Integral Theory and Project Management–Tenet #11


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 #11.

1.  Recap–definition of a holon, and tenets #1-10

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.

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.

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®.   In order to survive in the fast-changing world of project management, 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.

2.   Tenet #11–The micro is in relational exchange with the macro at all levels of its depth.

The first step in understanding this tenet is to figure out what “micro” and “macro” refer to when talking about a holon.    Each holon, say a person on a team, exists in a network of relationships with other holons at the same level of structural organization, in this case, other team members.    The “micro” referred to in the tenet means the “individual holon” and the “macro” refers to the “network of relationships with others holons at the same level of structural organization.”   Okay, each team member exists in a network of relationships with other team members.   So what?   Well, it should be obvious to a project manager that it is necessary for a successful project for the team members to have good relationships with each other, right?   So far, so good.

Where this tenet comes into play, is the insight that team members also exist in a network of relationships at higher levels of structural organization with the company–they are also members of certain functional departments, and they are also members of the organization as a whole as managed by upper management.     To maintain the success of a project, it is of course necessary to foster good relationships between team members, but it is not sufficient.   You must also foster good relationships between department members, and between members in relationship to upper management.

Let me give you an example of a situation involving project management when that was not the case.    A blogger friend of mine named Driftglass worked in IT on a software project.    The project was split into phases.    The first one was writing the programming code in modules, which were then integrated, tested, and then released as the final software package.    His group was involved in integrating the programming code modules.    Management gave an incentive to any group that finished their part of the project earlier than the deadline, thus in their eyes, saving the company money in terms of paying for man-hours.     The programmers got the job done early, which in their eyes made them heroes, and they looked forward to their incentive.    The integration people like Driftglass, however, noticed that their work was so error-laden, that they ended up having to fix a lot more bugs than they had counted on, so they took MORE time than had been scheduled.   Management started giving them a lot of negative attention for costing the company money.   Driftglass tried to explain that they were saddled with an error-laden set of programming modules, but management thought they were just “making excuses.”

On the next project, the incentive scheme worked to exacerbate the already existing problems.    Eager to earn even more money, the programmers decided to churn out their product even faster, which naturally was laden with even MORE errors, which the integration team now had to cope with.    Now each individual team member on the programming and integration phases of the project were working well together.    But the management needed to realize that the level of departments, their incentive scheme was breaking down the relationship between the programmers and those responsible for integration of the modules.    The company kept getting rid of members of Driftglass’ team whom management thought were the locus of the problem, but as each new person kept coming across the exact same problem, it finally dawned on them that maybe that wasn’t where the problem was.    By that time the company was facing not only morale problems but financial problems as well.    If they had worked on the coordination of teams between phases, and not just the teams working on each phase, they would have had better productivity from all workers on the project.

Here’s another example.   In an article on July 11, 2013, Mina Kines wrote an article for Business Week outlining the difficulties that Sears was having after Eddie Lampert, a hedge fund billionaire who is the chairman of the company, splintered the company into 30 or so units which all now had to compete for resources.    The idea is that capitalism = competition, and the more competition between units of the company, the healthier they will become.    Well, companies exist in a network of relationships to other companies in an atmosphere of competition, but even there there will be some frameworks of cooperation that benefit each company.    Taking this “nature red in tooth and claw” caricature of the way the world works and applying it internally to the company, however, has had the effect of putting Sears in a “death spiral.”   This is because employees of the company, rather than spending time, energy, and resources trying to make the company stronger so that it can compete with other companies (at the same level as the company), they end up spending most of that energy fighting employees of other units over meager company resources.    There’s any fight left for the competition after they’ve been exhausted fighting each other, to put it bluntly.

The relationships between units has been allowed to deteriorate, and thus the company’s overall relationship with the market is deteriorating as well.

Thus, a project manager needs to foster cooperation between team members, but also between departments which often have differing or even competing interests at stake when it comes to the solution of a problem.    And the members must foster a relationship with the upper management so that their needs (having to justify the return on investment, etc., to stockholders) are taken into account.     Only by fostering relationships at each and every level of interaction inside a company can the company truly be made successful.   And that is the point of this tenet.

The last post next Sunday is the twelve and final tenet of Integral Theory, and will conclude this series of posts on the relationship between Integral Theory and Project Management.

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