Life-sustaining Organizations: work environments that nourish people, profits and planet

Is an organization more like a clock or a tree?

Are the people of an organization replaceable cogs in a mechanism or unique contributors to the life of the whole organism?

Do the boundaries of an organization stop at its periphery or extend organically into the environment beyond its structure?

Unlike the prevailing view of the industrial age that organizations are machines, some organizations now perceive themselves to be living systems comprised of people valued for their unique contributions, subsystems functioning seamlessly in support of the whole, and interacting symbiotically with the external environment.

Organizations that know themselves to be living systems are more life-sustaining than life-draining. These life-sustaining organizations have five special characteristics that attract customers, employees, and shareholders.

1. Creative People who are sustained in body, mind and spirit: This is not a place to put in your time to earn a buck. This is a place to be who you are and love what you are doing.

2. Whole Systems Thinking at the individual, organizational and global levels: The whole organism acts as an integrated system. Sales and marketing are not out to maximize profits in ways that are out of sync with engineering and manufacturing.

3. Design Integrity in every aspect of organizational life: The design of each component of the system is elegantly designed to optimize its function as well as the functioning and integrity of the whole.

4. Elegant Solutions emerge in complex situations: The constantly changing context of the organization causes it to adapt in fundamental ways, to evolve (sometimes dramatically) over time, to become a different organism than it was before. This is in stark contrast to mechanistic approaches that tend to focus on a quick fix (a study committee, a new function, a skunk works, hire an expert, fire the culprit, etc.) adding patches to what may initially have been an elegant solution.

5. Results Orientation focuses the organization on deep success: The purpose of the organization is to survive and thrive, contributing to the life of the customers it touches and enhancing the world in which it lives and depends upon. As the tree adds oxygen and absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere as part of its life process, a life- sustaining organization contributes to the health of its people and its environment in perfect harmony with sustaining its own existence.

These five competencies enable an organization, its people and the natural environment to survive and thrive.


What does this mean to real estate professionals who support these thriving organizations? A life-sustaining perspective at an individual and organizational level affects workplace and organizational strategy in profound ways:

A one-size-fits-all mentality is definitely passé.

While an organic structure, a tree, an NGO, a manufacturer, an agency, may have a recognizable form and function, it is unique. One tree thrives in the tropics, another in the tundra. What works for one client may be disastrous for another. We can no longer think the work environment in terms of cookie cutter approaches.

One firm may operate remotely most of the time while another thrives on constant, serendipitous interaction among its staff members. As Tom Friedman noted in The World is Flat, Jet Blue reservationists work from their homes in Salt Lake City. Being located in the same metropolitan area, allows Jet Blue to easily convene periodic meetings that enhance the workers sense of affiliation with the company. On the other hand, PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York City consolidated their staff in a workplace environment that facilitated spontaneous collaboration and information sharing.

Change is Inevitable

One thing we know for sure is that an organization will change over time. Just as an acorn turns into an oak, an organization might grow, disperse, consolidate, acquire, spin-off, out-source, go virtual, merge or morph into something else entirely.

Mitsubishi started as a shipping company in 1870, gradually growing and changing into a multinational conglomerate in a range of autonomous business sectors. An organization’s brick-and-mortar requirements are in constant flux. How do real estate professionals anticipate and meet the organization’s needs?

Evolve or die

The way corporate real estate operates as a resource to organizations must evolve as the organizations themselves change. A few short years ago, real estate professionals were focused exclusively on providing a workplace for each employee with a few to spare for growth, supporting moves and miscellaneous uses.

Today, we’ve outsourced, we’ve gone virtual, we’ve broadened our perspective to include work processes, human resource policies, technological possibilities and financial and space efficiencies. We’ve facilitated collaboration and concentration. We’ve become trusted advisors. What’s next? Where do we go from here?

Adopt next-generation tools

Tools to anticipate and accommodate workplace requirements are emerging to match the dynamic nature of today’s world. Art of the Future uses Structural Dynamics, a fusion of systems thinking and scenario analysis, to explore future requirements and develop solutions that best accommodate the full range of possibilities. This approach considers alternative possibilities for future conditions and appropriate responses in each.

For example, one organization anticipated fast growth in its home territory and the ever growing need for office space. Alternatives explored in the workplace initiative included: distributed growth, virtual work envrionments, and doing more with fewer people. Under each set of conditions, optimal workplace strategies were developed. These strategies were “tested” across the whole set of future possibilities (i.e. scenarios). The strategies that worked well, no matter what the future held, were determined to be the most robust. These became the focus for implementation. Structural Dynamics, as it applies to workplace solutions, is fully described in Life Sustaining Organizations: A Design Guide. We will be exploring this approach in future blog entries.

In Conclusion

The workplace is changing rapidly to accommodate changes in life-style, technology, social consciousness, global business requirements, environmental considerations and financial realities. As workplace professionals we need to stay ahead of the trends. We can use the tools at our disposal to “try on” alternative solutions and find the best fit under a wide variety of possible future conditions.

© 2012 Art of the Future


About the Author
Anika Ellison Savage is the co-founder of Art of the Future, a strategy consultancy. She leads organizational initiatives to anticipate emerging opportunities and threats to develop effective strategic responses, researches the evolving nature of work and the implications for the work environment and co-creates workplace solutions with organizations to improve productivity, satisfaction and retention.

Anika has worked in a range of positions from corporate architect to corporate strategist. She has experience in the technology, telecommunications, healthcare, and financial services industries. She a presenter and author, having published in professional journals such as the Journal of Corporate Real Estate and chapters in Learning from the Future: Competitive Foresight Scenarios. She holds an MBA from Babson College and degrees in Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley and Pratt Institute, Brooklyn.