Diversity and Inclusion: A Living Systems Approach

Katherine Long
21 min readSep 25, 2019

Katherine Long evolutionod.com


This is the first in a series of essays exploring the potential of living systems approaches to contribute to the wider mission of diversity and inclusion practice. Living systems approaches are not a recent invention, they have existed in various forms for millennia, but are being rediscovered and reclaimed today owing to their potential to shift entrenched patterns of thinking that keep creating results that nobody wants (Scharmer, 2007). Through eons of time, the living world has evolved millions of species of organisms which each have their own place within highly complex ecosystems, and there is an increasing movement amongst the fields of design, leadership and organization development, social entrepreneurship, healthcare and policy makers to explore how learning from nature helps us not only to solve some of the pressing issues of our day, but also how we live in more harmonious relationships with the planet and with each other.

In contrast to the extremes of the neo-Darwininan view that has legitimized a modern discourse of hyper-competition, living systems approaches recognise that whilst competition of course exists, that it is contained within a much greater pattern of hyper-collaboration that enhances the overall resilience of earth’s ecosystems. The damage humans are doing to the planet ironically reveals less about the competitive aspects of nature, but much more about its interdependencies and feedback loops. This essay explores an overarching question: ‘What might we learn about how Nature organizes herself that we could bring back into our human relationships?’ and attempts to suggest possibilities for D&I through identification of promising practices, as well as potential pitfalls.

Living in a world of superdiversity, and the limitations of machine model thinking

We live in an era of superdiversity, the so-called ‘diversification of diversity’ which was first described by Steven Vertovec in 2007 to explain the impact of global migration in creating many more categories of ethnic and cultural difference than had previously been commonly recognised (Lu, 2014). Coupled with a much greater understanding of the range of neuro-diverse expressions, and combined with rising awareness of non-binary gender fluidity and sexual orientation, as well as visible and non-visible disabilities, not to mention many other categories of difference, traditional metrics- driven approaches are found wanting when it comes to understanding the ever-growing complexity of intersectional identities in today’s world. First coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality was used to describe the blind spots and accompanying injustices created when thinking in terms of single categories of difference, rather than considering their cumulative impact. Crenshaw cites the attempt of Emma De Graffenreid and several other black women to sue General Motors which, whilst offering employment to both black and female employees (black men were employed in manufacturing, whilst white women were employed in administrative work) was doubly discriminatory against black women, who ended up being employed in neither areas of the organisation. Sadly De Graffenreid lost her case as the judge felt it was unfair that she was claiming two categories of discrimination, when her white female or black male colleagues could only claim one. Today, we find that the field of D&I is itself highly intersectional, resisting any overarching discourse as it seeks to straddle numerous, context dependent factors.

‘You think that because you understand “one” that you must therefore understand “two” because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand “and”.’

- Sufi teaching story, quoted in Donella Meadow’s ‘Thinking in Systems’ (2008)

When it comes to engaging in today’s ever-diversifying world, we need to expand our ways of seeing, thinking, doing and being. In Kurt Lewin’s words ‘you cannot understand a system until you try to change it’ and D&I is certainly not an armchair exercise, and nor is it like fixing a bicycle! Whether as D&I experts or leaders or members of society, we all need to develop requisite skills for engaging with the ‘diversification of diversity’, enabling us to engage with rich trans-contextual tapestries, as though through compound eyes, rather than limit our focus on narrow, isolated metrics or competing identity politics. To this end, eco-systemic approaches are emerging as potential ways forward to addressing and enhancing diversity and inclusion, and are derived from the rich fount of living systems thinking which itself is a blend of environmental studies, indigenous wisdom traditions, embodiment practices, complexity theory, stage development, cybernetics and more, which collectively seek to bring principles from nature to human systems design and development. Simply put, Nature is capable of holding the most amazing array of diversity, and we have much to learn and apply to our own communities and organisations.

