Podcast: Dr. Jeff Su and the Power of Regenerative Organizations

Earth2Earthlings co-hosts Jesse McDougall and Daniel Griffith recently invited Dr. Jeff Su, Managing Director of nRhythm onto the podcast. In this episode, they speak about the power of regeneration within human organizations and Jeff shares some context about why nRhythm came to be. There’s even a chance you may hear a dad joke or two.

For those of you who are new to our work, nRhythm was created from the recognition that organizations of all kinds including farms, non-profits, tech companies, government offices, and multi-national networks are all suffering from the same intractable problems from being run like a machine. We believe that if organizations are designed and managed as living systems we can regenerate people, workplaces, communities and ultimately our planet. 



Listen to this episode of Earth2Earthlings Podcast with Jeff Su, Managing Director of nRhythm.

Listen to this episode here and read our favorite excerpts below (which have been edited for brevity).

Excerpts We Love

"Newton’s reductionist approach of looking at the parts of the system worked so well that we (we meaning global, western, secular, scientific thought) assumed we could approach all kinds of other human endeavors in a similar way – economies, ecology, land systems, education, medicine etc. We assumed that we could piece systems apart, look at the individual parts, find the universal principles that govern the universal parts, and that apply this approach to the whole system.


And this, of course, gets to the complex versus complicated problems. When systems are complex, they can't be approached that way. We can't study them and learn from them in that way. And so back to your holistic science question. The whole field of science has assumed that we can approach the scientific phenomenon or any phenomenon with this reductionist approach. Now, it's interesting, if you look into the history of the scientific method, we learned it in school as if there was someone in history like Mr Science or some Greek philosopher, you know, Science Opolis or something that that invented this whole philosophy, but there isn't. It's a set of precedents, a set of assumptions, a set of approaches from Newton and Descartes and Galileo and all kinds of thinkers that led to what we now call the scientific method. And there's nothing in this that specifically says we have to take this reductionist approach. 


There are some great thinkers who are inherently studying phenomenon that can't be approached in this way, that are taking a different approach like Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. They were the first to take a holistic approach – let's study the system as a whole. Let's assume from the outset we can't take any part out of the system and study it on its own. They came up with a very different and very incredible formulation of what living systems actually are. And that's the approach that we at nRhythm are taking to organizations. 


If we're designing with holism in mind, it's the recognition that the goal of coming together as an organization and the fruition of those goals and that abundance is an emergent property. It's something that is more than the sum of any individual parts. It's dependent on all of the interdependent relationships in that system. It's recognizing that each member of the system is unique and the system as a whole has to evolve and maintain a dynamic balance with its environment, with ever changing conditions. And it’s inherently not controlled by any central processor figure or structure. It's decentralized, it's nodal, it's distributed, and it develops over time. And those are design principles that we bring to organizations, to networks, to communities, to government entities."

"It’s really interesting when we apply the thinking around living system science to human organizations. All of the patterns that are studied in living systems relate to  biophysical processes – the things that are exchanged, the things that are moving, the atoms, nutrients, carbon, and nitrogen. It's biophysical things. In an organization, we recognize that the equivalent of what is being exchanged, or what is flowing through the system, is information. It's information in the form of decisions. It's information in the form of ideas pulled together. Those combinations of decisions and information is what's often called culture, right? Or society or organization. 


A great researcher, Nicholas Luman, coined the term cultural autopoiesis. Autopoiesis was applied to the biophysical nature of self-maintenance within a cell. If we're looking at organization, then we are thinking of 'what is regenerated?' It’s actually information. What's being regenerated is ideas and the thought processes that come together through the decisions we make, the actions we take with each other in the human system. The interdependent members of an organization are people and what we need in a healthy system is energy and information to flow through those people. 


So we think of four key aspects of a healthy organization that is really similar or analogous to the inherent ecosystem processes in building healthy soil. The equivalent of a water cycle or solar cycle or nutrient cycle in an organization is first and foremost thriving people and Energy Flow. It’s people and their passions, thriving, and wishes, and allowing themselves to develop and grow and express their genius in that organization. 


The other aspect is the Communication Cycle and that information needs to be exchanged in a way that each member can use that information in context, apply it, integrate it, and pass it on in context. 


The other process is what we call Network Connections. It is equivalent to biodiversity. In an organization, it’s about the diversity of ideas, thoughts, people, and backgrounds you have within your organization, but also the diversity and types of connections you have to your partners and your clients, and even your competitors. 


The last aspect is this idea of ideas needing to die and is what we call the Information Cycle. It’s probably more accurately as the Information Life Cycle. And this is not so much analogous to predator or prey as it is analogous to the idea of nutrient cycle. We know in nature that if things can't decay, nutrients get stuck. 


In grasslands, if there isn't the presence of grazing animals, then all the nutrients just oxidize and that grass becomes gray. Those nutrients do not get reincorporated. Soil needs to be grazed upon to bring those nutrients to decay. Individual grass plant needs to die for nutrients to be reorganized into the soil to give birth to new life. And so we think of ideas in a similar way. If ideas, processes and decisions are not allowed to evolve or just get stuck, then they won't be able to be reorganized and give you energy and new life to something else. 


I think this is recognizance or the product cycle. How did Kodak not take advantage of digital photography? How did BlackBerry not take advantage of smartphones? They couldn't reorganize their inherent information in a new way to take advantage of a changing market. We also see it within an organization in meetings, structures, and decision making. How do we keep things fresh? How do we continue to ask ourselves the question, is the reason for this no longer relevant? Should we allow it to die so we can reorganize those ideas, that energy, those resources into something to give birth to something else?"

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