Organizations Should Strive to Create Conditions in which Employees Can Thrive: Michelle Holliday

In her April 6 presentation to the ISPI Montreal chapter “Striving to Thrive: Beyond Traditional Performance Thinking,” performance improvement consultant Michelle Holliday stressed that what is missing from work is an understanding of the true nature of the organization. Without this understanding, it is impossible to cultivate the full sense of purpose and passion that engage both employees and customers.

Traditionally, companies are considered to be machines designed solely to meet the goals of productivity and profitability. Michelle described a typical example of the organization as machine—the six sigma SIPOC model in which suppliers provide inputs into processes within the organization, leading to outputs that are sold to customers. “Excluded from this model are nature, community, health, passion, creativity, relationship and play—everything it means to be human and alive.” In addition to limiting the organization’s performance, she noted that this view also leads to social and environmental problems that threaten the sustainability of our species.

“But there is a shift happening in how we see organizations,” she explained, from organizations as machines to organizations as living systems. “And with this insight, we can actively cultivate the fertile conditions needed for them to thrive at every level: for employees, for the organization as living ecosystem, and for customers, community and the biosphere.” The four core conditions that must be tended are:

  1. divergent parts (individual employees);
  2. the dynamic patterns of relationship between those employees;
  3. the convergent whole that is the organization they create together; and
  4. the animating and self-integrating spark of life.

According to Michelle, when all of these are cultivated, emergent properties are generated, including the ability to complete complex tasks within a creative, resilient organizational culture.

Michelle Holliday
Speaker Michelle Holliday discusses the core elements organizations require to fully engage employees and customers.

Montreal-based examples of living, thriving organizations include “Espace pour la vie/Space for life,” which comprises the Biodome, Insectarium, Botanical Gardens and the Planetarium. Michelle explained how the leaders of the four museums redesigned their organizational structure to align with those four necessary conditions. For instance, they created a “People and Culture” pillar to ensure that they tended the “divergent parts” within their ecosystem.

In another example, vegan restaurant chain Crudessence uses the tagline “Serving life.” The company’s mission is to “work to change the way our society sees food, so that it is revered as the cornerstone of individual health and well-being within a flourishing society, and as a vital connection to all life.”

Michelle called on organizations to design collaboration, creativity and play into how work gets done, and grow leaders into stewards and serve life. “With those intentions, organizations can become powerful playgrounds and practice grounds for being fully human and alive,” she said. And this is the most potent pathway to improved performance.