When applying a living systems lens, the limitations of the machine model of organisations (and of society) become increasingly apparent. Like the judge in De Graffenreid’s case, the machine model is essentially binary, and therefore represents a system that is inherently biased against diversity and inclusion. This is critical to our understanding of how organisational D&I functions may need to transform themselves along with the systems they are part of. Furthermore, redundancy is minimized (i.e. avoidance of duplication) in the name of efficiency, yet the machine model finds itself poorly equipped to adapt and evolve in step with external changes, because it lacks the requisite variety to do so. By aiming to be hyper-efficient, it cuts out diverse and seemingly extraneous pathways which might otherwise provide a back-up system when the organization comes under threat. Using the picture in the introduction as a metaphor, the machine model, represented by the barbed wire, is a largely static system, slowly weathering through time, unlike the living system of the tendril which through its growing tip can sense its surroundings and intuit new ways forward.

The machine vs living systems models are sometimes referred to as ‘Ego’ and ’Eco’ paradigms (Scharmer, Leonhard), with Ego denoting the classical hierarchical organization. Ego structures will default time and again to the same behavioural patterns when under pressure, regardless of D&I or other interventions. In the absence of a powerful external catalyst to effect profound adaptation (or collapse) they continue to replicate themselves ad infinitum. Such systems create conditions where the successful few are likely to continue to be successful (winners are more likely to keep on winning), which creates the corollary of an ongoing negative spiral for those less privileged that perpetuates increasing disparities, just as in a game of Monopoly, with the same predictable outcomes. Kate Raworth, in her seminal work ‘Doughnut Economics’, takes a deep look at the distortions of thinking which have resulted in boom and bust economies that have ultimately resulted in the climate crisis and the increasing social inequalities we face today. In challenging prevailing economic theory, which is essentially based on Newtonian physics, she presents instead living systems approaches that mimic cycles in nature and are regenerative by design. Raworth dissects classic economic theories such as the Kuznets Curve, which proposes that as countries get richer inequalities must rise before they eventually fall, as having no basis apart from its propensity to be a self-fulfilling prophecy that justify inequalities rather than designs for redistribution. These powerful yet fundamentally flawed patterns are in part maintained through beliefs regarding leadership, and we should not be surprised when organisations which base their leadership frameworks (and therefore reward structures) on models which have largely been created by white, Western males (in turn reinforced by business schools and academic research) find that they keep creating boards made up of white males. The so-called ‘Messiah’ discourse which rose to prominence through the 1980s and 90s (Western, 2013) favours competitiveness over collaboration, decisiveness over ability to hold ambiguity, personal authenticity over creating harmonisation with stakeholders and short-term results over long-term impact. And whilst the Messiah discourse has its own merits within certain constraints and when balanced with more archetypally feminine principles, just like an invasive species in nature, it crowds out all other forms of leadership by positioning itself as self-evidently ‘correct’, thereby creating a sterile environment where no other forms of leadership can genuinely flourish. Within such structures, D&I is doubly disadvantaged. By representing what is at risk of exclusion within such systems, D&I practitioners often end up becoming marginalized themselves and so get caught up in their own little backwaters within the organisation, losing their potential to make lasting change. In tandem, traditional D&I interventions have sought to develop greater diversity within leadership (i.e. better representation of minority groups at senior levels) even when the prevailing leadership discourse is essentially anti-diverse, rather than supporting regenerative leadership models where diversity and inclusion is of inherent value (Hutchins and Storm, 2019) or indeed to support greater diversity of leadership styles themselves. Yet we are increasingly experiencing the need for diverse expressions within organisations and beyond. Greta Thunberg describes her Asperger’s as her ‘superpower’ (Rourke, 2019), which has enabled her to speak truth to power without embarrassment, and to catalyse the global movement of ‘Fridays for the Future’, yet many organisations screen for high levels of conformity rather than welcome the neurodiversity which they might one day rely on.

So whilst it can be tempting to pin a lack of diversity on moral failings (which may also be a factor), what increasingly needs addressing is the overarching paradigm itself, and to re-imagine organisations which genuinely value diversity and inclusion as core to their purpose and to their strategy.

