Regenerative Shifts

The Energy Source of Organizations

What is the first image that comes to mind when thinking about energy sources? For most of us, it is most likely a machine. When we need to get from one place to another, we fill up the vehicle with fuel and we are off to our destination. If we are trying to send an email, we ensure that we have electricity to our computers or phones so that we can send a message to a friend or colleague. The energy source allows these machines (vehicles, computers, phones) to function so that we can complete a certain activity. More energy, more capacity to do more work.  


When we manage living systems we also can also identify and understand the source of energy. For instance, to create the conditions for plants to grow and mature, we need to ensure that plants have access to solar energy. Access to this energy allows for the plants to grow and mature through the photosynthetic process by converting carbon dioxide into sugars. Energy plays a crucial role in ecosystems to help organisms carry out their daily activities.  


There is a remarkable array of ecosystems on the planet, each with a myriad of energy transfer processes that create the conditions for constant regeneration and resilience.   

The Machine Design 


Now let’s talk about organizations. Are organizations more like a machine or a natural ecosystem? Over the last several hundred years our institutions have developed and adopted an industrialized process that mimics the design of machines. We have used the machine metaphor to describe departments as cogs, people as parts and outputs as profits. We even use idioms like, “running like a well-oiled machine” or “I don’t have bandwidth for that” to describe ourselves and our organizations as mechanistic. This metaphor and these common idioms have been powerful in influencing the design of organizations. Well-known American billionaire, Ray Dalio, describes individuals as a machine: 

If the organization is a machine, departments are cogs and people are parts, what is the fuel? What is the energy source of an organization?  


Money! Increased profits or cash generated from an organization allows us to create even more productivity. And like a machine, if we provide the machine with even more fuel (cash) then we can generate even more! Productivity and efficiency become the primary levers to increase cash. Of course, some machines are more productive and efficient than others, but the design is clear, straightforward and replicable. It makes complete sense. When you think about the design of our current organizations, economies, and communities, it is all designed to run on the fuel of money. If there is a problem, investment (money) will solve it. If there is an opportunity, investment (money) will exploit it. When we place a value (money) on our natural resources, we extract it! Let’s think about this design very carefully. Here is a simple way to demonstrate. 


Economies = Networks of Machines 

Organizations = Machines 

Departments = Cogs 

People = Parts 




We will save a full evaluation of the consequences of this design for another time. However, we would like to ask three simple questions:  

  1. How does this design make you feel?  

  1. Does this design value an individual’s unique contributions?  

  1. What happens when people are seen as tools or parts and money as the energy?  

We encourage you to spend time with colleagues and answer these questions as a way of evaluating the appropriateness of the machine design.  

The Living Systems Alternative 


Now, let’s ask the original question again, but with a little twist. What if organizations were understood as living systems versus machines? What would this approach say about people and organizations? In answering this question, we must learn more about how living systems function.  


While, the question of what makes life unique from non-life continues to be researched there are a number of insights from recent research that demonstrate that living systems have the following unique qualities that machines do not. (In our next blog where we will discuss these insights and research in more detail).   

  • Living systems can maintain and regenerate themselves, without any external inputs.   

  • Living systems depends on all the unique members of the system and  the interdependent relationships between all parts of the system.  

  • Life is not centrally located or controlled in the system but instead is a holistic, emergent property of the whole system 

  • Living systems not only develop and evolve with their environment, they actively create the conditions necessary for life.   

  • Mutualistic relationships are necessary to maintain living systems and symbiotic evolutionary events have been the most significant sources of new life throughout the history of life. 

From these insights we have identified six principles that provide us guidance into how organizational design might change when we design with life in mind.  

The principles provide the foundation for both organizational design and evaluation and we offer them as a primary alternative to the current mechanistic design. Buckminister Fuller, one of the most famous designers of the 20th century said, “Work with life centered principles & the universe pitches in to help.”

Organizations as Living Systems: The Energy Source


If the organization is a living system, what then is the energy source? The entire biosphere is the energy source, but more specifically, the energy flowing through the inderdependent relationships of all individual team members creates the necessary conditions for individual and organizational potential. Yes, we believe that every organization is an living system of people who are unique contributors in interdependent connections with one another and its partners. The living system’s health is intimately connected to the decisions and behaviors of its members. Recognizing this, shifts the focus away from efficiency and productivity as the primary measures to nurturing a healthy environment that allows the individual members to thrive.


In contrast to the mechanistic system, in living, regenerative organizations, people are the energy source and finance (money) is the tool! General McCrystal, commander in Iraq from 2003-2009 describes this new design in his book, Team of Teams,    


“The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an “Eyes-On, Hands-Off” enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.”


McChrystal, Stanley. Team of Teams (p. 232). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


If people truly are the energy source for organizations, then our entire design and strategy should change and embrace a living systems approach. It is time to release humanity’s potential by redesigning organizations to embrace the life, creativity, innovation and diversity within our teams.


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