Basic Principles of a Living Organization by Rea Gill
There are two major challenges to the ongoing creative activity of an evolving organization, much like there are two elements to managing our individual lives. We have to deal within each moment and each day with what is living growing and evolving immediately before us and widely around us. We also must look at the present moment in relationship to the whole of our life and our life in the whole of culture and humanity’s evolution.
It is actually easier to perceive and understand the form, processes and evolution of a human being than it is an organization. The principles of human development are a part of us and as educators, it is something we have trained ourselves to perceive and that we continue to develop with our colleagues every day. We experience theses principles through our life. In our organizations, especially in schools, the principles of organizational development can also be evident but because organizations are social creations involving numerous people and have greater levels of complexity, it is harder to see and work with the processes that guide our organizations. Whereas in education, though we have classes and a student body we are a part of, students stand before us as objective reality and we are outside them. With a school, it is harder to see the whole life of the organism as we do not stand outside it in the same way. As teachers, we know it can be helpful at times to try to enter into the beingness of the student to gain insight about their nature. As social creators, it is equally as helpful to try to step outside the organization to gain perspective.
Once we step outside, we take a step towards becoming social scientists.
Here are basic principles related to the school as a living entity with thoughts on how the ideas can be practically helpful:
The school is a living entity:
Just like our approach to the nurturing of the students in our care, it changes things to think of the school, not as a problem to solve, but as a mystery that is unfolding. Once we start to see the school as a set of problems to be solved, it is easy to forget that it is the wholeness of the being that must be the place of our attention. Diagnosing and trying to solve school problems is similar to diagnosing and trying to change the behavior of the students. We need to consider the whole being. It is much more effective to look at the constitution and development of the student or the school. The use of metaphors is most helpful in this realm. How would you describe your organization if it were a person? How would you draw a picture of your organization as a landscape? Often a creative approach helps reveal insights about the quality and nature of the whole school.
The school has a biography
The founding gesture and impulse of the school, much like the conditions around the birth of a child, provide a signature to understand and provide insights into the unfolding life of the being. Every beginning has three basic elements: parents (or founders), family heredity (or culture), and the individuality/or vision. It is important for those in leadership positions in an organization to regularly reconnect with the founding (celebrate founder’s day, recognize founders, retell the founding story) for the signature of the organization will be discernable and shared. In addition, the significant turning points in life whether they are accidents or growth opportunities, have an effect on the growing being. So too do the major events in an organizations life: major crises, conflicts and cultural shifts. I have worked with a number of schools where the lack of resolution or healing of a past crisis was actually holding the community back, and where a conscious effort towards healing/resolution/understanding allowed the community to move forward with more trust and unity. Annually, there are times when a review of the year and how it fits into the ongoing biography can yield insights into its next steps in development.
The school grows and develops through phases in relationship to social laws
While each school is a unique endeavor, (not like a franchise that is intended to be exactly like its siblings) the school moves through phases that can be observed and understood. The character of these phases is both general and uniquely connected to one institution. A good description of the phases and their qualities, challenges and opportunities, is offered in Chris Schaefer’s Phases of School Development posted in this newsletter. A school, like any organization, is a social creation made by people that follows social laws. (It may be creative but in the end not helpful to try to depict the relationship between the years of a humans life and the organizations life. It often become too conceptual and leads people away from a deeper observation and understanding of the organization’s life and of the underlying social laws that govern its growth and development.)
The school is a social organism made by people.
The founders of the school and their ongoing relationship to the school has a profound impact on the unfolding life of the institution. The relationship between founders and organization and its challenges is well documented in non-profit literature. But the school also grows gradually through the gifts of those who are involved over time. As a social creation, it is important to understand that the entire organism changes (to a greater or lessor degree) with the addition of one new member. As teachers we know this is true in our classes – the addition of one child changes the entire configuration of the class in subtle or not subtle ways. With this imagination, it becomes more important how we incorporate (orient, invite and socialize) people into the organization and how we support and encourage their development and participation in the organization. As organizations grow in size, it is helpful to consider forming a group or organ that has as one of its primary responsibilities the incorporation of new families in to the school.
The school has body, soul and spirit
All three aspects of the being of the school need attention and behind each aspect there are principles that are uniquely important – it has physical structures and resources needing to be sustained; it has people and relationships woven into a community and culture needing to be nurtured; and it has ideas, principles, policies and processes that need conscious attention, ongoing renewal and re-creation. It is important in the ongoing renewal of the organization that the spiritual dimension is attended to regularly – a little in each meeting through developing a culture of inspiration, and more fully annually in reviewing the mission and vision. Staying connected to the vision is key to organizational harmony.
The school is part of its environment and the greater culture
Like any being, the school is an integral part of its environment and has an ecological importance. The health of the organism is related to the quality of the relationships it has with the world around it. How an organization participates and takes an interest in the community out of which it was born contributes much to its success. Unfortunately, this aspect of board work is quite often the one most frequently moved aside to deal with more pressing issues.
The school has a physiology
The school’s physiology includes a physical form and substance, a set of processes connected to its life in the world, organs for supporting the processes, a set of ideas and principles that continually shape and recreate it and a purpose/individuality that guides it. And all of these elements of the physiology are created by people and thus reflect social ideals. Torin Finser explores these relationships and qualities in depth in his book, “Organizational Integrity.”
A school learns as it grows
Over time, a school can take its experiences and learn from them, turning the lessons in to institutional wisdom. The wisdom lives both in the individuals and in the policies and procedures established. Like all life, the challenges that come from the future as opportunities for change test our core beliefs. It is very helpful for the community to commit to articulating their core beliefs/values and to regularly come back to renew and evolve them. The way that the school gathers its wisdom has a significant affect on the parents and the students of the community.
It has a lifespan
An organization’s lifespan is affected by the initial purpose and the changing nature of the culture. Ecologically if there is no longer a need for or support for the organism, then the organism cannot continue. This is important to keep our eyes on as we look into the future and explore aspects of sustainability. We already see a change in the culture of education since 2000. From 1980-2000 almost 100 new schools were founded. Since 2000 there have been, in North America, relatively few.
|Every organization is a social creation with a unique purpose||The ongoing role of founders has a significant effect on organization.|
|Every organization has a biography||The biography of an organization does not follow the life phases of a person. It has unique patterns and transition points.|
|There are social laws that govern the life of organizations|
|An organization is born out of its surrounding community||Its relationship with the community determines to a great degree how strong its roots are.|
|An organization grow, lives and learns in relations to its leadership|
|It has a physiology of structures, ideas, principles, and processes|
|An organization has a relationship to the threefold nature of social life|
|An organization expresses healthy or not so healthy effects.|
|It grows and learns through mistakes and crisis||It experiences the equivalent of inflammation (heat) and Sclerosis (hardening, or being overly fixed) Both sclerosis and inflammation are important aspects of its healthy life.|