Integral Theory and Project Management–Tenet #4

This series of posts take the Ken Wilber’s introduction to Integral Theory called A Brief History of Everything and discusses the 20 tenets concerning the concept of a holon and how they can be applied to the field of project management.   This post covers tenet #4.    I have been posting one tenet a week on Sundays in a event to cover the 20 tenets in some detail, at least as far as my understanding of them goes.

1.  Recap–definition of a holon

A holon is an entity which consists of components, and yet is itself a component of a larger whole. The reason for the introduction of the concept is that bridges the philosophical divide between those who think that reality is composed of isolated units (atomism) and those who think that it is composed of a large web of interconnected parts). The first two tenets are as follows:

2.  Recap of tenets #1-3

Tenet #1. Reality as a whole is not composed of things or processes, but of holons.

Holons must be considered from the standpoint of interacting with other holons on the same level, and with holons at higher levels (of which the holon is just a part) and lower levels (which comprise the parts of the holon).

Tenet #2 Holons display four fundamental capacities: The horizontal capacities of self-preservation, self-adaptation, and the vertical capacities of self-transcendence and self-dissolution.

Holons follow the dual rules of evolution when it comes to holons at the same level:    survival of the fittest (self-preservation) and survival of the fitting (self-adaptation).    Holons have the property of being able to evolve to the next highest level (self-transcendence), and they can also “devolve” into their component parts (self-dissolution).

Tenet #3 Holons emerge

As mentioned in Tenet #2, holons have the property of self-transcendence or evolution to the next highest level.    This is not just a higher degree of organization, but also involves emergent properties or differences in kind from the level below.

3.   Tenet #4

The fourth tenet is as follows:

Holons emerge holarchically.

Let’s unpack this statement.    Holons, as seen above, are units that are both wholes containing parts and parts of larger wholes.   This kind of concentric nesting of holons reminiscent of the Russian matroshka dolls is considered a holarchy.    In contrast, we see in an organizational chart the usual notion of a hierarchy where those people who work for a supervisor are listed in boxes below the supervisor.    Hierarchy is linear, not concentric like a holarchy.

One of the philosophical controversies about hierarchies is that many groups think of them as being authoritarian, with the person at the top adopting a sort of “”top-down” or, more colloquially, a “my way or the highway” approach to management.    One of the earlier critics of the authoritarian or “top-down” style of management was Douglas McGregor who in the 1960s at the MIT Sloan School of Management developed contrasting models of human motivation in the work place called Theory X and Theory Y.   Theory X was the “top-down” style of management, where a manager assumed that workers needed to be told what to do.  Theory Y was more of a “bottom-up” style of management, where a manager assumed that workers had the intelligence to be able to solve most of their problems themselves, and his role was more of a facilitator than a dictator.

In terms of Integral Theory, the difference between Theory X and Theory Y is that Theory X stands for a “dominator hierarchy” where one holon (the supervisor) totally controls the parts (the workers), which is a pathological or unhealthy form for an organization to take because it suppresses the creativity and initiative of its workers.    Theory Y, on the other hand, is a hierarchy in that there IS a supervisor of the workers.    However, the supervisor, rather than suppressing the growth of the parts (the workers), actually encourages that growth.    This, Ken Wilber, is actually a natural hierarchy or a holarchy.

Critics of the concept of a hierarchy in general come from the left side of the political spectrum, as they create a caricature of all hierarchies as being undesirable, as if they were all guilty of being authoritarian or fascist.    They propose instead what might be called in contrast to a hierachy a heterarchy, or linking among equal parts, rather than ranking among unequal levels.    In essence, this is a model with workers, but no supervisors.

As Ken Wilber likes to point out, this is a pathological form of organization as well, because while it does not suppress the creativity and initiative of the workers (the “parts” of an organization), it does suppress the natural leadership instincts of a worker who wants to become a leader.    Actual  real-life examples where organizations failed because of lack of leadership come from the communes on the left in the 1960s that collapsed because they consistently suppressed any notion of leadership as being oppressive.    The Occupy Wall Street movement similarly collapsed, among other reasons, because they consciously disavowed the very notion of their being leaders of their movement.

What Ken Wilber is saying is that in an organization, there are three states of holarchy, one healthy and two pathological:

  • natural hierarchy or holarchy (where the holon at one level interacts well with the parts at a lower level)
  • dominator hierarchy (where the holon at one level suppresses the parts at a lower level)
  • heterarchy (where the parts at a lower level suppress the emergence of a holon at a higher level)

In political terms, the heterarchy and dominator hierarchy are pathologies of the left and right wing, respectively.    The point as far as project management is concerned is that you want, as a project manager, to encourage the creativity and growth of your team members.    However, if there is a crisis, and they turn to you for a quick decision, they need for you to be able to be a leader and make that decision in an effective and efficient manner.

To use what now probably borders on being  a politically incorrect idiom, there of course can be “too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” but an organization can also suffer if there are only Indians, but not enough chiefs.    The real point is that an organization is never a static thing like the neat boxes of an organization chart would have you believe; it is a dynamic, evolving entity and the way to have it evolve the fastest is for a project manager to have more of the “bottom-up” style of management rather than the “top-down” style of  management, which even in the Mad Men days of the 1960s Douglas McGregor of MIT’s Sloan School of Management thought of as being a dinosaur doomed to extinction.    His job was to hasten that extinction, and herald the coming of a style that promotes evolution within an organization.

The next post will cover tenet #5 of the 20 tenets introduced by Ken Wilber in his book A Brief Theory of Everything.   If you want to read more about Integral Theory, that is the best book for beginners to start.


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