Integral Theory and Project Management–Tenet #9

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 #9.

1.  Recap–definition of a holon, and tenets #1-7

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.

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.”

Tenet #8  Each successive level of evolution produces GREATER depth and LESS span

This tenet follows from tenet #7 if you think about the definition of “depth” and “span” of a concentrically organized system of a holarchy.   Ken Wilber makes this point because if you look at the concentric diagrams of any holarchy, the circle containing the highest level of organization is going to be on the outside, and the visual impact is that it has greater “span” in terms of area.    He is simply emphasizing the fact that span refers to the number of holons at the same level; the reason why the circle is so large is so that it can encompass the lower levels inside of it.    The fact that the largest circle, representing the holon at the highest level, has several circles within it actually means that it has the greatest depth because it includes the most levels or holons (represented by the nested series of circles inside of it).

2.   Tenet #9–Destroy any type of holon, and you will destroy all of the holons above it and none of the holons below it.

The lower level of holon, while having less depth than the higher level (based on tenets #7 and #8), is nonetheless more fundamental for precisely the reason mentioned in the tenet.   If you get rid of the lower level of holon, you are in fact getting rid of the very components of the higher level.

It is very important to remember as a project manager, that despite the significance of all that you do as a manager of the project, and despite the fact that the project charter and your authority has to be sponsored by management, without the team members you would not have a project at all.   They are truly fundamental to the project’s success; that is why you must take care of the members of your team.

This more “nurturing” idea of management seems a far cry from the old “top-down” theories of management that were once espoused in business schools, the “my way or the highway” philosophy of old.    But I was reminded of this reality at a Toastmasters speech contest recently, where the Area Governor had a t-shirt on that said “Servant Leader”.    I asked him, “hey, which one are you, the servant or the leader?”   He replied, “I’m both–in order to lead my team, I have to serve its members.”   With that explanation, I got the concept.

Now, this works at the next level up, a program has more “significance” to a company than a project because it has more depth, meaning that includes the coordination of a series of interrelated projects.    However, the health of a program ultimately depends on what?   The health of the individual projects.    So a program manager has to realize that without the project managers you would not have a program at all.    They are truly fundamental to the program’s success; that is why you must take care of the project managers.

Many managers mistake being significant with being fundamental.    They are more significant to the company than the individual team member, because their work encompasses more of what the company is doing.    However, they are not more fundamental to the company, because if the project is not doing well, they can be replaced as project managers, but the company cannot get rid of all the team members and start the project over.    The new project manager will have to deal with the same team members, the same resources as the old project manager, and must coax out of those same people and resources a success that eluded the previous manager.

This tenet is, therefore, a lesson in humility and a warning against humiliation of any the members of your team for having made mistakes.    Failure is to be seen as an opportunity to learn, not to be cast in terms of blame or moral failing.    By understanding that the team member is more fundamental to the project than you are as the project manager, the more likely you will treat that team member with the respect that he or she deserves.     Once you do so, you will be surprised at how much more engaged that team member will be in the success of the project.



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