Emergent living systems paradigms

Emergent organisational forms which model post-conventional thinking, can be seen as a movement towards the ‘Eco’ paradigm, favouring self-organising, distributed leadership, digitally and socially enabled agility and fluidity, and lacking traditional hierarchical structures, where constituents play multiple roles, depending on the situation. The Eco paradigm naturally lends itself to being diverse and inclusive, as its core operating principles are predicated on there being a wide range of inputs and feedback loops. Whilst such organisations may include and transcend ‘Ego’ structures, like any system, they can also fall victim to their own hubris, in the absence of corrective action. Whilst seeking to maintain flat structures, they create conditions, paradoxically, where it can become challenging to call out unfair or exclusive practices, the so called ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ (Freeman, 1973), first used to describe concerns regarding the power dynamics in radical feminist collectives. ‘This apparent lack of structure too often disguised an informal, unacknowledged and unaccountable leadership that was all the more pernicious because its very existence was denied’ (Wainwright, 2006). We see this all too often in so-called leaderless movements (Western, 2014) where a lack of transparency in structures and decision-making ends up creating covert power dynamics, so that those falling through the intersectional cracks struggle yet again to have their voices heard. Unless we keep paying attention to deeply entrenched and widespread human biases, which are themselves products of history and deep conditioning, the chances are that we will simply create new, and more subtle patterns of inequality.

A third paradigm is also possible, one which follows the key principles of Eco, but which acknowledges human propensity to fall out of step with itself and with nature. The word ‘Seva’ is a Sanskrit word which means ‘selfless service’. The illustration above shows human beings in a humble relationship to the web of life, learning and serving. We see this modelled beautifully by indigenous peoples from all around the world, who over thousands of years have learnt a right relationship with Nature. Movements such as such as Flourishing Diversity (www.flourishingdiversity.com) and Wisdom Weavers (www.wisdomweavers.world) focus on bringing the wisdom of indigenous leaders to a global audience, drawing in diverse voices and individuals who have a deep and intimate understanding of the preservation of fragile ecosystems, not just abstract knowledge.

On a human level, Seva also acknowledges the long shadows of history, and the need to address the generational legacies of our inhumanity to one another — slavery, colonialism, genocide, war and ecological devastation. The restorative work requires regenerative leadership and regenerative communities alike. Just as forests which have been ravaged by drought or fire or felling take time to grow back to their full glory, so human communities take time for wounds to heal. This pattern is described by Dr. Joy DeGruy in her work ‘Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome’ (2005), which contrasts the experiences of Afro-Americans with Black Africans, and highlights ongoing patterns which are the legacy of chattel slavery. Eckhard Tolle refers to the collective trauma as the ‘pain body’ (I personally believe that the black and white painbodies in relation to slavery are qualitatively different, but inter-connected and part of a bigger pattern that needs addressing, though others may disagree), and many communities carry the ongoing memory of different types of trauma, which requires acknowledgment and healing, rather than denial nor a never-ending cycle of blame and remorse. Seva invites us to own what we represent in society, including our own shadows, without becoming defined and limited by them. Whilst Robin Di Angelo’s work ‘White Fragility’ scrutinises the patterns and behaviours associated with structural racism, in choosing to define all inter-racial interactions through this lens, perpetuates a discourse which forever holds individuals and groups within their racial identities as if that were their only significant defining feature, and upon which all future interactions are predicated. The wisdom of Seva is to recognize the limitations of singular perspectives in relation to diversity, understanding that we each bring complex and diverse life experiences to our interactions, and therefore to value what we can learn from each other and from Nature as we seek to honour and celebrate life, human and otherwise in all its different forms, and to co-create new ways forward.

Promising practices

Whilst living systems thinking in the context of diversity and inclusion is a relatively new phenomenon, there are several promising practices which are crystallising in this space, and which are being developed by a number of living systems practitioners.

1. The Law of Requisite Variety

Jennifer Campbell is host of a regular Systemic Leadership Summit (systemicleadershipsummit.com) and her work on systemic leadership in relation to diversity and inclusion highlights the need for organisations to address their diversity needs through the lens of requisite variety. Originating from cybernetics, the law of requisite variety posits that for a system to be successful it needs variety equal to or somewhat greater than the factors acting upon it. So depending on the mission, purpose and size of the organization it will have different requirements regarding its make-up. A national healthcare system which seeks to provide free and equal access to healthcare to all members of a population through integrated services must seek to model its mission through its leadership and culture by demonstrating that variety throughout the organization, and in its engagement with its stakeholders. In contrast, a small start-up may demonstrate a high degree of uniformity amongst its team initially, yet as it seeks to expand its products and services beyond a niche audience must also consider the levels of diversity which will help fulfil its mission and help it to reach new markets. This mirrors the evolution of natural ecosystems, where simple structures and narrower diversity increasingly make way for increased complexity and variation as the system matures. The value of this approach is that whilst based on living systems thinking (or more correctly on models of living systems), it also plays into the logics of many organisations looking to thrive and be successful in the world.

