Holonomics: the antidote to reductionism?

Come across a word like ‘holonomics’ (evocative as it is of systems thinking) and one might be forgiven for feeling a slight sense of scepticism. Fortunately, Simon and Maria Robinson, authors of Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, are very quick to dispel any whiff of ‘emperor’s new clothes’ surrounding their ideas. Holonomic thinking is not a “dogmatic annunciation” of a new methodology or toolkit, but rather a much more subtle and nuanced quest to expand our consciousness.

If all that sounds a tad esoteric, it really isn’t. It’s massively important, because our dominant mode of conceptualising the relationship between ‘parts’ and ‘wholes’ is broken – no longer fit for purpose in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Mainstream management and organizational approaches remain largely rooted in the industrial age, where reductionism made perfect sense. Physical tasks could be split into relatively independent parts, each optimised through the division of labour, and ‘reconstituted’ by means of workflow systems. Relationships are framed by the metaphor of ‘business as mechanism’ – a system of discrete parts that fit together as a whole, based on sequential processes and a clear, linear understanding of cause and effect.

Of course there’s only one problem with that. It just isn’t the world we live in any more.

So, what’s the alternative?

Simply put, it’s to view businesses as organisms, not mechanisms – as complex, living, dynamic systems, rather than fixed hierarchical structures. Remove part of a machine and it ceases to function. Take a cutting from a plant, however, and you can grow an entire new plant. As Simon and Maria explain, “There is something fundamentally different about the organization of a plant, whereby the whole is contained within the parts.”

While they certainly aren’t the first (and won’t be the last) to posit the importance of this metaphorical shift, what’s different about holonomics is the ‘both/and’ nature of its expression. The essence of holonomic thinking is to assert neither the primacy of parts over wholes (as per the industrial age paradigm above), nor to do the opposite (a common trap of systems thinking). Rather, in an Opposable Mind sort of way, it’s to hold both the parts and whole in mind at the same time – each part as an authentic expression of the whole, and the whole as an authentic expression of the belonging together of all the parts (no shoe-horns required!).

That the optimum word in all of this should be ‘authentic’ – and that the quality of authenticity becomes ‘known’ through feeling and intuition as much as sensing and thinking – is something that should harbour a natural appeal for anyone making a living in the world of brand and design.

The beauty of the book (at least from my experience of reading it) is that it provides the scientific and philosophical underpinnings for what you always felt to be true, but perhaps couldn’t put your finger on why.

For example, if you want to truly understand what it means to encounter an authentic whole, then you’d be wise to familiarise yourself with phenomenology (the focal point of Part One of the book). Unlike Cartesian philosophy, which rejects the subjective perception of reality as the source of untruth, phenomenology embraces it as inherent to understanding the totality of ‘lived experience’. Of course, this ties in to the well-established notion that brands must speak to our emotions, but it goes much further than that. It illuminates why a truly authentic brand is not some form of artificial construct – a ‘superimposed’ sum of the parts – but rather it is something that ‘comes into being’ through the manner in which we perceive and experience its DNA in each and every part. (As I say In my own book, that’s why literally everything you say and everything you do has the power either to enhance or erode it.)

Likewise, if you want to understand how your organisation really functions (as opposed to how you think it should)  – or if you’re one of those people who still harbours the notion that the environment (biosphere) is a sub-system of the economy (business) – then Part Two of the book is for you. Here, Simon and Maria take us on a guided tour of chaos theory, systems thinking and complexity science, gently nudging us towards the realisation of the nested interdependences between business, society and the environment.

Finally, Part Three seeks to make all this good theoretical stuff more tangible by illustrating evidence of holonomic thinking in practice – from the ‘chaordic’ and ‘latticed’ organisational structures at Visa and Gore Associates to the ‘dynamic way of seeing’ embodied in Toyota’s production system (including an interesting perspective on what caused Toyota to drop the ball a few years back).

If any of that sounds like your cup of tea, then you can take a proper peek inside the book here. While you’re at it, maybe take a look at Marty Neumeier’s Metaskills too – a slightly different, but equally compelling and highly readable guide to developing a ‘higher level of knowing’.

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6 thoughts on “Holonomics: the antidote to reductionism?

  1. Pingback: Holonomics: the antidote to reductionism? | Transition Consciousness

  2. Indy

    Thanks for drawing attention to this. I probably won’t get a chance to read it until Christmas, but it sounds really valuable. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Opposable Mind stuff recently – we should get together and chat about it some time.

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    1. Dan Gray Post author

      No worries, Indy. Apart from just generally being your bag, there was one particular passage that really made me think of you.

      It was to do with Toyota’s production system – how despite the fact that it was inspired by Ford’s Rouge factory, when Ford and GM execs visited Japan, they just couldn’t get what Toyota was doing.

      This was largely because ‘meaning’ was being transmitted implicitly *through the work itself*, rather than having to be explicitly codified in policies, practice etc., and that triggered my memory of something I remember you saying in the dim and distant past over on the CommScrum.

      Definitely up for a catch-up some time very soon. Been way too long!

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      1. Indy

        Turns out I had some spare time this weekend.

        Gut reactions to the book:

        I found it, as a book, a little frustrating.
        There were some really great examples and moments of useful clarity. And you are right – I did enjoy the Toyota example – very close to some of the things I’ve been saying.
        At the same time I did feel that some of the explanations, esp. in the phenomenology section were not easy to follow – and I’ve read a pile of phenomenology over the years. Although maybe that’s the problem – maybe it works better for people with a different background.

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  3. Dan Gray Post author

    Fair comment, Indy. I agree it’s not the easiest book to follow at times, and the fact you’ve read a bunch more stuff on similar subject matter means you might have seen things written better elsewhere. It certainly lacks the easy readability of, say, Marty’s book; then again I’ve seen a helluva lot worse and (for me at least) the upside of having a crash course in phenomenology, complexity theory etc. all framed within a single tome was enough to outweigh any downsides.

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