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The Key to Transformational Change Leadership? Holonomic Thinking

Image credit: Linda Peia

“What happens when you cut a hologram in half?” Maria Moraes Robinson and Simon Robinson asked as a prelude to sharing what holonomic thinking means. When you cut a photograph in half, you get two separate images, but when you cut a hologram in half, the whole image can still be seen in each piece. Holonomic thinking represents a shift in consciousness from understanding an organization as a collection of individual parts, departments or programs, seen separately, to seeing the organization as a whole that expresses itself and comes into presence in the various individual parts. It means “standing in front of a customer or partner and being able to express the organization as a whole, being different and at the same time being the same.” 

According to Maria and Simon, authors of Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, one of the major challenges that businesses and organizations face today is a challenge of cultural transformation and appreciation of the various relationships within an organization.

“The execution of strategy usually focuses on structural changes in organizational structures, monitoring processes, and management systems, and not enough on behavioral changes in people, leadership, and culture. Both are equally important,” Maria explained.

While Maria and Simon emphasize that holonomics is not a framework or methodology, they point to the fact that in the absence of a change in consciousness towards seeing and understanding the meaning of an organization as a whole, sustainability frameworks and methodologies for transformational change tend to fail. For example, one sustainability measure in one department may be inconsistent with a measure in another department, which can result in internal conflict. In addition, when new sustainability efforts fail, failure gets sometimes mistakenly interpreted as lack of employee interest or engagement — could it be instead that we can’t see past our own mental models that are being informed by the very silos in which we operate? 


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According to the speakers, understanding the meaning of an organization as a whole requires a systems thinking which in turn requires being open to the idea that one’s mental model of reality is not universal; depending on our own context and our lived experiences — the people we interact with, be it customers, suppliers, or colleagues, and the information we access — we each develop our own understanding of reality and meaning of the organization that we are part of. Developing systems thinking thus requires active listening, or what Maria and Simon call ‘the dynamics of seeing’ — “listening changes the dynamics of seeing, and when we are aware of the dynamics of seeing, our listening also changes.” They exemplify this process with a passage from Steve Job’s biography, which depicts Steve Job looking at and contemplating individual products, while in the process getting a sense of the whole company, i.e. how Apple expresses itself through the individual products and how each product expresses Apple. 

The operating system underlining holonomic thinking consists of sensing, thinking, feeling (i.e. developing a sense of connection), and intuition; and human values act as a support mechanism that must be infused across the organization — specifically the five universal human values: peace, love, truth, right action, and non-violence. According to Maria and Simon, “what causes human beings to crash into each other is ego — knotworks (networks with ego); you need human values to go from knotworks to networks.”

In response to the participants’ interest in understanding how to integrate holonomics into change management, strategy, and management structures, Maria and Simon shared several recommendations:

  • Develop a new leadership skillset: storytelling (engaging, inspiring, and motivating others), sensemaking, mindfulness (being present when listening, not judging), humility (appreciating other people’s perspectives in order to enrich the dialogue)
  • Create comfortable, safe spaces for people to start experiencing playing a new role; when they experience the insight, they self-reflect 
  • Honor someone else’s mental model but first understand your own lived experience
  • Think of the organization as a living organization
  • Dig deeper into the meaning of the organization
  • Mobilize multidisciplinary teams in order to understand the whole system
  • Use constructive conceptions, not dogmatic annunciations; if you have a model or a framework, don’t confuse the model with reality, maintain an open mind and recognize there are other ways to understand reality
  • Don’t just communicate your strategic plan, but engage everyone in co-creating it and telling the story

Linda Peia is a social innovation expert. For the past decade, she has worked with Fortune 500 companies and leading social entrepreneurs on corporate citizenship and innovative business models. Linda has expertise in the innovation ecosystem of the Americas and… [Read more about Linda Peia]