May Your Organisations Be Ancient
Rooting our Organisations Internally and In the World Around Us
We don’t often speak about roots when we design and nurture our organisations. We don’t often speak of our neighbours and communities, our past ancestors or our future ones, the legacy that we generate with every decision we make. We don’t often speak of extinction, hope, despair, justice, love, loss, war. We don’t often speak of interbeing, prior unity, or non-human beings.
We don’t often speak of how we might integrate our organisations into the constellations and communities that we are located in, and that its members are weaved into, so that we don’t work, build, and create in a silo, responding to fabricated problems that seem important but aren’t.
We don’t often speak about roots.
It is in the roots, not the branches, that a tree’s greatest strength lies.
This article is a love letter to roots; specifically, it is a love letter to tree roots, the deep, hidden, strong, animating pathways that are as generative, giving, and grand as the rest of the tree that stands so resplendent and in whose presence we so often find succour and new pathways.
It is a love letter to our organisations, offering an overview of the different experiments in organisational design and facilitation that are alive right now, and what we can might learn from trees, if we sit quietly near them and listen.
It is also a love letter to the times we are living in that ask us to design organisations that are rooted within and without: that root their internal environment with thoughtfulness and love, and root themselves in their communities thoughtfully and lovingly.
May We Be Ancient
There is something magical in the way that trees — in their rootedness, their fecundity, their ancientness, their integration of so many micro and macro ecosystems — help us humans be more rooted, fecund, and integrated. In my life, from earliest memories to now, there are always trees to walk beside or rest near and they bring me both council and openings.
According to the Nature Trust of British Colombia, there are a myriad of reasons why ancient trees (old growth) plays such an important role in our ecosystems: including that ancient trees provide habitat for animals and ecosystems in a way that’s not found anywhere else, they nurture an environment that’s rich in diversity, and their localities tend to be more resilient than young growth because of their structural diversity; this resilience means that they can offer their habitants and neighbours (including us humans) protection from hazards such as flooding and wildfires.
Ancient trees are precious. There is little else on Earth that plays host to such a rich community of life within a single living organism.
Sir David Attenborough
The Soil is Rich and Fecund
For many of us, this is an incredibly exciting time to be in an organisation.
In DAOs, our working life is a daily experiment in building and stewarding decentralised governance, membership, and coordination at local, regional, and global levels. Many of us are utilising smart contracts and other blockchain technology as a public good, storing and sharing information outside of national and regional institutions and directing our decentralised organisational finances. We’re navigating organisations as communities and commons with varying levels of permeable borders. And we’re moving further into DAO2DAO collaboration, working alongside friends and colleagues from all over the world to nurture a distributed, global network of DAOs that share learnings and ideas.
In non-blockchain based organisations and cooperatives, we’re self-managing flat, and distributed organisations, spending time clarifying our unique operating systems so that we can evolve and adapt our organisational foundations and agreements, adopting systems such as Holacracy or Sociocracy as our governance and/or organisational design, and pulling-in appropriate patterns from sociocracy 3.0 to fit our unique organisational environments. We have a range of experimented-on, time-tested tools and processes by self-organising groups all over the globe that we can adopt and incorporate; we are learning when to best utilise the Advice Process, how to navigate the dynamics of consent-based decision-making, how to form agreements, make explicit processes, work more transparently, and embrace emergence and evolution.
Overall, there is an immense amount of exploration and learning taking place, improving the way that we design and facilitate our organisational governance, processes, and strategies. The soil is rich and fertile.
Now it’s time to focus on nurturing strong roots, to hold us internally and to integrate more healthily into the world around us.
The Wisdom of Roots
(Araucaria Bidwillii, adult specimen found in Auckland, Hauraki Gulf, New Zeland. Survey and hand drawn profile by Axel Aucouturier (architect & landscaper), 2020)
There is so much wisdom available to us from trees if we metaphorically sit quietly near them, approaching them with humbleness and awe.
There is wisdom in the way that tree roots wind their way circumferentially out from the trunk, each root playing its part to ensure that the trunk is supported by a balanced and strong foundation.
There is wisdom in how the millions of delicate, microscopic root hairs drink in rich moisture and tie the soil into place, further strengthening this balanced and strong foundation. (Overview of How Trees Grow and Develop by Steve Nix).
There is wisdom in the way that tree roots send chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals into their surroundings and to other trees, so rooting themselves in communally-beneficial environments (Let’s talk trees: how do trees communicate by Meaghan Weeden).
There is wisdom in the yearly cycles of death and re-birth trees so lavishly show us as they shed their leafy summer coats each year and wait patiently and still for the new growth to spring out of their inner container.
