Integral Theory and Project Management–Tenet #10

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 #10.

1.  Recap–definition of a holon, and tenets #1-9

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).

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.

Thus the higher level is more significant, in terms of adding coordination and direction to the lower level of holons, but the lower level of holons are more fundamental to the enterprise, because without them, there would BE no higher level of holons.   In terms of project management 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 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.

2.  Tenet #10–Holarchies coevolve

Recall that a holon is an entity which is both a whole and a part of a larger whole, and a holarchy is that concentric nesting of holons at higher levels.    What does “coevolve” mean?    An individual holon exists in an environment, and it evolves to fit into the environment.   When the environment changes, the holon must also change in order to maintain its fitness.  

One of the statements people usually associate with the idea of evolution is “survival of the fittest.”   This phrase was not coined by Charles Darwin, but by Herbert Spencer, a British economist who acted as a sort of publicist of his day about the ideas of evolution.    However, I have always disliked this phrase for the following reason.    What does “fittest” mean?   It implies that an organism that is fittest is somehow strongest, that there is some sort of innate quality which makes it fit and therefore deserving of survival.    A phrase which comes close to the actual process of evolution is “survival of the fitting“.   An organism best survives which best fits into the environment in which it exists.

What happens if the environment changes, or “evolves”?   The organism must also evolve or change with the environment, that is, it must “co-evolve” with the environment in order for it to survive.

What does tenet #10 mean in the context of project management?    Every project manager exists in a system of best practice regarding project management which is codified by the Project Management Institute into the Project Management Body of Knowledge or PMBOK®.   What people sometimes refer to as “the PMBOK®”, the book from which people study to take the Project Management Professional exam, is actually more technically called the PMBOK® Guide”.    You are supposed to be aware of best practices in the field of project management even if they do not appear in the Guide.   How do you do this?    Well, if you quality for the PMP exam, take the exam and pass it, that doesn’t mean you are a PMP for life.   You must also fulfill a continuing education requirement by earning Professional Development Units, which you can fulfill in a number of ways, such as

  • E-learning
  • PMI Community Events–monthly dinners, webinars, educational sessions
  • Registered Education Provider (R.E.P.) courses
  • Volunteer service

In this way, the project manager can learn about the evolving body of knowledge in the field of project management.    In order to survive in the fast-changing world of project management, therefore, the project manager must evolve as well through training, which is the whole point of the PDU system of continuing education.

Another example of the principle espoused in tenet #10 that “holarchies co-evolve (with their environments)” is the fact that companies in a certain application area need to evolve as the industry in that application area evolves.    The rapid growth of agile methodology in products involving IT development is a great example of this.    The recognition of the growing importance in the IT industry of agile methodology has meant that PMI is developing a new, separate category of certification called PMI-ACP or PMI-Agile Certified Practitioner to meet this demand for agile methodology.

One of the reasons why I took on this project of going through the entire 5th Edition of the PMBOK® Guide on my blog was not only to assist those who were studying for the PMP exam based on that new edition, but also to enrich my own  understanding of how the project management field had evolved, as seen through the eyes of the PMI.   I figured that the new processes, new definitions, and other features of the 5th Edition would give me clues into the new emphasis that the PMI was putting on certain concepts.

An example:   the definition of a project is one of the most fundamental things in understanding project management.   The definition used to be a “temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.”    However, in the 5th Edition, PMI now says that it can also be “an improvement in an existing product or service”.    Why was this fundamental definition changed?   To include Six Sigma projects, which have as their object the improvement of processes to reduce defects in already existing products or services.    As the importance of Six Sigma projects increased, PMI had its definition of a product evolve to reflect that increased importance.   

This shows the importance of constantly learning no matter at what stage of your project management career you find yourself.    The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus once said of the universe that “nothing endures but change.”   To endure, you must therefore also be willing to change.

The next post the following Sunday will cover Tenet #11.



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