Comparison - sociocratic organization and a human body

Hey there
I am using this space to think out loud and to fish for more information/ideas/leads from people. Because I’m sure I am not the first person to think about all this - so give me a moment to reinvent the wheel, alright?, and then I want to hear who has already figured this out!

So if we try to learn from what a human body as a complex system does, does that help us understand organizations better to learn what functions are needed in an organization? I’m looking at it through a sociocratic lense but of course it’s universal. In particular, I am curious about this comparison as a trainer and consultant so I want to find a comparison that makes sense so I can use it as a shortcut to explain sociocracy.

Here we go.

  • A human body has a basic system of bones and muscles (skeletal and muscular). That’s like domains and aims. In an organization, those are more fluid than in a body where they are somewhat immutable. You can’t just take off an arm and put it elsewhere but you can do that with a circle. And domains and aims can change over time. They can also grow in terms of activity, like a muscle grows when we use it more often.
  • The nervous system is the information flow in an organization. I’m not understanding the nervous system in our body enough to say more about this. In particular, I’m curious how the decision to move your arm is made in our body and how the nervous system and muscles work together. But maybe that’s going too deep into biology that’s really irrelevant here.
  • Respiratory, digestive and urinary system are the different revenue streams of an organization, a complex nutrients-intake system.
  • The cardiovascular system provides all the parts with energy, so it’s the counterpart of budget allocation. Different parts get more or fewer resources under different conditions.
  • Lymphatic system and immune system. - I know way too little about these systems but from what I understand in my reading, this might equate to conflict and maintenance of records etc. Keeping the system clean and smooth, as well as taking out “obstacles” in the system. I tend to see conflict as an outside interference because people often get into conflict because of something unrelated to the organization (past or present). So it shows up as a tension inside of the organization but it’s not really inside the organization.
  • Integumentary system (skin, temperature, etc.). Builds a membrane between inside and outside. Maybe that relates to membership in an organization? Hm… also includes the legal manifestation of an organization. Not sure about this one.
  • Endocrine system (hormones etc.) - I find this one the most fascinating. I know hormones are complex because of the interplay of so many sources of hormones and how receptors receive them. Strategy is exactly like that. Looking at a simple example, if we’re scared and go into fight-or-flight, our hormones will slow down certain functions (like the digestive system). In the presence of certain hormones, each part of our body does its own thing in reaction. In the same way, strategy works in a decentralized organization. Let’s say a pandemic hits, each part of the organization now figures out what that means to their particular piece. Do we need to ramp up our systems or slow them down? Do something different or all the same? It’s also similar in how hard it is to understand strategy in a decentralized context, and as far as I know, the complex interdependence of hormones makes them really hard to understand as well. So that’s an area to think about more, in particular because, in our body, we see “strategy” at work with heavy interdependence but no coercive power.
  • (Reproductive system - not something I am focusing on right now though there are interesting things to say/think about it in the context of organizations. For example, how many organizations are “born” as spin-offs, and how hard it is to build an organization without an externally sourced DNA - see my book Who Decides Who Decides).

That means we come out with things every organization needs:

  • basic structure of domains; aims connected to it so work can happen in each unit
  • flow of information between units (linking and other, like this forum!)
  • influx of revenue
  • internal budget allocation
  • conflict resolution
  • overall systems maintenance (log keeping, membership services)
  • defined membership
  • legal/institutional membrane and protection
  • strategy for prioritization

Let me reiterate that I’m not interested in reinventing the wheel here. I just want to know
(1) where I can read more about these thoughts
(2) whether this makes sense to you? Do you think it’s useful to explain sociocracy with this analogy?

Would love to hear as many reactions as possible but I’ll tag @rhonda.baird @shala.massey @andreas.jonsson @phouben @jerry.koch-gonzalez @egon.loke @graham.boyd

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This is one explanation of how the nervous system controls movements that, to me, makes sense when trying to compare the human body and an organization.

The sensory part of the nervous system controls the motor parts. The sensory part creates patterns that the motor parts put into motion. We will follow a pattern of doing that has been established for a long time, and that requires little conscious directing. Sometimes these patterns are so powerful that once they are started you are not able to stop them.

