March 28th, 2011

Spare Changing the World: The Inner Challenges of New Paradigm Organizations

By Timothy Clayton

Different people in the same structure tend to produce qualitatively similar results. When there are problems, or performance fails to live up to what is intended, it is easy to find someone or something to blame. But, more often than we realize, systems cause their own crisis, not external forces or individual mistakes.” (Senge, 1994, p. 40)

The historically dominant cultural paradigm often necessitates that groups intent on positive social change organize themselves with elements of traditional business structures. This is sometimes simply a matter of legality rather than choice, but given that the “new” paradigm ideals represented by so many mission statements seek nontraditional results, to what extent can traditional approaches to structuring business operations support these mission values? Are the “best practices” of old-paradigm business even capable of enabling organizations intent on transformation? There seems to be a paradox here: New Paradigm Organizations (NPOs) have a need to sustain themselves amidst a cultural environment that rewards traditional business practices, yet their mission success is measured by an ever increasing absence of the conditions those practices have historically created.

The intention here is not to answer the above questions in definitive terms but to frame some of the challenges faced by NPOs when co-mingling traditional business guidelines with the inherent ideology of their mission statements. The possibility will be suggested that mission-antithetical systems can unknowingly operate within NPOs, and it will be put forth that internal organizational conditions absolutely impact the capacity of NPOs to catalyze a more just and sustainable society.

For the purposes of this paper, the term New Paradigm Organization is a loose working definition inclusive of all groups that have as their intent environmental and social transformation towards peace, justice, and sustainability. This can be anything from a community organization, to a Yoga studio, to Greenpeace, to a wind turbine manufacturer, etc. This paper is not a criticism of NPO’s performances, but rather a discourse regarding an area of operations that is considered by this author to be fundamental for social transformation:  the internal community conditions of NPOs.

Of Machines and Trees

There is a certain amount of difficulty in describing what is meant by “traditional” and “new” business practices because they can’t be discussed in ‘either/or’ terminology. They are essentially distinguished by the mindset, or perspective, that informs organizational operating decisions – th

e principle difference being a perspective that views organizations as mechanical (traditional) and one that sees them as living organisms (new paradigm). Perhaps Margaret Wheatley (1999) puts it best:

Our concept of organizations is moving away from the mechanistic creations that flourished in the age of bureaucracy.  We now speak in earnest of more fluid, organic structures, of boundaryless and seamless organizations.  We are beginning to recognize organizations as whole systems, construing them as “learning organizations” or as “organic” and noticing that people exhibit self-organizing capacity. (p. 15)

The effects of allowing organizations to function as living organisms is that they learn better, adapt to change quickly, self-organize, and are more resilient and effective (Wheatley, 1999, p. 82). These are all qualities that change based organizations such as NPOs aspire to, and in fact may need to embody in order to be truly transformational.

However, there are no specific “best-practice” policies in the living view of organizations, except perhaps those required to legally maintain business entity status. What works in one organization does not necessarily work at another. There are no recipes or formulas that will always work; everything is always new (Wheatley, 1999, p.8). This presents the first real challenge for NPOs intent on paradigm transformation: borrowing historically “proven” business policies and procedures may actually discourage mission-intended results.

There is a temptation, even among NPOs, to borrow and implement internal guidelines from successful organizations without recognition of context. In a way, this is still a mechanistic longing of looking for the right “part,” where the effective transferability of such “parts” is simply seen as a given. Certain types of activities are considered beneficial to accomplish organizational goals regardless of organizational type or mission. A traditional management approach, however, often designs policy with the intention of control and prevention, and “Many organizations feel they have to defend themselves even against their employees with regulation, guidelines, time clocks, and policy and procedure for every eventuality” (Wheatley, 1999, p. 18). The underlying business philosophy in such instances leans towards increasingly rigid preventative policies, as opposed to ones that encourage responsive creativity within the organization. Part of the challenge this presents for NPOs when considering traditional business guidelines is recognizing the associated risk these policies have on the transformational capacity of their organizational system. Traditional mechanistic guidelines are inherently prevention based, and there is no guarantee that such an embedded ethic could not unwittingly carryover when utilized by NPOs without clear intention.

