10 Ways Organizations are like Organisms

Posted on September 19, 2012


Chapter 2 of Antonio Damasio’s “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain” introduces the biological aspect of consciousness and the contributions of single cells and processes to an entire organism – from the eukaryotes themselves to the human body. The more I read (and re-read) the chapter, the more analogies emerged between these biological process and the processes of a successful organization.

World’s most famous eukaryote

Here are 10 ways successful organizations are like surviving organisms:

1. The organization must self-regulate. It canot be consciously monitoring micro-processes, turning dials and switches to remain in homeostasis.

2. To remain in homeostasis, the organization must replace its core units with stronger versions of itself. From Damasio: “The life of a single human organism is built of multitudes of simultaneously well-articulated lives.”

Jack LaLanne will always be the man

3. For an organization to retain itself current state, evolution and mutation must be iterative.

4. “Governance of a complex organization is highly decentralized, although it does have leadership centers with advanced powers of analysis and decision, like the endocrine system and the brain.” (Damasio)

5. The desire – the “want” – to achieve the organization’s mission and objectives “precedes explicit knowledge and deliberations regarding life conditions.” (Damasio)

The 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team didn’t know how they would succeed. Their collective “want” led them to the gold medal.

6. A healthy organization makes self-regulation “knowable.” Its sub-systems carry out functions and provide signals when the system is suboptimal or inoperable. Then, and only then, should management and the organization’s players make conscious decisions to addresses organizational challenges.

7. Organizations require a communication feedback loop, akin to neurons, which exists solely for the benefit of all other agents in the organization.

Control of Blood Glucose by Insulin and Glucagon
(Source: http://www.biog1105-1106.org/demos/105/unit8/hormones.html)

8. These feedback systems must be unique and non-reproducible in their current form (like neurons). Feedback networks and knowledge systems must foundationally remain constant, else knowledge pockets and silos form like negative mutations, perhaps benefitting some of the organization but ultimately harming the organization as a whole.

9. When out of homeostasis, the organization must be able to self-repair acutely and quickly.

10. Organizations must have a clear value system, agreed upon by all players and contributors, which allows the organization to rank order and address the challenges to homeostasis, and ultimately, to survive.

Note: I do realize I’m unlikely to be the first to draw these broad analogies. I did not other specific research – these are simply my thoughts recorded as I read this morning… Links and other suggested readings are welcome.

Posted in: management