Integral Theory and Project Management–Tenet #12

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.   This is the last post in the series, and it covers tenet #12.

1.  Recap–definition of a holon, and tenets #1-11

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.

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.

2.  Tenet #12–Evolution has directionality

Evolution is marked by creative emergence of novel properties, increasing depth  and greater consciousness, according to Ken Wilber.   That is why evolution tends in the following directions, which are related:

a.   Increasing complexity–emergence of new levels of holons which create new structures within the holon itself (between the various levels in the holon) and between holons at the same level.

b.  Increasing differentiation/integration–the structures between holons at the same level is the “differentiation”, whereas the structures between the levels of the holon is the “integration”

c.  Increasing organization/structuration–this is the consequence of increasing complexity (the “new structures” mentioned in paragraph a above).

d.  Increasing relative autonomy–this is the greater capacity for self-preservation in the midst of fluctuations in the environment

e.  Increasing telos (purpose)–the deep structure of a holon (the structures between the levels of the holon) acts an attractor for the actualization of the holon (the interaction between the holon and its environment).

The Project Management Office is something which many organizations aspire to create within their organization.   This is considered the ultimate step in “evolution” of project management within the organization.    However, because it is the holon or entity at the “top” level of organization of projects, its evolution must be solidly built up from the holons at the lower levels (project team members, project, program, portfolio).    There must be a coordination between holons at each level, and the different levels of the holon, so that the project manager coordinates the project team members, the program manager coordinates the projects, etc.    Although there is increasing complexity, Ken Wilber says that at the functional level there should be a simplification.    The Project Management Office therefore has to be guided by a mission statement or some other organizing set of principles so that if there are conflicting directions within the PMO, they can be ranked and then resolved by reference to this set of principles.

If this mission statement then harnesses the forces of the organization, the PMO can be a source of innovation, rather than a source of bureaucratic inertia that holds that innovation back.   This is what this tenet means to me, that the organization try to evolve a healthy set of relationships of these lower levels (between project team member and project manager, between project manager and program manager, between project manager and upper management) BEFORE the next step of evolution, the Project Management Office is attempted.    The PMO must be evolved, rather than imposed upon an existing organization structure, or it will not work organically (between the various levels of project management) as it was meant to.

This is the last of the posts on the twelve tenets of Integral Theory, showing how they can be applied to project management.   It has been a learning exercise for me to see how Integral Theory can be applied to any field of knowledge, including that of project management.    It holds together a lot of piecemeal observations I have made about project management in one single framework, and for that reason, it is a worthwhile tool.    I hope it generates new ideas not just for me, but for those who have read this series of posts.


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