Given that decisions based on perspective and context are integral to an organization operating as a living system, it becomes difficult to even discuss in specific terms what is meant by “traditional” and “new paradigm” business practices. Differentiating them seems to have more to do with the intention behind decisions, but perhaps some grounding can be provided by examining the alternative attitudes behind employing a particular business practice – layoffs. In his book Responsible Restructuring: Creative and Profitable Alternatives to Layoffs, University of Colorado professor Wayne F. Cascio (2002) writes about his research of companies undergoing restructuring: “One group, by far the larger of the two, saw employees as costs to be cut. The other much smaller group of firms, saw employees as assets to be developed. Therein lay a major difference in the approaches they took to restructure their organizations” (p. 6).

His research doesn’t support the notion that NPOs are automatically inept if they cut back on employees; sometimes layoffs are healthy and needed (Cascio, 2002, p. 5). However it does illustrate the relevance of intention and context that differentiates old-paradigm business practices from the new. Deciding to let go of employees from the mechanistic view of an organization will almost always have unintended ineffective results. There is mounting evidence even from the purely bottom line analysis that layoffs are not effective. Jefferey Pfeffer (2010) notes that, “firms incur big costs when they cut workers. Some of these costs are obvious, such as direct costs of severance and outplacement, and some are intuitive, such as the toll on moral and productivity” (p. 34). He goes on to say that, “…research paints a fairly consistent picture: layoffs don’t work,” and, “Layoffs don’t increase individual company productivity either” (Pfeffer, 2010, p. 35).

NPOs that turn to the “proven” and “successful” businesses when sourcing operational decisions may be unaware of how unsuccessful our champions of business have been. Senge (1990) notes that, “…the average lifetime of the largest industrial enterprises is less than forty years, roughly half the lifetime of a human being” (p.17). He asks, “What if even the most successful companies are poor learners – they survive but never live up to their potential? What if, in light of what organizations could be, ‘excellence’ is actually ‘mediocrity’”? (Senge, 1990, p. 18)

Descartes Hiding in the Basement

We can add to Senge’s longevity analysis a measure of success that includes evaluating business activity in light of social injustice and environmental degradation. Some argue this is a historically rooted structural inevitability of business operations within modern-day capitalism:

Accordingly, pollution became a ‘social cost,’ implying that the burden was collective, as were the benefits. Nothing could be more misleading; the costs and benefits of pollution were sharply and equivocally divided within society and between societies from the onset of industrialization to the present day. Arguably, the tendencies of early capitalism […] have become the habits of mature capitalism under the strategies of globalization. (Byrne, 2002, pg. 268)

If environmental injustice is somehow “encoded” into capitalism, then this suggests an imperative issue for transformation driven NPOs – the possibility of latent structuring tendencies within traditional business practices that work against mission goals. The challenge this presents in merging traditional business practices with new paradigm values may even have deeper origins in the classical Cartesian scientific bias that has influenced contemporary socioeconomic operations. Morris Berman proposes that, “Cognition, reality and the whole of Western scientific method are integrally related to the rise of capitalism in early modern Europe” (Berman, 1981, p. 54).

The implication here is that whenever NPOs develop or utilize operational guidelines that mirror traditional practices, there may be an atavistic influence working within them towards traditional results, i.e., environmental degradation and community fracturing policies. If so, then the difficulties of bringing about change may be in part self-generated by NPOs that utilize traditional policies and procedures to guide their operations. Senge (1990) comments on this inner/outer organizational relationship saying, “’The enemy is out there,’ however, is almost always an incomplete story. ‘Out there’ and ‘in here’ are usually part of a single system” (p. 20).

The policies and procedures of traditional business practices have historically shown a deficiency in facilitating change. They are designed to avoid change and/or keep it under control – not to bring it about – and it is estimated that 75% of corporate change projects do not succeed (Wheatley, 1999, p. 138). This doesn’t bode well for NPOs intent on social transformation that have, perhaps unwittingly, become dependent on historically “successful” business practices. The subtle difficulty is that despite the stated commitments of NPOs towards “new” paradigm ways of thinking, the internal structuring created by traditional business practices tends to work against these goals.

