Organisations and self-sufficient natural systems

04 March

"One cannot help being struck by the way in which the cells in an organism not only cooperate but cooperate in a specific direction towards the fulfilment and maintenance of the type of the particular organism which they constitute.” — Jan Smuts


One of the most remarkable aspects of natural systems is their ability to work together autonomously to maintain the critical order of the larger systems to which they belong. Components appear to share the common goal of maintaining the stability of their encompassing system, and in doing so maintain their own stability. 

We see this phenomenon occurring at every level. Organelles work together autonomously to maintain the critical order of a cell. Cells work together autonomously to maintain the critical order of an organ. Organs work together autonomously to maintain the critical order of a body. Many different species work together autonomously to maintain the critical order of an ecosystem. And the Earth’s ecosystems work together autonomously to maintain the critical order of the biosphere.

Because there was no adequate word in English to describe this whole-maintaining characteristic of systems, environmentalist and philosopher Teddy Goldsmith coined the term Homeotely — from the greek homo (same) and telos (goal) — to describe this fundamental principle that underlies all healthy natural systems.1

What is particularly interesting about this phenomenon is how competition and conflict can serve to improve the critical order of higher-level systems. Predators, for example, play a homeotelic role within an ecosystem. They are crucial for controlling prey populations and establishing optimal ecological structures. The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park provides a perfect example of this.


The wolves of Yellowstone

Wolves used to have a really bad rap. They were seen as a threat to humans and considered a menace to ranchers and hunters. By 1926, the last wolf pack had been killed in Yellowstone as part of a policy to eliminate predators. Without the wolves, the Yellowstone ecosystem lost its critical order and fell out of balance.2

Coyotes ran rampant, and the elk population exploded, overgrazing willows and aspens. Without those trees, songbirds began to decline, beavers could no longer build their dams and riverbanks started to erode. Without beaver dams and the shade from trees and other plants, water temperatures were too high for cold-water fish.

As soon as wolves were reintroduced in 1995, a trophic cascade commenced. Deer, instead of lazily grazing on one spot, started moving about to avoid the wolves and in doing so aerated the soil. This caused grassy valleys to regenerate. With healthier soil, trees started growing to five times their previous height. The extra forest growth attracted birds and bears. The bears helped the wolves cull excess elk. Increased vegetation helped beaver populations recover. The beaver dams created habitats for muskrats, amphibians, ducks, fish, reptiles, and otters. In addition, soil erosion was halted and the river banks stabilised. The wolves also killed coyotes, thereby increasing the populations of rabbits and mice, creating a larger food source for hawks, weasels, foxes, and badgers. Ravens and bald eagles fed off of larger mammal’s kills.3

Even the elk, the wolves’ primary prey, benefited from their presence. In dry conditions, without wolves around to thin out weak and sick animals, many elk would starve to death and the population would be subject to boom and bust cycles. Now the wolves homeotelically control the elk population, keeping it at an optimal level.

During years with normal amounts of rain and snow, wolves primarily kill older cow elk, since they’re the easiest to hunt. But during dry years, when bulls become more undernourished than cows, wolves switch to hunting them instead. By targeting bulls during years of scarce food, they give the cows a chance to reproduce, thus keeping the population afloat.4 5 In a sense, the wolves ‘cooperate’ with the elk to ensure only the sick and the weak are eliminated, thus ensuring the stability and viability of the herd.

I have found the concept of homeotely very useful in organisational development. Asking if a particular behaviour is homeotelic or heterotelic to the organisation is a penetrating question. 


Homeotely and organisations

Unfortunately, many organisational norms and mechanisms drive heterotelic behaviour. Take, for example, Jack Welch’s stack ranking system. He asked each of the GE's businesses to rank all of their top executives into "A", "B", and "C" players. The “C”s — the lowest 10% — were considered ‘non-producers’ and summarily fired. Rather than thinning out the weak, it produced highly heterotelic behaviours including:6

  • avoiding working with top-performers so an individual had a better chance of standing out
  • investment in politics over customer value-creation
  • a focus on short-term thinking in order to get tangible wins within the performance review window.

At Microsoft, employees actively sabotaged their colleagues. As one Microsoft engineer reported:7

People do everything they can to stay out of the bottom bucket. People responsible for features will openly sabotage other people’s efforts. One of the most valuable things I learned was to give the appearance of being courteous while withholding just enough information from colleagues to ensure they didn’t get ahead of me on the rankings.

Welch’s system created a culture of individualism that was inimical to the goals of the organisation.

On the other end of the spectrum, Haier’s Rendanheyi operating model catalyses highly homeotelic behaviour. The incredibly successful home appliance manufacturer comprises 4,000 micro-enterprises (MEs): tiny employee co-owned and self-managed business units that dynamically form collaborative bonds with each other to innovate and take to market new products and services. The MEs live or die on their ability to create customer value and are left to run completely autonomously. The employees are ‘paid by the customer’ through equity and profit-sharing arrangements that can span multiple MEs in a value chain. And MEs can compete with others. If an ME’s does well, its employees can become rich. If it dies, employees can usually find a role in one of the many new MEs that are springing up all the time. 

At Haier, the goals of the MEs, its employee co-owners, and the organisation’s are one and the same: to co-create customer value. All of the organisation’s structures and incentives are aligned to this goal. Homeotelic entrepreneurial behaviour is consequently the norm.


What homeotelic and heterotelic behaviours exist in your organisation? What can be done to maximise the former and minimise the latter? Is this not the key question we should be asking in organisational design and development?


Posted by John Dobbin.
Post Bureaucracy



References and notes:

  1. The Way: an ecological worldview, by Edward Goldsmith, University of Georgia Press, 1998
  2. See: A rewilding triumph: wolves help to reverse Yellowstone degradation; by Cassidy Randall, The Guardian, Jan 2020
  3. See: Wolves Change Ecosystem and Geography in Yellowstone, by Maria Fong, Tufts University
  4. Wilmers, CC, Metz, MC, Stahler, DR, Kohl, MT, Geremia, C, Smith, DW. How climate impacts the composition of wolf-killed elk in northern Yellowstone National Park. J Anim Ecol. 2020; 89: 1511– 1519.
  5. See also: 25 years after returning to Yellowstone, wolves have helped stabilize the ecosystem, by Christine Peterson, National Geographic, July 2020
  6. See: Stack-ranking is appealing, and it should die, by Girard Dorney, HRM Online
  7. See: Microsoft’s Lost Decade, by Kurt Eichenwald, Vanity Fair, July 2012

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