Integral Theory and Project Management–Tenet #5

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 #5.    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.

NOTE:  When I recently looked at Appendix A in A Brief History of Everything which lists all 20 tenets, I realized that he has broken some of the original 12 tenets into subparts, so what I plan to do is post on the original 12.    It will be a more coherent presentation of the tenets that way, in my opinion.  

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 #1-4 (for details on these tenets, refer to previous posts)

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.

Tenet #4 Holons emerge holarchically

Holons, as seen above, are units that are both wholes containing parts and parts of larger wholes.   This kind of nested or concentric linking of holons reminiscent of the Russian matroshka dolls is considered a holarchy.    In contrast, we see in an organizational chart the traditional notion where parts are linked vertically to the levels above them (the notion of hierarchy), and horizontally to the units at the same level (the notion of a heterarchy).

3.   Tenet #5

The fifth holon is as follows:

Each emergent holon transcends but includes its predecessor(s)

This can be seen by realizing that holons, the units that are both wholes containing parts and parts of larger wholes, link up to higher levels and down to lower levels concentrically rather than in just a horizontal and vertical fashion, like you would get in an organizational chart.    An example from biology would be the fact that atoms form molecules, which in turn link together to form cells, which in turn link together to form organisms.    This holarchical system of concentric organization of systems may seem like a modern idea, but it exists already in classical philosophy and medieval theology.

An example from classical philosophy would be Aristotle’s classification of the different “souls” of organisms.   The word “soul” did not mean what we mean by it today; the “soul” of an organism to Aristotle meant more like the concept of the potentialities or capabilities of that organism.     Here are the three levels of “souls” according to Aristotle

a.   Plants contain a vegetative soul, which allows the organism to take in nutrients.

b.   Animals also contains a vegetative soul, because they take in nutrients, but they also have a motive soul, which allows them to move and reproduce.

c.   Humans contain both a vegetative soul and a motive soul, because they take in nutrients, and they move and reproduce, but they also have a rational soul, which allows them to think and reflect consciously.

In medieval theology, this system was expanded to include a spiritual dimension, and thus a theological system called The Great Chain of Being was developed, as denoted by the diagram below.


Another way of looking at this concentric arrangement of holons is to say that a holon preserves the existence of lower levels of holons, but negates their separateness or isolatedness by binding them in a larger, more complex whole.   There is a downward causation or downward influence where a higher level holon limits the degrees of freedom of the lower holons, and organizes them into new patterns.

4.   Application to Project Management

A team member is part of a project; the project includes its team members, but transcends them as individuals by virtue of the project plan, which organizes their individual efforts in such a way as to accomplish the objectives of that project.   A project manager can preserve the integrity of the individual members by encouraging their talents and capabilities; at the same time, he or she must negate their separateness or tendency to work at cross-purposes by articulating the vision of the project at the outset.

If you go on to the higher level of the organization, you can see that a project is part of an organization; there can be intermediate levels such as a program or portfolio.    But in any case, a project must serve the strategic business objectives of the organization.    Management can preserve the integrity of the individual projects by giving them the resources they need to be completed; however, management must also negate the tendency to take so many resources that the larger strategic business objectives cannot be met.    A project manager can help with this as well by understanding those strategic objectives and making sure that the project is in line with them.    Any proposed changes to the project must be analyzed, therefore, not only with regards to the effects of those proposed changes on the various constraints of the project (mainly the scope, time and cost), but also with regards to these strategic objectives.

For example, if a project was picked because its return on investment (ROI) was more favorable than other projects that could have been chosen, then if changes to the project require that it take longer than expected, then the project manager must compute the new ROI (which in this example would most likely be lower than before) and make sure that the new ROI is still favorable to those of the projects.    If not, then the project manager must coordinate in two directions:   he or she must communicate to management and to the team members that this proposed change will no longer align it with the strategic objectives.    The team members must be therefore aware that this change in the project may require that the management cannot no longer support it and may therefore “pull the plug” and close the project prematurely.    This may make them come up with a different solution that produces the objectives of the project without jeopardizing the overall strategic objectives of the organism.

5.   Conclusion

The fact that an emergent holon includes but also transcends its predecessors (i.e., lower-level holons) has important implications for project management in that the higher level must utilize all the capabilities and potentialities of the units from the level level, but must add to it a higher level of organization or patterning which keeps those units from working against each other, and for a common purpose.    As a project manager, being sensitive to this principle will help motivate your team members, who depend in part on the leadership of the project manager for motivation, and will help maintain good relations with management, upon whose resources your project depends.

The post one week from today will cover tenet #6.


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