The influence of these latent tendencies can be seen when NPOs exhibit behavior that regards internal community conditions as distinct from the mission-intended transformation of the community at large. If the intent of an NPO is to foster peace, justice and sustainability, then why so often are the day to day internal organizational community conditions not nurtured to this standard? This can be viewed as analogous to the scientific paradigm that separates the observer from the observed, and it manifests in NPOs when the mission guiding principles are simply not viewed as applicable to internal operations. Incongruities can then develop within NPOs between the policies and practices affecting employees and the implicit regard for humanity held by their missions. When this occurs, the contradiction is an indication that the old paradigm is in operation; such a modus operandi betrays the connectedness principle of systems theory, Gaian science, quantum principles, and change strategies that would assumedly inform transformational NPOs. The hidden and unexamined assumption behind employing traditional operational systems is that, somehow, with a transformational mission in hand, the “right” group of people will be able to use such tools to a different end. Recall here the opening Senge quote: “Different people in the same structure tend to produce qualitatively similar results” (1994, p. 40).

The difficulty for NPOs is that despite a high level of good intentions, they too are susceptible to propagating the same community fracturing “genes” normally associated with industrial growth organizations. Their operations ‘within’ axiomatically have an impact on the community ‘without,’ and given their transformational goals, caution would seem needed when engaged with business modeling that has historically contributed to social injustice and environmental degradation. There exists a relationship between the internal state of NPO communities and the change they seek for the global community at large. Addressing how policy and procedure affects (or allows) the formation of internal community conditions of NPOs may be just as imperative to social and environmental change as external strategic planning, if not more.

As Above So Below, As Within So Without

As a general rule, NPOs regard “community building” as a desired impact or outcome of their operations. As an absolute fact, NPOs impact community in various ways (intended or not) simply by operating. They do not exist somehow outside of time and space. In a very real sense, they are structurally coupled to the community environment, engaged in a co-evolutionary relationship. As long as an organizational ideology is in operation – whether consciously or not – that considers internal community as distinct from the larger community environment, then the capacity of NPOs to bring about real transformation is questionable regardless of their determination.

The associated risk of this separation ideology becomes clearer when considering its impact thus far on the global community. Its full historical manifestation is responsible for incalculable environmental destruction and exploitation, and nowhere is the tendency to disassociate institutional goals from the health of greater community more stark than in the privatization and unsustainable development of common resources. In Earth Democracy Vandana Shiva (2005) writes:

The transformation of commons into commodities has two implications. It deprives the politically weaker groups of their right to survival, which they had access to through the commons, and it robs from nature its right to self-renewal and sustainability, by eliminating the social constraints on resource use that are the basis of common property management. (p. 29)

It is not being suggested here that NPOs will one day be the purveyors of environmental destruction and exploitation, but rather to mark by extreme example the ineffectiveness of separation ideology in contributing to peace, justice, and sustainability.

Certainly NPOs can still bring about a measure of positive social change even when they employ traditional internal business practices, but the lasting effects of those changes comes into doubt when considering how traditional guidelines affect workplace community and human fulfillment. In addition to separation ideology, there is another characteristic of the historical scientific paradigm informing internal business modeling: inhumane mechanism. According to Wheatley (1999):

It is interesting to note just how Newtonian most organizations are. The machine imagery of the cosmos was translated into organizations as an emphasis on material structure and multiple parts. Responsibilities have been organized into functions. People have organized into roles. Page after page of organizational charts depict the workings of the machine: the number of pieces, what fits where, who the most important pieces are. The 1990s revealed these deeply embedded beliefs about organizations as machines when “reengineering” became the dominant solution for organizational ills. Its costly failures were later acknowledged to have stemmed in large part from the processes and beliefs that paid no attention to the human (or living) dimensions of organizational life. (p. 28)

