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The Interdependent Organization

The Friends of the Earth co-op in Melbourne

Review by Sarah Houseman

The Interdependent Organization: The Path to a More Sustainable Enterprise

Rexford H. Draman


Greenleaf Publishing, UK / Routledge

Available from Routledge (inc. e-book)

From my kitchen table to conference and cafe tables, I hear many caring voices urging for action to mitigate the intensifying challenges of climate disruption, biodiversity depletion, human refugees and environmental destruction. But how will we know change is happening? What are the signs indicating a shift in the mindset of the dominant paradigm?

I believe we will know that a profound transformation is occurring when we are integrally part of it. It won't be something that politicians in Canberra or Spring Street tell us to mindlessly incorporate into our daily practices. A new paradigm is not just about changing law to protect people, animals or planet; it means new ways of thinking, and developing new words and metaphors to describe and explain how we see ourselves, change and human society.

The Interdependent Organization explores how this paradigm shift might emerge in our organisations. It is a useful contribution to the growing resource base of books and papers applying understandings from complex systems thinking in biology, physics and computer science to human organisations.

Starting with where we are – entrenched in a hierarchical, command and control, top-down mindset – Rex Draman provides readers with a thorough background in the history of systems thinking. He also evaluates some of the transformative tools and processes that support the development of engaging with a systems mindset in traditional workplaces.

Draman knows the mindset of large, mainstream organisations. Starting out as a second shift foreman at Mohawk Tire & Rubber and ending up as Director of Advanced Manufacturing Technology for a large defence contractor, he has used this knowledge as the foundation of a 20-year career as an academic exploring systems and sustainability in management. While Draman's focus is US-centric, and corporate in orientation, he makes many useful observations for other organisational entities, such as government, small business and non-government organisations.

For those of you who work in an organisational context where you might be embarking on the journey away from hierarchy, I recommend this book as a very useful preparation and a comparative study of linear and systems thinking frames.

The expected and dominant way of conducting business in 2018 is still informed by the scientific management exemplified by mechanistic metaphors and the macro-economic viewpoint. The goal of best-practice cost accounting is to control the minutiae, and account for each minute of activity. It assumes that we will achieve effective and efficient operations through better control and costing of each piece of the organisation.

This worldview is linear, based on the assumption that identifying causes (problems) will enable correct solutions, and the elimination of problems (effect). This way of viewing assumes order and predictability as the standard. Therefore, 'failure' is where disorder or unpredictable outcomes occur. These are met with blame and fault-finding because someone let the system fail.

So how are we doing after 150 years of industrial society? Not well on the inside. One indicator of the failure of macro-economics is how we feel about our jobs. Draman quotes a 2014 Gallup poll where over 70% of employees indicated they were either 'not engaged' or 'actively disengaged' at their place of work. This is an outcome of a system where the overarching goal is profit. Why? This is a narrow and short-term goal. It rewards short-term thinking, originating in the 1970's when the US economy was financialised. The focus in business in the US and in Australia has shifted from the product or service generated to the revenues generated from financing.

The global, national and organisational consequences of financialising are explored in detail in the book. Analysing business change management texts, Draman concludes that the bulk are 'more of the same'. New approaches require us to challenge existing practices, system goals and values. Draman does not dismiss the value of the scientific method to humanity, especially in closed systems such medical or mathematical exploration.

When it comes to complex human systems, linear thinking is not the best framework because thinking as though we have control of the cause and effect of the factors we see as important, does not help us understand and respond effectively to complex, curly and 'wicked' problems of this century. Wicked problems have many variables and interdependencies between parts of the systems. Think of earth's climate system, endemic poverty, the range of factors that contribute to human health, or the education of a child. These are all areas of our society where, despite long-term financial investment and good intentions, the 'problems' never seem to go away.

The book shows how the assumptions of linear thinking create and re-create problems. This is because quick responses and additional control and monitoring are the best ways to fix a machine. We see this clearly in the public discourse around Australian literacy and numeracy standards in school children, where perceived 'failure' has led to more and more controls and monitoring. Politicians and bureaucrats seek to avoid blame and 'find and fix the problem' by a greater focus on teaching the basics in the classroom. The more we try to change things using this mindset, the more it stays the same.

By contrast, a systems approach looks for patterns when disturbances (problems) emerge. This requires a different way of perceiving. The intention is to see the underlying order that will give us insight into the behaviour of each system. Focusing on one part of a complex system will not help us to understand a whole – focusing on one parent does not reveal the dynamics of the family. Learning to recognise a system's flow and feedback loops means understanding and valuing processes, networks and relationships.

Draman identifies and explains the enemies of systems thinking in "we have to fix it quickly", which implies doing it before you understand what 'it' is. "We must make the budget last until the end of the financial year" prioritises short-term, budget-driven fixes that most often inhibit long-term sustainability. And, while there is nothing wrong with information, when "we need more information" is invoked to search for the linear cause or answer, it stifles one's creativity and the ability to see the system. "To hell with the rest of the organisation (or other organisations), we must get our needs met" reflects bunker mentality, a win–lose perspective common from politics to community sectors such as environmental education, when we don't recognise that a healthy system is not a monoculture.

To help us re-frame our businesses and communities as living systems rather than as profit machines, the second half of The Interdependent Organization is devoted to tools and techniques to assist the transition to this new mental model. The assumption is that we change behaviour by changing our focus to measures of performance, equity and happiness. The first step in the transformation to become a learning organisation: embedding the 'action–learning' cycle of plan–act–review and retraining in skills for 'seeing systems'.

Some of the best things are difficult to measure. This is true of experiencing strong levels of trust within an organisation or taking part in open and honest communications between people working together. Draman identifies these qualitative developments as a few of the valuable outcomes of shifting towards a systems perspective. Observations that my research validates.

Broadening our focus from the individual tree to the entire forest leads us to value a diversity of perspectives. It also awakens our curiosity, because to understand how the myriad of interdependent relationships combine to make our forest healthy is a dynamic, life-long endeavour. This is a collaborative way of working, where we experience that the most satisfying and enlivening way of working occurs when we learn to see the whole together.

Reprinted from Eingana, the Journal of Environment, Education Victoria, Vol. 40, No. 1, 2017.

Sarah Houseman a PhD candidate at La Trobe University, and a member of Friends of the Earth Melbourne's Act on Climate Collective. Sarah blogs at [email protected] and you can email her at [email protected]. She consults though Glasshouse Creative Media.

Published in Chain Reaction #132, April 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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