When the ‘engine’ analogy sputters

I was listening to a Foreign Policy discussion this morning about the future of war when the difference between ‘machines’ and ‘ecosystems’ popped into my mind as I heard the commentators talking about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And I realized that most of the commentary I’ve read about this conflict has been military or geopolitical analysis, not about organizational models and their implications for how we organize ourselves.

What occurred to me is that in many ways, Russia seems to treat its army as if it is a machine. You fill the tank with gas, put in the key, turn it, and boom, the engine fires and you are off to the races. If a part stops working, it is replaced. We used to think about the whole world in this ‘industrial’ way before thinkers like Margaret Wheatley pointed out the many limitations of thinking about a living ecosystem as if it was an engine whose parts could be replaced.

For example, few Russian soldiers apparently realized that they were going to war in February. Many seemed to think they were carrying out a military exercise in areas bordering Ukraine. But rather than army as machine, Ukraine’s forces seem to have organized themselves in an ‘ecosystem’ way that involves every person and every part having some degree of agency, with information facilitating the interconnections.

Sergey Zolkin, Unsplash

It is the difference between a ‘bottom-up’ system and a ‘top-down’ system, to use simpler language. Then I started thinking about elections, because I have spent a lot of my life in organizing elections, and observing elections. The electoral process, as I knew it when I started this work in the 1980s, always seemed to me to be a brilliantly intelligent and economical blend of both approaches.

Bottom up in the sense that a very large number of people work together, over a specific period of time, to carry out the complex task of letting their neighbours choose their leaders freely and fairly. Top down in how the ‘system’ facilitates their work. It was an ecosystem, not a machine.

Elections Canada then was a small office which expanded just before elections and shrank back again afterwards. It relied on Returning Officers across Canada, who organized the election process in their electoral districts. Elections Canada provided the supplies, materials, and instructions; the Returning Officers did the work, which included finding people in each community to be in charge of the election in that local community. 

Thinkers like Margaret Wheatley might call it a ‘fractal’ system. At each level, there is a specific person in charge – the CEO, the RO, the DRO – all nodes within the system, with each having clear tasks, timelines, and responsibilities, and each required to exercise agency within their own area of responsibility.

I always thought of it as a miracle of constructive organization because it saw itself as an ecosystem made up of many smaller, interconnected systems. My personal theory is that many of our current societal challenges come from behaving as if we are independent, and not interconnected, systems which don’t affect others.

Aaron Burden, Unsplash

So how do you organize a system, you might be wondering? I think of Harrison Owen’s work with Open Space, or Barry Oshry’s work with Power and Systems. Both focus on essentially getting the whole system in the room, and focusing on the question that will help all those parts of the system work together to achieve an answer to a particular problem.

Increasingly we see the limitations of the ‘stovepipe’ view in the world around us. Increasingly, we recognize that we are all part of a system – a family, a community, an organization.

What we need to work on, in the 21st century, is figuring out how to organize ourselves so that we can all live well and peaceably. And the good news, I think, is that we do know how to do that. We just have to decide that we want to.

Cover image: Max Brindley, Unsplash