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Holistic Management is Different than “Holistic Thinking” Here’s How

The exciting news is that we do not have thousands of problems to solve. We have thousands of symptoms of ONE problem. Our inability to make sound decisions for complex systems as wholes.

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“Holism is the science of recognising that the parts of any whole, or system (from man-made organisations to natural systems) are in intimate interconnection, such that they cannot exist independently of the whole, or cannot be understood without reference to the whole.”

By Sarah Savory, African Center for Holistic Management

When our technology advanced, it resulted in a gradual change in our natural social and cultural behaviour within our ecosystems. We began to have an increasingly mechanistic world view – everything we manufactured rapidly improved and our technological successes have been incredible (as long as we have ignored their effect on our environment.) With all our focus on technology, our social behaviour changed more drastically – we began to see the natural world as something for us to manipulate and control and we started to manage the complex man made systems we created, and our complex natural systems, the same way we were managing the things we manufactured, which was in complete opposition to the strict laws of nature: we separated. We isolated. We zoomed in. We were making decisions for individual species. Individual animals. Individual plants. Individual people. Individual economies. Individual ministries. Individual departments. Individual problems. Individual needs. Individual desires. Every aspect of our lives got broken down into “manageable” compartments: we formed Governments and Organisations, then separated those into departments and ministries, each designed to manage a small part of far more complex wholes. We zoomed further in, not realising that every decision being made for any one thing in isolation of the whole was knocking-on to effect something else, somewhere else, causing a new set of problems. Then we started trying to deal with those. We blame everything except ourselves. But nothing we blame could possible cause any problems on their own – the ONLY thing we can blame is how we manage things.

Our complex systems don’t behave like the things we make (technology) – the things we make do exactly what they are designed to do. A watch tells us the time. A computer computes. An aeroplane flies. Nothing we make ever does anything unplanned and won’t cause unexpected consequences. They are complicated but they are not complex. But our natural and man-made systems are complex and made up of many different parts – smaller wholes within bigger wholes – they are self-organising and can adjust and continue if a species dies out or someone leaves an organisation. As soon as we form man-made organisations they take on a life of their own and because of the way we manage the parts of them in isolation of the whole, the decisions that come out of organisations are seldom decisions that any sane individual would make – their policies completely lack common sense and are often inhumane and they end up going against the very things they were set up to do, but that doesn’t matter because they cannot be held accountable for their actions. No how many lives are lost, or how much money it costs, we cannot change organisations from within once they are formed – we literally create monsters which we have no control over. The only way we can change them is when enough of the public are putting pressure on them to change.

Right now, humanity is at a crossroads and we have 2 choices…we can carry on isolating ourselves from each other (pun intended) and from our natural world, reducing complex systems into parts and making decisions for smaller and smaller pieces of far bigger wholes: from our families to our governments, which looks like this:

Reductionist: we reduce our lives and our decisions into many “manageable compartments” always making decisions, or developing policies, for small parts of the whole, meeting our immediate needs and desires or addressing problems, all of us making decisions the same way – basing every action on things like past experience, research results, expert advice, profitability, peer pressure, friend’s advice, cash flow, compromise, expediency, laws or regulations, fear, etc, making our decisions with no further consideration, which usually enables us to reach our short-term objectives, but means that almost every single decision has been at the expense of our environment, societies, cultures and economy somewhere further down the line.

Or, we can change one thing, which will connect everything. HOW we make decisions.

Right now, securing our future lies in our ability to change our thinking, or get out of our “comfort zones” and that is something none of us do easily as individuals, let alone our organisations, even if it’s a simple change, but when we take our cue from nature, we can see clearly where we have been getting it so wrong: the “secret” to our future lies in looking at how complex systems (man-made and natural) function in wholes and then we need to apply those principles to our daily decision and policy making framework.

This is not a holistic or systems approach – many people have thought holistically throughout history and many have looked at the bigger picture. There is a whole world of difference between our thoughts and our actions – our genetic decision making process is so instinctive that no matter what approach we use, where the rubber hits the road we always reduce the web of social, economic and environmental complexity and narrow our decisions back down to the problem/need/desire. In order to change that, it will take a very conscious effort in the beginning – think of it like needing a software update to fix an outdated glitch in our brain’s decision making process…it will take a while to get used to the new software.

Holistic Management: we add a couple of new steps to our current decision making process in order to apply the laws of nature, acknowledging the fact that nothing can exist in isolation of the whole, therefore, no decision can be made in isolation of the whole without later impacting something else. And anything that negatively impacts our environment will inevitably end up negatively impacting our societies and economies.

The Holistic Management Framework enables any one of us to successfully do that – we can make sure we are consistently choosing the right actions for whatever unique social, economic and environmental complexity we are dealing with at any given time. We do that by first defining what ‘whole’ we are making decisions for (from an individual to a country) and then we develop a Holistic Context (a profound statement describing what kind of life we want to have – good health, education, clean water, healthy food, prosperity, etc, which we then tie to a description of what the health of our life-supporting environment must be like in order for us and future generations to be able to have that life) and then we use that Holistic Context to guide all our future goals and decisions and we test each suggested action, policy, or practice for ourselves to check what potential effect it might have across the whole being managed – socially, economically and environmentally (in both the short and long-term) before making any decision, always making sure that our actions will be leading us towards our own entirely unique Holistic Contexts and always putting the health of our life support system first – green plants growing on regenerating soils.

Holistic Management gives us foresight. It gives us the ability to pre-empt unwanted consequences and when it is put into practice on a big scale by governments and organisations, it will bring about the reverse knock-on effect of what we are experiencing around the world right now: we would all be united within a Global Holistic Context and would soon see our cultures, societies, economies and natural world begin to thrive.”

The only thing that needs to spread as fast as Coronavirus is this new decision making framework: Holistic Management: connecting everything because everything is connected.


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