There is wisdom to be heard in the ancient intelligence of trees and of tree roots, if we approach them with reverence and humility, sit quietly near them, and listen closely to what they can teach us about organisational design and how our organisations can be integrated internally and in the world around us.
These Organisations are Commons
I find myself hesitant to leave the dreamy sense of ancientness and naturalness that conversing with trees always brings me and start listing all the practical ways we can root our organisations: from how we might look to the conditions that emergence emerges from to inspire how we organise, to the importance of root hair-like information gathering and pathways so that we can read our environment and build strong, balanced foundations. I’ll leave you to follow any wisdom that the trees might have for you. Besides, I notice a fear that too direct a path from listening to applying takes us down a route that looks to wondrous and wonderfully unknowable beings and uses them for our own end.
At the same time, I notice two of the ways we can dig our organisations into the fertile soil of the world around us tugging at my attention and asking to be heard, like a small child gently tugging at my jumper.
To start with, we can look to Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize-winning work, which disproved the deeply ingrained and incorrect belief that we humans can’t peacefully and respectfully steward a commons. Through comparative analysis of a multitude of case studies, Ostrom learned that commons can be managed very well by their communities if they instigate and adhere to 8 design principles.
I’m immensely grateful to Samantha Slade of Percolab, who opened up a new world for me when I heard her speak publicly a few years’ ago of Percolab as a commons. Ever since, I’ve become fascinated with the wonderful shift in perception we have when we hold organisations not as entities that we own and must direct but as commons that we steward and must listen to.
Committing to applying Ostrom’s principles with care and certainty, we can situate our organisation within the needs and ecosystems of our communities and networks (so nurturing strong roots in the world around us). And, we can ground our organisation inwardly, from clarifying expected behaviours that must be agreed to by all members to setting clear, transparent, and applied graduated sanctions for agreement-breakers (so nurturing strong roots internally).
A Safe and Just Space for Humanity
Between social and planetary boundaries lies an environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive.
Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics
Along with stewarding our organisations as commons, we can also look to root an ‘environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive’ as a commitment within and for our organisations.
We can root it internally, by embedding a safe and just space for humanity as culturally and strategically important for our organisation, regularly checking if how we choose to direct our organisational energy, intelligence, and power is keeping us in that safe space or moving us into overshoot or shortfall.
I have been long inspired by Civic Square in Birmingham, UK, and how they have created a beautiful, riverside public square, neighbourhood economics lab, and creative and participatory ecosystem. They are bringing to Birmingham a lived, neighbourhood-focused Doughnut Economics, rooted in the lives of the people that live there.
May Your Organisation Grow Deep Roots
Earlier this week a guest speaker on the course Kinship: World as Archipelago, David Whyte, shared a story about how his mother would listen deeply to those in pain and at the end of each listening she would give them a blessing. One day he asked her what made a blessing a blessing, and she responded that a blessing is sharing with another a wish that the person gets something they didn’t know they needed until they heard it said.
So I end my part of this article with a blessing: may your organisations be ancient: rooting their internal environment with thoughtfulness and love, and rooting themselves in their communities thoughtfully and lovingly.
Say the planet is born at midnight and it runs for one day. First there is nothing. Two hours are lost to lava and meteors. Life doesn’t show up until three or four a.m. Even then, it’s just the barest self-copying bits and pieces. From dawn to late morning—a million million years of branching—nothing more exists than lean and simple cells.
Then there is everything. Something wild happens, not long after noon. One kind of simple cell enslaves a couple of others. Nuclei get membranes. Cells evolve organelles. What was once a solo campsite grows into a town.
The day is two-thirds done when animals and plants part ways. And still life is only single cells. Dusk falls before compound life takes hold. Every large living thing is a latecomer, showing up after dark. Nine p.m. brings jellyfish and worms. Later that hour comes the breakout—backbones, cartilage, an explosion of body forms. From one instant to the next, countless new stems and twigs in the spreading crown burst open and run.
Plants make it up on land just before ten. Then insects, who instantly take to the air. Moments later, tetrapods crawl up from the tidal muck, carrying around on their skin and in their guts whole worlds of earlier creatures. By eleven, dinosaurs have shot their bolt, leaving the mammals and birds in charge for an hour.
Somewhere in that last sixty minutes, high up in the phylogenetic canopy, life grows aware. Creatures start to speculate. Animals start teaching their children about the past and the future. Animals learn to hold rituals.
Anatomically modern man shows up four seconds before midnight. The first cave paintings appear three seconds later. And in a thousandth of a click of the second hand, life solves the mystery of DNA and starts to map the tree of life itself.
By midnight, most of the globe is converted to row crops for the care and feeding of one species. And that’s when the tree of life becomes something else again. That’s when the giant trunk starts to teeter.
Richard Powers, The Overstory
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