2. Co-learning and co-creation

A wide range of practices are emerging within this space, which build on and evolve pre- existing methodologies for harnessing collective intelligence. ‘Symmathesising’, a neologism coined by Nora Bateson (2016) describes “the process of contextual mutual learning through interaction.” and a symmathesy as “An entity forming over time by contextual mutual learning, through interaction. For example, an ecosystem at any scale, like a body, family, or forest is a symmathesy.”

Symmathesy principles combined with Warm Data Labs, a process for exploring the transcontextual nature of living systems via a range of lenses, has been applied powerfully in exploring a range of complex issues, from the refugee migrant crisis to the epidemic of drug addiction in the US and beyond. Bateson highlights the need for diverse perspectives to come together to support systems to see themselves through mutual learning processes over time, and in doing so to find ways forward that are unique to that ecosystem.

Like Warm Data Lab, Theory U (Scharmer, 2007) is a process that relies on diversity of inputs as critical to the generation of emergent ways forward within complex systems. It challenges the limitations of ‘downloading’ — i.e. applying previous best practice to problem solving, arguing that the conditions in which pre-existing solutions were developed have changed, and that it is by harnessing collective intelligence through deep sensing, listening and dialogue, drawing in somatic and symbolic ways of knowing that communities can co-create ways forward. The cultivation of ‘Open Mind’ ‘Open Heart’ and ‘Open Will’ supports three important portals for change, in order to see beyond our existing mental models, engage with empathy and compassion, and open up to the possibilities of the emerging future. Its relevance to D&I is that at one and the same time it supports ways of addressing issues of diversity and inclusion whilst also relying on them as inputs to the process through a core living systems philosophy that is based on addressing the ‘3 Divides’, namely the ecological divide, the social divide and the spiritual-cultural divide. Applications of Theory U are far-reaching and global, from pan-African leadership development straddling enormous diversity across the continent, to communities engaged in transforming capitalism.

DeGruy highlights six key ‘Principles of Improvement’ in Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (2005, p193), which echoes symmathesy, Warm Data Lab and Theory U approaches , with an added emphasis on paying attention to changes in the system in order to more accurately amplify effective strategies. She lists her principles as such:

1. Make the work problem-specific and user-centered.

It starts with a simple question ‘What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve?’ It enlivens a co-development orientation: engage key participants early and often.

2. Variation in performance is the core problem to address.

The critical issue is not what works, but rather what works, for whom and under what set of conditions. Aim to advance efficacy reliably at scale. (emphasis mine)

3. See the system that produces the current outcomes.

It is hard to improve what you do not fully understand. Go see how local conditions shape work processes. Make your hypothesis for change public and clear.

4. We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure.

Embed measures of key outcomes and process and track if change is an improvement. We intervene in complex organisations. Anticipate unintended consequences and measure these too.

5. Anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry.

Engage rapid cycles of plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) to learn fast, fail fast and improve quickly. That failures may occur is not a problem, that we fail to learn from them is.

6. Accelerate improvements through networked communities

Embrace the wisdom of crowds. We can accomplish more together than the best of us can accomplish alone.

3. Emergent discourses of regenerative leadership and regenerative culture

Alongside these promising practices is emerging a new understanding of regenerative leadership and regenerative culture in which diversity and inclusion are core values. Since the adoption of the United Nations sustainable development goals in 2015, and influenced by concepts such as circular economies, cradle to cradle design and the global rise of climate activism, we see a development of a new leadership paradigm which is inherently ecosystemic in outlook, holistic, and integrating both feminine and masculine principles. In ‘Regenerative Leadership’ (2019) Hutchins and Storm identify six strands of DNA in living systems culture, which are held within the double helix of leadership dynamics and life dynamics. They are:

1. Survival and thrival — attending to the legitimate needs of organisations to fulfil their needs for growth whilst acting in regenerative ways, and operating according to the principles of living systems seasons and cycles.

