If the hallmark of a natural healthy system is that of free circulation so that the parts can spontaneously configure themselves to serve the well-being of the whole system then it would stand to reason that any disruption in this ability to move freely would bring dire consequences to the total enterprise.
A colleague who was working to reverse the trend of desertification in Africa told a simple story. The many nomadic tribes in north and central Africa had for generations wandered freely about the countryside with their cattle. They were acutely aware of the need to maintain a balance in the eco-system and of their own role in this task. The life of these tribespeople had a rhythm and purpose to it and they moved according to the seasons: their needs being met by the gifts of the land. They did not stay too long in one place and disrupt the delicate balance.
However, when political lines were suddenly drawn across the map and they were stopped at national borders and prevented from following traditional paths across the landscape, they were forced to stay in one place. Not only did this start to unravel the social fabric of the tribes, it also meant that more trees were cut down for fuel and the agricultural practice of year-round farming was introduced. This, together with over-grazing of the land, led to the gradual depletion of the soil and the eventual turning of the land into desert.
Are we doing something similar with our own organizations and business systems? There are natural groups of people such as engineers, software programmers and technical support staff who constitute communities within our organizations. These communities need to interact with their own disciplines but also need to “wander” and freely associate with other groups to achieve success for the company as a whole. What if the constant re-structuring of our organizations is mainly driven by political decisions and does not consider these community needs? What are the unintended consequences of these political boundaries and “stove-pipe” mentalities as they cut across natural ways of doing business in a self-organizing system? Like the nomadic tribes of Africa, we too could experience “desertification”: losing not only productivity but also our spirit.
— Michael Lindfield in his notes on Open Space Technology, (November 17, 1995).