Integral Theory and Project Management–the Concept of A Holon (tenet #2)

1.   Introduction

In his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, Ken Wilber lays out the 20 fundamental tenets that he postulates for holons, which are entities that are at once a) wholes that are composed of parts, and b) parts that comprise larger wholes.  This concept of a holon is fruitful in that it bridges the divide in the history of philosophy between theories that postulate the primacy of the many vs. those that postulates the primacy of the one.

Ken Wilber, in his book A Brief Theory of Everything explicates the 20 tenets of holons in a format that is easier to read and understand, meant for people who are looking for an introduction to his other philosophical works.  In this post, I go through the second of these 20 tenets regarding the concept of a holon, and show how it can be applied to the practice of project management.

2.   Tenet #2:  Holons share two horizontal drives, agency and communion, and two vertical drives, self-transcendence and self-dissolution.

a.  Horizontal drives:  agency and communion

The horizontal drives are drives that relate to a holon’s interaction with other holons on the same level.  A holon is a whole and tries to preserve or maintain its integrity as a whole in the face of environmental pressures, including other holons, which would otherwise destroy it or break it up.  It tries to be autonomous in the face of these external pressures, and this is the drive of agency.

One of the phrases that describes evolution is “survival of the fittest”.  In the context of that phrase, the “fittest” organisms are the ones that maintain their integrity in the face of environmental pressures.  But the thing about evolution is that, in order to survive, an organism must not only be fit, but it must also fit into its environment.  So besides being “survival of the fittest”, it is also “survival of the fitting”.  A holon is a whole that must fit together with other wholes, and this is the drive of community.

How does this apply in the case of a project manager?  First of all, let’s think of holons on the level of individual team members.  Each person will want to assert himself or herself on the project by contributing not just his or her own effort, but also his or her ideas on the project.  You want to encourage this tendency towards agency or wanting to make a mark on the project.  However, each person must also get along with his or her fellow team members.  So besides being willing to put forth one’s ideas when called for at a meeting or a brainstorming session, each person must also be willing to listen to other’s ideas as well.  In this way, communication is a two-way street.

Too much “me first” attitude on a project is harmful to group cohesion.  On the other hand, if people are not self-confident enough to give their ideas on the project, then the project may suffer because a person did not have the courage to speak up with an idea that might end up saving the day.  So each person has to be willing to assert oneself and yet co-exist with one’s team members.  A good project manager will be able to nurture both tendencies in the team members.

Now let’s think of the holon at the unit of the project itself.  A project manager must be willing to stand up and be assertive when asking for the resources needed from the organization in order to be able to complete the project.  This is done by showing that giving resources to me and my project will, in turn, be good for the organization as a whole by contributing to its strategic objectives, or to put it in less prosaic terms, “the bottom line.”  The argument can also be framed negatively:  any failure by those who control the organization’s resources to give the necessary resources to me and my project will result in a failed project, which will hurt the bottom line of the company, not to mention its internal morale and external reputation.

However, besides this tendency towards agency or self-preservation of the project on the part of the project manager must also be balanced by the other horizontal tendency of self-adaptation, or fitting in with all of the other projects that an organization has to fund.  In other words, if your project has exceeded its target by using less resources than were budgeted, then release those resources to the organization as soon as possible so that they can be used by other projects.  Periodic reviews of risks, for example, may reveal risks that did not occur at certain trigger points as was predicted, in which case the contingency reserves set aside for responses to those risks will no longer be needed by your project.  Let management know about these reserves that could be released from the project budget.  Management may not decide to use them on another project, and decide to keep them in your project budget for the duration of the project—but the fact that you have been actively searching for resources to be used by the organization should win you appreciation for the effort!

b.  Vertical drives—self-transcendence and self-dissolution

The horizontal drives deal with the interaction of holons with other holons at the same level.  The vertical drives show how holons either break down into subholons (holons at the next lowest level), or come together to form holons at the next highest level.

The standard biological example Ken Wilber cites is that of cells, which, when they do breakdown, break down into their component parts or molecules:  this is the process of self-dissolution.  Under the right conditions, molecules can also come together and form cells, which is the opposite process of self-transcendence.  Cells can do things that a mere collection of molecules cannot:  they have emergent properties which are lost if the cell breaks down into molecules again.

A project is a collection of project team members that can accomplish more than those team members could do on their own:  that is the magic of projects that you can accomplish not just more not just in degree, but in kind than you could by merely collecting the individual efforts of individuals.  Your job as a project manager is to create the magic of a project that is greater than the some of its parts or team members.

Now, if a project is dissolved, in that the project closes or is shut down prematurely, the project itself is over, and the team members, including the project manager, exist as individuals once again, perhaps to be reconstituted in a different combination for another project.  Because a project is more than just the collection of the individuals working on it, it is important to capture the collective wisdom of the group so that it can be used by the organization again on future projects.  This is where documents that contain lessons learned come in.

Now the new project may be so new that none of the lessons learned apply, but many projects are similar to other previous projects done by the company or perhaps done by another company in the same industry, and so the lessons learned from a previous project become the distilled essence or wisdom of the group working on that project, which can save the newly-reconstituted group working on the new project a lot of time by not having to reinvent the wheel.  It’s kind of like the “project DNA” which gets passed from project to project.

3.  Conclusion

Knowing about the horizontal tendencies of self-preservation (agency) and self-adaptation (community) of holons can help a project manager both manage the team members on his or her own project, but also manage that project’s place within the larger organization.

Knowing that a project is more than the sum of its parts can help give a project manager the proper respect for the collective wisdom of the group, and thus give that project manager the incentive to record that perspective for use on future projects.

Next week, I will discuss tenet #3 of a holon.


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