2. Mission and movement — ensuring that the organization is contributing to something bigger than itself, as part of a much larger ecosystem in which it plays its role.

3. Developmental and respectful — creating space for all to learn and grow in respectful ways, honouring the needs of self-renewal and regeneration.

4. Diversity and inclusion — valuing diverse backgrounds and perspectives as part of an inclusive and values-rich culture that gives rise to new possibilities.

5. Self-organising and locally attuning — to unlock resiliency and agility through self-organising principles, as opposed to constantly reverting to top-down leadership.

6. Ecosystemic facilitation and transformation — providing attentive care and understanding of the entire system in which the organization operates.

Regarding diversity and inclusion, this finds parallels with tensions existing in nature between divergence (a healthy expression of an ecosystem, or in an organisation, but which when over-played can result in chaos) and convergence (as expressed through shared values, purpose, behaviours and expectations, which when overplayed can create stifling systems). The tension between the two gives rise to emergence expressed in discovering new ways forward, and which chimes with the previous two promising practices of requisite variety and co-learning and co-creation.

Daniel Christian Wahl’s ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’ (2016) takes a more inquiry-based approach to regenerative leadership, drawing the readers attention to critical questions for addressing issues within complex adaptive systems. In relation to the case of ongoing protests at Parkfield Primary School in Birmingham in the UK regarding plans to introduce its pupils to LGBT equality in the context of a high population of Muslim families (an example of competing minority interest which has been an ongoing story in the British press in 2019), Wahl’s questions (Designing Regenerative Cultures pp 88,89) are pertinent to D&I practitioners wishing to take a wider eco-systemic approach that attempts to support co-created, local solutions as opposed to getting locked into battles over competing rights;

• Have we defined our goals correctly? Are we trying to maximise isolated parameters or to optimise the whole system?

• Have we attempted a joined-up systems analysis by paying attention to dynamics rather than getting lost in static data?

• Are we avoiding a trap of creating irreversible emphasis?

• Are we paying enough attention to the potential side effects of actions?

• Are we carefully avoiding over-steering or over-reacting?

• Are we avoiding acting in an authoritarian way?

• How can we act with humility and future consciousness, applying foresight and transformative innovation in the face of unpredictability and uncontrollability of complex dynamic systems?

Addressing our biases

Whilst living systems thinking is celebratory of diversity and inclusion, seeing variety as a sign of thriving and a source of potential creativity, it’s important to be mindful of some of the mind traps we can fall into. Iain McGilchrist’s ‘Master and His Emissary’ highlights the way in which the dominance of left-brain reductive thinking in Western cultures has created an almost irreversible bias, and we need to continuously hold up the mirror to our own mental models. In Einstein’s words, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them’ and we need to recognize the tendency for the old mechanistic mindset to seek to co-opt living systems thinking and distort it through its own lenses. Here are some of the biases which I observe can creep in:

· Magic pill bias

In a world where we have tended to reach out for quick fixes, it is tempting to present living systems thinking as a kind of magic pill. There is a risk that, like the paradigms which have gone before, that it ends up being presented as a failsafe solution to the challenges of life, rather than a way of engaging with life itself. It would be false to imagine that living systems thinking can simply leap-frog over the difficulties of previous eras through a new set of mental gymnastics, and yet our minds can try and convince us otherwise.

· Preferential bias

Similarly, when we fall in love with living systems thinking, it can, paradoxically, take us into a conceptual space as we seek to favourably contrast it (as in this article) with other paradigms, and emphasise its superiority to other positions which risks loss of compassion and empathy along the way, potentially just becoming another avenue for the privileged and powerful to maintain their position, as opposed to expressing living systems principles in action in a way that redistributes power, amplifies and integrates voices of the marginalized and seeks to benefit the whole system. True living systems thinking includes and transcends pre-existing paradigms as integral parts of the wider ecosystem.

