subject to an even bigger cheese, and so on and on, big as you like.

We must not forget that, on one level, command-and-control has been doing an incredibly good job. Compared to our forbears, we are all vastly less likely to be murdered or killed in a war or starve to death, to be constantly cold or in pain or hungry, to be enslaved or otherwise brutally oppressed, to be blighted or killed by a horrible disease, to be illiterate, to work ourselves into an early grave, or to witness our children perish before growing up. While we cannot gloss over the painful fact that these things are all still happening, from the long perspective they are all in dramatic decline.

But a dark undercurrent ever present is now building into a tsunami (and depending on your gender, ethnicity, and where you call home, it might have always been one). Despite our successes, the idea that we could control everything – to become “masters and possessors of nature”, as Descartes put it – has been an abject failure. Control always has a side-effect, always an unintended consequence. These don’t disappear but start accumulating somewhere, and the debt is coming due. The ice caps are receding and anxiety is rising. Societies are fragmented. Inequality is making a dramatic comeback. Democracy is suffering from extremism on one side, disengagement on the other, and manipulation throughout.

Life is wild, spontaneous and free. Life is self-organising and unpredictable. Control is anti-life.

Until we understand this, our attempts to build a kinder world will always end up recreating the same old problems in new forms, as generations of revolutionaries have learned the hard way. At last we have a better way. We are finally figuring out how to scale up caring cooperation without slipping back into our deeply ingrained habits of control.

“Cruel Works of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic, Moving by compulsion each other; not as those in Eden, which, Wheel within wheel, in freedom revolve, in harmony and peace.” William Blake, Jerusalem

Love and Fear

If living systems are ultimately motivated by love, what is the driving impetus behind control systems? It is of course just the opposite. The opposite of love is not hate but fear.

The “me first” story of progress casts us as selfish individuals seeking wealth and power. A more cooperative story would leave us all far better off, but if everyone else is looking out for number one, it would be terribly risky not to do the same. In a world of competitors, fear is the great motivator. Whether we face primal fears for our very survival or more modern insecurities, the result is much the same: the scary world must be brought under control. Security comes from wealth, power and popularity, and so we call these things “success” and drum it in from childhood.

And so we arrive at the full understanding of the moment we find ourselves in. Fear demands control. Love nourishes life.

The shifts taking place are at the very foundation of life and society. Deep truths that were once the preserve of philosophers and mystics are spoken in offices and community centres. The stories of living systems are taking us from a world driven by fear, to a world pulled by love.

We are waking from a collective ego trip thousands of years long, to discover the perfect world we were trying to build was nothing but a fortress against our fear of each other, while the garden we always wanted to live in was right here all along. The problem was, we didn’t know how to live in the garden and enjoy all the wonders of progress at the same time.

And now we do.

In the issues to come, I hope to do such grand themes justice. I hope you find the connections as fascinating as I do, and I hope especially for hope itself – that all this can do a little to restore a sense of optimism for the future, because there is great reason for it. The breakthroughs are very real, and they really work. Ultimately we need to inspire each other to get out there and get to work. There’s a garden that needs tending and it’s going to be a beauty.

Thanks for reading! Please give me a shout out on your social media if you think your followers would be interested, and/or follow me (@tslocke) on Twitter.

And if you enjoyed this first issue, please subscribe! Here’s a taste of some of the things to come:

  • The many failings of control systems, from institutionalised stupidity to moral failings, and a disastrous mismatch with the structure of our toughest problems.

  • A deeper look at the five principles of living systems, especially the key breakthrough of connected autonomy, and at the practical process by which businesses and communities can develop into living systems.

  • The five principles as a theme running through much of our cherished heritage wisdom, in particular the Taoist classic the Tao Te Ching and the symbolic art and poetry of England’s William Blake.

  • The links between old insights and new, including the work of systems thinker Donella Meadows and psychologist Robert Keegan.

  • The convergence mathematics and nature found in chaos theory and complexity science, where the principles of living systems show up yet again.

  • The breathtaking search for living structure in the work of architect Christopher Alexander, and his important insights into the process by which it emerges.

  • And of course, a great many stories of living systems.