Different parts of the body cooperate to create different movements. In this example to produce, or write, your signature. The signature, made by the human, is a unique manifestation of themself, just as activities performed by the organization is a unique manifestation of itself. You will immediately know who is the “sender”, others can copy it, and it can be similar, but not exactly the same.

How we write our signature is the result of each individual’s process of getting to know and learning to command our musculature. A process that starts at a very young age, and continues as we develop a deeper relationship with our body. This is what we call our motor patterns. To change our motor patterns requires significant changes in our minds relationship to the body as a whole, and that relationship is created by all of our training and experience

When learning to write, most of us start with paper and pen, chalk and a board or a stick and sand. We learn to engage the articular muscles that are needed to create our unique signature in our chosen medium. Regardless of where we start, it seems very possible to later transfer the signature to another medium, but engaging a different set of muscles. From the small movements of the hand with the pen, to the engagement of the hand, arm, shoulder and torso when using the blackboard.

What conclusion does that offer? That the learning is not taking place in the muscle tissue, or the limbs, but somewhere else. The next logical place to search would be in the cortex (cognitive) part of the brain. But when small parts of the motor cortex, that controls the muscles normally used to perform that skill, are removed (paralyed) we will use different muscles instead. So the memory of the skill is not in the command center of the motor skills either. However, if sensory cells, corresponding to the muscle skin, joints etc, are removed from the cortex, we are not only unable to perform the task, but the relearning period takes as long as it did to originally acquire the skill.

So, the sensory parts of the brain have created a pattern, and the motor system follows that pattern. A sensory record of a particular gesture, or series of gestures, once the feeling of it is firmly established as a clear recallable memory, functions as a template, when someone wishes to perform an act first they recall the template associated with past repetitions of the act. You begin by remembering how it felt to do it. The motor system is then set into motion to reproduce the remembered sequence of sensations, as stored in that template. The sensory cortex has memorized the feel of a gesture, and each time it is to repeat that gesture it takes in proprioceptive feedback from all the body parts and compares it with the memory for each step of the intended repetition.

It is not clear where these patterns are stored anatomically, but their existence and control over motor behavior is very clear. Some patterns, such as primitive reflexes are inherited as anatomical structures, and recreated in us as fetuses. While other patterns are created as part of our life experience. These patterns are means of arranging meaningful sequences of primitive reflexes. When these are repeated over and over they take a more stable nature, following increasingly predictable neuronal pths and require less and less focused attention, and many of them turn almost into automatic reflexes. Walking, biking, playing an instrument, an assembly line worker, the writing of one’s signature, eventually require little conscious directing. A sensory memory uses a series of motor reflexes in order to translate itself into a movement. It is an all or nothing reflex, a collective response that once it is started has a powerful tendency to run through completion. It is hard to pause midway a movement, and movements such as swallowing, sneezing etc are impossible,

So, the body does what feels right. When you try to change a pattern, you need not only to unlearn the old pattern, and learn the new, but you need also fight the sensation that you are doing something that feels wrong.

Wow, thank you so much for writing this up @sofie.malm-3492 !!!
Super fascinating. I need to pay attention to those motor patterns!
Now I need to think about how what I learned from you translates back. I’m thinking workflows.

Big theme for me - and I find too challenging to write down in the time available, happy to jump onto a call and discuss. Some key themes I’d add in:

Vital to look distinctly at the systems and the interactions. Your take is mainly on the systems, conflating most interactions into being a part of the system.

Knowable and unknowable elements. Organisations, human bodies, have both knowable and unknowable aspects. You’re focussed on the knowable.

The difference between a living being and a living system: consciousness, the capacity for meaning making. I see the human and the org as living beings. This is what collective intelligence etc. means …

Opposites melded together as complementary pairs. e.g. bone and muscle are one complementary pairing working in opposition to each other …

Love the overall trigger, it’s one of my favourites!

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Ooooh I like all the points you’re making.

And yes, I agree on all points.

As I said, it’s not so much on whether this is a perfect comparison - I wouldn’t want to compare two systems that are that complex each - but more about whether this works as an analogy, like a teaching aid.

I’ll need to think on the unknowable elements, and yes, very much also about the interactions.