Integral Theory and Project Management–tenet #7

This series of posts take the Ken Wilber’s introduction to Integral Theory called A Brief History of Everything and discusses the 12 main tenets concerning the concept of a holon and how they can be applied to the field of project management.  I have been posting one tenet a week on Sundays; this post covers tenet #7.

1.  Recap–definition of a holon, and tenets #1-6

A holon is an entity which consists of components, and yet is itself a component of a larger whole.

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).

Tenet #5  Each emergent holon transcends but includes its predecessor(s)

When a higher level of holons emerges, it incorporates the holons from a lower level but adds emergent properties.  A cell contains molecules, but is an entity which is capable of reproduction, where a property that goes above and beyond what a mere collection of molecules could do on its own.

Tenet #6  The lower sets the possibilities of the higher; the higher sets the probabilities of the lower.

Tenet #5  tells us that the higher level of holon has emergent properties which go above and beyond the lower level.  However, tenet #6 says that the higher level cannot ignore the lower level, and it there is bound to a certain extent by the possibilities set by the holons of the lower level.  However, the higher level also affects the lower level in that, the order imposed by the higher level of holons will influence the patterns in which the lower levels interact.

2.  Tenet #7–The number of levels which a hierarchy comprises determines whether it is “shallow” or “deep”; and the number of holons on any given level we shall call its “span.”

The word for a hierarchy that is formed, rather than like an organizational chart by a series of horizontal and vertical lines, but rather by a concentric series of levels or organization better represented by circles, is called a “holarchy.”    At each level, the measure of the horizontal dimension, that is, the number of holons at that level, is called its “span” in the terminology of Integral Theory.    Now, the number of levels in the vertical dimension, on the other hand, is called its “depth”.   

Let’s give an example from Project Management to sort out this terminology, and then I will deal with its significance.    If you are on a project, the number of team members determines the “span” of the project.    The bigger the project, in conventional terms, the more team members that will be required to do the work.    Now, the more complex the project, the more likely it is that the project will have great “depth” in the form of the number of layers of project organization involved.

Let’s take an aerospace company as an example.    The process of designing a new airplane is a very complex process.    The design of each airplane will actually be a program, which consists of several projects, each of which will be one portion of that aircraft:   the engines, the fuselage, the wings, the cockpit, etc., that then have to be coordinated at the program level to make sure that the portions of the aircraft fit together once designed, prototyped, tested and then manufactured.    Now the project of designing a portion of the airplane, let’s say the engine, will consist of components that are not manufactured by the aerospace company, but by a supplier.    Let’s say that a certain component of that engine will be produced by a supplier.    To the supplier, the same stages of design, prototype, test and manufacture will take place on the component level and will be, from the supplier’s standpoint, a project in and of itself.    To the aerospace company, that component will be a sub-project that needs to be monitored during the process of procurement.

An aerospace company will no doubt have other aircraft, perhaps some for military use and some for commercial use.   They may have, among the ones for military use, different types of aircraft, some fixed-wing, some helicopters, etc.    Because the designs for these various types and usages differ, the thing that binds each of the programs that produce them is the portfolio, which links them together under the common strategic goal of making money for that company.

So wrapping up this example, there are the following levels of organization involving the project:

  1. Sub-project
  2. Project
  3. Program
  4. Portfolio

These vertical levels are the “depth” of the project; as you might guess, the more “depth” to a project, the more complexity the project will have, because coordination must take place vertically downwards (the sub-project), and then vertically upwards (the program and portfolio).    The complexity comes from what was discussed earlier, the fact that, as you go up a level of a holarchy, a concentric form or organization, there is usually some qualitative difference of complexity that is added.   Adding to the span of a project, that is, the number of team members that comprise the project, usually just involves a quantitative difference of the complexity, particularly when it comes to communication between the team members.

From a project management standpoint, you have to be aware that the need for internal coordination of the project is necessary, of course, for the project to succeed, but it is not enough.    If you do not sufficiently coordinate the sub-projects by the suppliers to produce components for your project, your project may fail.    If you do not release the resources when they are no longer needed, that will hurt the program, and thus indirectly hurt your project.    Finally, if you do not pay attention to the strategic goal of the organization when it comes to whatever metric for financial success they set, for example, a certain return on investment (ROI), then your project may have its “plug pulled” by upper management.   

So it is necessary to come to terms with  the number of levels or the “depth” of complexity of the project and not just the amount of resources required to complete the project or the “span” of the project.    Both dimensions must be kept in mind in order to have your project succeed.   In other words, to paraphrase the book title by Fr. Thomas Merton, “NO PROJECT IS AN ISLAND.”


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