The most stunning thing living systems and some social systems can do is to change themselves utterly by creating whole new structures and behaviors. In biological systems that power is called evolution. In human economies it’s called technical advance or social revolution. In systems lingo it’s called self-organization.1

Does life have a rulebook? In a sense, it absolutely does. It’s call Laws of Genetics. This rulebook describes how hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorus can be organized into four coded sequences called nucleic acids, which we label G, A, C, and T respectively. Combining three of these letters at a time into different combinations gives us an incredible biomolecule ‘programming language’ called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA.

What makes the Laws of Genetics a fascinating rulebook is the fact that it is not a recipe for any specific kinds of lifeforms. The rules only describe how molecules can use basic elements like a programming language to self-organize and replicate themselves. What comes of the rules is a result of adapting to selective pressures, environmental conditions, and about three billion years of experimentation.

While the Laws of Genetics might be considered as a rulebook or sorts, it is equally the opposite of a rulebook. DNA represents the power of self-organization. Molecules organize themselves into lifeforms, or they don’t – and life figures out a way to survive, or it doesn’t. As Darwin famously discovered: the only ‘law’ of life is surviving long enough to self-replicate.

Despite first appearances, complex systems are self-organizing. Think about your local hospital. There is doubtlessly a pile of policies and meeting minutes stashed away in cabinets. There are boardroom tables surrounded by executives, managers, administrators, and consultants talking about strategies and pointing lasers at PowerPoint slides. Further, all of this is happening under the auspice of healthcare legislation from the government. But how do you describe your experience as a patient? How are you treated by the doctors and nurses? Who is involved in the decision-making process that affects your health outcome – and are they having a good day?

It is easy to think of the hospital as a bureaucratic hierarchy. Indeed, an obvious chain-of-command is established. But if you think of the hospital as an organism, a wholly different picture emerges: what is happening at any given moment in the institution is the result of hundreds of individual decisions that, collectively, give rise to the totality of your experience as a patient.

Suppose you are the CEO of the hospital and you want to make hospital visits more pleasant for your patients. You could take a ‘command and control’ approach and write a memo to all of your employees: ‘Dear staff, you must be nicer to the patients. Or I will fire you.’ How much impact will this have? Or you might take a more structural approach and review policies related to workload, working conditions, and vacation time, on the understanding that the attitudes of your staff are highly related to their employment environment. At the same time, however, you realize that you cannot control the domestic, psychological, or personal complexities of your staff’s lives, all of which must contribute to the way they treat patients and co-workers when they are on the clock.

As the executive of the hospital, one of the most powerful questions you can ask explore is how the hospital ‘organism’ can reorganize itself. Ultimately, the thing you want to change – interpersonal dynamics between staff and patients – is categorically outside of your direct control. It is not in your power to dictate people’s patience and emotions. Interestingly, it is the frontline staff themselves who are in the best position in the system to change the way patients are treated. They hold the power. Regardless of how many memos you write, the hospital only changes to the extent that the hospital changes itself.

“When you understand the power of system self-organization, you begin to understand why biologists worship biodiversity even more than economists worship technology,” write Donella Meadows. Self-organizing systems are a testament to the vitality of diversity for sustainability. We often run towards to homogeneity because we feel it is predictable and safe, but dynamism and longevity is found in adaptive decentralization that can experiment with many different iterations and ideas along the way.

  1. Meadows, Donella H. (1997). Leverage points: places to intervene in a system. 

Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Self-Organization' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on September 29, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink:
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