· Anthropomorphic bias

We are conditioned to think of nature in anthropomorphic terms which risk perpetuating unhelpful ways of thinking. We refer to the ‘lion’s share’, or the ‘king of the jungle’ which reinforces an idea that some members of the animal kingdom are naturally more superior or desirable than others, which can translate into dangerous ideas about superior races, or meritocracy based on narrowly defined criteria. In reality, all life is inter-dependent and interconnected, and one day the lion’s body will be consumed by all manner of other creatures — hyenas, vultures, crows, flies, worms, bacteria and break down into organic and inorganic material which will be recycled once again. There is no real ‘top’ or ‘bottom’ in nature, and indeed the most vulnerable species are the ones at the ‘top’ of food chains.

Contrast the interrelationships and micro-niches of a natural forest with the sterile conditions of a plantation.

· Quantitative bias

When faced with so much complexity, it is easy to resort to a metrics-driven approach, which whilst providing useful data for monitoring impact as DeGruy advocates, without careful interpretation can lead to faulty decision-making. Bateson states that ‘Evolution emerges in inter-relationality, not in arrangement.’ Sadly, organisations do not magically become more diverse and inclusive by suddenly choosing to employ minority representatives at levels of senior leadership unless they also invest in creating new relational networks and pathways for communication and collaboration. A parallel in nature is the contrast between forest plantations, whilst technically counting as ‘reforesting’ but do little to support real bio-diversity, in contrast to naturally occurring woodlands which have sophisticated underground mycorrhizal networks enabling communication, transfer of nutrients, and which are capable of storing collective memories which protect the forest against future drought and disease. Unless we are actively creating opportunities for participation and enrichment through enhanced inclusion, then all we are creating is the human parallel to a plantation, and we all know what happens to those trees in the end.

· Simplification bias

Living systems thinking provides powerful metaphors which support our understanding of phenomenon such as collective intelligence and self-organising principles. Yet the oft-used parallels with starling murmurations and slime moulds are limited if we fail to integrate a complex understanding of human psychology and stage development theories! Approaches such as Human Systems Dynamics, Spiral Dynamics and other theories of human change are useful here, but with the with the accompanying health warning that they themselves are products of specific times and places and contexts.

· Reductive bias

Our preponderance to think in terms of either-or, true or false distort our capacity to hold the complexity and emergence which are defining features of living systems thinking. And when old patterns of leadership are brought to climate change and ecological issues, the risk is that the same levels of thinking which created the problems in the first place are perpetuated. In ‘An Open Letter to Extinction Rebellion’ (May, 2019) the group Wretched of the Earth (co-signed by 47 other groups) challenged approaches to addressing climate change that ignore historical reasons why there are uninhabitable parts of the earth in the first place, arguing that social justice and climate change rightly go hand in hand as interdependent issues. Social cohesion and social justice need to be both precursors and outcomes of environmental initiatives for changes to be sustainable and for a virtuous cycle to be established.

Final thoughts

‘The wind got up in the night and took our plans away.’

Chinese proverb, quoted in John Berger’s ‘Hold everything dear’

Buckminster Fuller once said “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” This poses a challenge to traditional D&I endeavours, which have largely been focused on addressing the limitations and weaknesses of the current system, and necessarily so. Our understanding of equality, diversity and inclusion owes a huge debt to the countless individuals and communities all around the world who have struggled and campaigned and highlighted the profound injustices and disparities within our systems past and present. Yet the challenge remains to consider what else might be transformed through the creation of new paradigms which see diversity and inclusion, not as niche concerns, but as a core, shared set of values essential to our common survival and thrival.

The new model is most likely a journey, rather than a destination, as we anticipate ever-greater political and social disruptions in the years to come as the inevitable ramifications of climate change take hold in our communities. Our capacity to develop what the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘inter-being’, experiencing and cherishing our profound interconnectedness with each other and with all of life will be pivotal to finding new ways forward, learning together, in the face of the storms to come.


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Katherine Long is a ecosystemic change practitioner, coach, facilitator, writer and educator.


Twitter @evolutionorgdev



Katherine Long

Living systems, diversity and inclusion, people and organisation development.