A Holarchy of Visions - Or: Purpose as a Foundational Principle of Organizations

November 2nd, 2014

Working in a truly agile environment is different from traditional models in almost every aspect. One of the most fundamental changes is the one that happens to the old notion: "We do what the CEO tells us to do". Traditionally, strategy is determined at the very top of the hierarchy and then presented to employees. Companies which let agile move beyond the "we let some of our IT guys do Scrum" approach are faced with drastic new problems. Give up control? Yes. But to what extent? Exercise too much control and we’re back to where we started from. Too little control and instead of a company striving for goals we have a heap of loosely associated people who happen to be in the same building. But we can have alignment and freedom. And we’ll use visions to achieve this.

Most people only think of visions as a part of product development. They throw them in because it’s just a part of the agile "process". They start developing a product and somewhere along the way they remember that they need to come up with a vision so that others know what the product is about. Then they take a look at their backlog and derive a vision from that. The result is often a lackluster elevator pitch based solely on a sense of obligation.

But visions go so much deeper. Product visions are only a subset of the much larger vision which expresses the purpose of a company in a clear and concise way. It answers the question: "What is the company’s reason for existing?" The company's vision is the foundational principle behind everything else inside of it and our product visions derive from it. Or to use the language of system theory: The vision sets the constraint for the system in which emergence is allowed to happen. The larger company vision contains the smaller visions as the senior holon and thus determines their boundaries. At the same time, it collapses without the support of its junior holons. In this way, visions are organized in a holarchy.

At this point, we can identify two problems we might run into:
  1. The junior vision does not live up to the standards of the senior vision. It falls short of our aspirations and does not sufficiently support the visions in the holarchy above.
  2. The senior vision restricts the junior vision and becomes too constrictive. When our vision for product x includes our wish to offer something truly unique to our fellow human beings and delight them beyond their wildest dreams, but the unspoken company vision is to make the largest amount of money no matter what, which one do you think will win in the end?

Different Levels - Different Purposes

It looks like putting some thought into all this will go a long way. And so the deciding question is: what is the reason your company exists? When we use the concept of levels of our Integral Agile framework, we can see that for Orange companies the purpose is usually "to make money" and / or "to keep shareholders happy". What else could there possibly be? Everything else is wishy-washy hippie nonsense. But we increasingly have people growing to higher stages on the developmental line of needs. Due to the luxuries of our modern world many privileged individuals outgrow basic survival needs. Their physiological and safety needs are met and so they are able to put an emphasis on belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization. And they start to build companies which reflect these needs.

We can see this widening of perspective at Green where the focus of the company usually shifts to including people and often the environment. Green views the company as a family, wants to keep customers and employees happy, and protect the environment. This is the stage where the phrase "Making the world a better place!" comes from. (As long as it’s not an Orange marketing strategy disguised in Green language.)

The expansion continues and so visions evolve even further with the jump to Teal. The concept of running a company solely for monetary reasons is ludicrous at this stage. Expressing its authentic evolutionary purpose becomes the thread that runs through every aspect of a Teal company, becomes part of daily interactions, and is refined along the way. Since levels grow in a holarchical fashion, making money and keeping people happy are still part of every Teal company. However, when the main focus changes to realizing the company’s true purpose, everything else becomes a tool to be used on the way.

A Look Further Up and Further Down

The importance of visions as an expression of purpose is true for social systems like companies, but also very much for individuals. In this regard, our company vision acts as the container for the individual purposes of our employees (Upper Left) as well. When we hire people, we should make sure that their personal vision of authentic self-expression and self-development aligns with what we have to offer. This goes way beyond work-related skills (Upper Right). People feeling a deep personal connection to the company’s purpose is a beautiful thing and still too uncommon. It’s actually so important to employees that it has been included in the twelve key dimensions the Gallup Organization uses to measure a healthy workplace.

Now let’s take things even further. Don’t look below this paragraph and instead look at the picture above again and see if you notice anything. No? I’ll give you a hint:

Let us not only look inwards on intra-holonic context, but outwards on inter-holonic aspects as well. We can create a narrow vision which is only focused on our company, our products and people within it. Or, we can take the larger context into account. Typically, this starts at Green. The notion of a company being an entity which is completely isolated from everything else has proven nothing less than reckless and dangerous to the survival of our species. If we burn this planet and contribute to social injustice even further, there simply won’t be a place for us to live out our selfish desires anymore. Organizations are one of the most promising ways out of this misery since they are the largest hoarders of cash and one of the few promising ways of allowing people to grow to Green or beyond through interaction in the Lower Right quadrant. We simply cannot ignore that the holon we are looking at is also a part of another holon and we need to integrate this fact into the visions we develop.

Creating an Integrally Informed Vision

There are various methods for creating visions and they’re all great. You can and should use them. But let me give you a few pointers towards a more comprehensive integral approach to formulating one.

Start with the holon you’re writing the vision for. If you look outside of the boundaries of that holon, what is the larger context it is embedded in? When we write a vision for a company for example, society at large could be the senior holon we would like to include. Are we constrained by ethical or environmental concerns in that regard? What do we have to offer other holons at the level of this particular holon (teams, departments, society)?

Consider agency and communion. Is this holon about giving back to the community, providing care and services? Or is it about being the best at something, truly bold and unique?

Consider the four quadrants. Does your vision get people fired up and motivated (Upper Left)? Does it reflect the company’s values (Lower Left) and act as a meaning attractor for junior holons in conjunction with these values? Is it precise enough so that we can track whether we are true to it or not (Upper Right)? Is it a sound basis for guiding our company’s structural evolution (Lower Right)?

A vision is not only about what it includes. It is also very much about what it helps you to leave out. When things get heated and people have to make tough decisions, can they turn to the vision to guide them when saying no? Can they look at an issue and say "It hurts not being able to implement feature x, but feature y really expresses what our company is all about."?

People constantly worry about monitoring the right things (Upper Right), but usually end up watching fake plastic metrics. Once we have crafted a meaningful and applicable vison, one of the few great indicators we can look out for is simply: Are we being true to our vision, yes or no?

To give you a practical and personal example of my vision for this website: the Orange achiever part in me wants to get my name out there. And sure, that is one part of my vision. But my Green pluralistic side wants to go further and express my wish for helping people who work in an agile environment. And sure, that is also a part of why I’m doing this. But these are all tools on the way to achieving what my Teal integral part is really trying to do: change people’s view of reality by offering a broader perspective and thus increase their ability to love. My personal motivation hinges on this concept; it guides how I’m structuring this website, how I write each blogpost and it expresses my personal values and the change in a general cultural context I am trying to evoke. This is applicable to any corporate context as well.

...and Beyond

As far as I know, only Holacracy has the concept of purpose embedded from the company holon down to each single role. It’s going to take decades until this becomes standard practice, until it becomes truly meaningful and not simply a hollow practice on our quest to make more money without changing anything. It’s time to live according to our true authentic purpose within our company’s true authentic purpose. And once we have achieved that, we can start focussing on the even larger context - the space all visions occur in.

If you would like to know more about the different levels of development in organizations, please go to www.reinventingorganizations.com to buy the wonderful book "Reinventing Organizations" by Frederic Laloux.

About the author:
Johannes Schartau is an Agile Coach from Hamburg, Germany. He is passionate about his work as a Scrum Master and Kanban Coach, Integral Theory, meditation, Kung Fu and weightlifting. You can follow him on Twitter @IntegralAgile.