The Enterprise as an Adaptive Living System

Living systems can sense, respond and adapt to their environment to ensure survival.

Given today’s more compressed timescales for adapting to stay relevant, any enterprise must be alert to changes outside the organization and have the capacity to adapt fast. This native ability to adapt is inherent in almost all living organisms, although many have suffered from humanity’s profligate misuse of the Earth’s resources.

But even then, as I discovered from an encouraging presentation given by National Geographic’s Pristine Seas charity a year ago at Oracle OpenWorld in London. With a little timely protection, sea life can bounce back pretty quickly. Organisms are innately adaptive, often in realtime as anyone who has accidentally touched a hot stove will know. The sensing capabilities of every living creature are connected via a central nervous system and with a brain, however small, receiving signals and triggering a response.

Say goodbye to command-and-control

The old command-and-control, industrial-age way of thinking must surely be on the way out along with the dinosaur. There is no shortage of ‘sensing’ and automation technologies. However, the first challenge is to remove a dysfunctional mindset that views the enterprise as a series of steps from supply to delivery with the customer at the end of the line. This serial view is further compounded with a management ethos where annual plans cascade down through a hierarchy. The lowly employees on the front line have limited wriggle-room to make any but the lowest impact decisions in the customer’s interests.

We have to think of our businesses not as a collection of linear processes organized into siloed departments with the customer at the end of the line, but rather as a living system of value creation and delivery. A fluid, almost organic system able to adapt at speed. That involves a major cultural shift.

The cultural challenge is the responsibility of the CEO. It starts with a strong sense of purpose and a vision of the kind of organization that the firm must become if it is to be persistently relevant to its customers. A common purpose focused on the customer provides the catalyst to ensure our collective efforts and individual creativity create and deliver value to our customers. And that needs insight.

Generating timely insights is not all about AI and machine learning. It must also include the daily observations garnered from a workforce at the frontline. If they are locked away in departmental silos then insights won’t surface and the business becomes myopic. So what are we to do to change the mindset?

I’m reminded of the six types of thinking advocated by Dr. Asif Q Gill of the University of Technology, Sydney, to which I’ve added a seventh, platform thinking, outlined in the diagram above. The six forms of thinking Gill outlines will help develop the clarity and insight to bring the enterprise to life. The 7th should accelerate transformation and organizational coherence.

  • Systems thinking – that sees the enterprise as a coherent system of value creation and delivery.
  • Service thinking focuses on customer outcomes and where value is co-created with the customer at the moment of use (of a product or service).
  • Resilience thinking – the ability to sense, respond and adapt at the right speed. And ensures regulatory compliance and cybersecurity throughout.
  • Model thinking – to model how the enterprise is intended to work.
  • Design thinking – a human-centered approach to innovation inspired by insight and empathy for the customer.
  • Agile thinking – supporting flexibility and rapid adaptation. Leanness – quality delivered with minimal resources—rapid iterations for continuous learning and improvement.
  • Platform thinking – eliminating departmental silos, Providing the operational backbone, customer experience delivery, and continuous innovation.

By adopting these thinking types and living systems mindset, enterprises will create sustainable environment fit for customers.

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