Again we find an issue that NPOs must carefully navigate when seeking to integrate “effective” traditional operational guidelines. Given that the organization/community relationship is axiomatic, if the human aspect is inherently absent from traditional operational models, then bigger picture questions are raised regarding NPOs’ capability to manifest the humanitarian ideals associated with mission objectives. It’s a question of what is left in the wake of their efforts to create healthy external community.  Under the mechanistic approach to business operations, employees (human beings) are seen no differently than a commodity (Cascio, 2002, p. 6). Not surprisingly, a result of this is burnout, which is characterized by an erosion of engagement with the job, an erosion of emotions and a problem of fit between the person and the job (Cascio, 2002, p 9). It is no wonder that the Job Satisfaction index is at its lowest since 1987 and has been in steady decline ever since then (“U.S. Job Satisfaction at Lowest Level in Two Decades,” 2010). Senge points directly to family fracturing tendencies saying, “Traditional organizations undeniably foster conflict between work and family. Sometimes this is done consciously – through the simple threat that, ‘If you want to get ahead here, you must be willing to make sacrifices’” (Senge, 1990, 307).

The effects of involuntary layoffs reach particularly far beyond the walls of organizations. Cascio (2002) notes:

They exact a devastating toll on workers and communities. Lives are shattered, people become bitter and angry, and the added emotional and financial pressures can create family problems. ‘Survivors,’ workers who remain on the job, can be left without loyalty or motivation. Local economies and services (e.g., human services agencies, charitable organizations) become strained under the impact to the community. (p. 8 )

Commoditization, dehumanization, emotional deterioration, lack of motivation, fractured families and communities – these are the legacy of the traditional workplace experience. Since the effects of internal organizational conditions are connected to the community at large, it should not be surprising that many NPOs across the globe seek to alleviate the ails of commoditization, dehumanization, fractured families and exploited indigenous communities. This places a great responsibility on NPOs when attending to their internal community conditions, less they become progenitors of the very traumas they seek to heal.

Change Organizations, Change the World

If emotional unfulfilment, lack of meaning, stresses on family and a broken sense of community are deemed acceptable risks in order for NPOs to operate in transformative ways, then one should question if anything is fundamentally being transformed. Ignoring internal community conditions for the sake of building community beyond is a very tenuous position to hold. The difficulty for NPOs is that preserving their institutions is measurable, tangible and at least appears to have reliable strategies, while the “how to’s” of new paradigm mission goals are often unclear, and success in this area is not always measureable. Internally competing values, however, are not unique to NPOs, and Fritjof Capra (2004) notes this dual nature of human organizations:

On the one hand, they are social institutions designed for specific purposes, such as making money for shareholders, managing the distribution of political power, transmitting knowledge or spreading religious faith. At the same time organizations are communities of people who interact with one another to build relationships, help each other, and make their daily activities meaningful at a personal level. (p. 99)

There may be no “maps” to bring these two aspects together, but one consideration for NPOs – which almost seems too simple – is authentically regarding the health of community within the organization as a primary mission objective. Perhaps this is why Wheatley (1999) calls for, “Vision statements [to] move off the walls and into the corridors, seeking out every employee, every recess in the organization” (p. 57).

This may seem quaint and idealistic, but it can be reasonable defended as truly transformational. Because organizations are communities that exist within the extended global community, then by definition, the peace, justice and sustainability that resides within them also resides within the world. To seek out and create that internal organizational community is to literally change the paradigm. At an organizational level this is equivalent to the mantra, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” The improved transformational capacity of NPOs becomes profound when they are all dedicated to nurturing their internal community conditions.

The sisterhood of Lijjat Pappad, makers of an Indian snack, provide an example of how attending to organizational community is not antithetical to successful operations. Their brochure reads:

The biggest asset of our organization is its philosophy. We do not have the might of power. We have neither a lot of money nor influential people. Yet our organization has survived.  It is running very well in spite of no one in particular running it. In fact, it is growing.

Many will wonder, how this is possible. How can such an organization run where there is no boss, where nobody passes orders, where all enjoy equal rights? In fact there is nothing to wonder about. The key to success of our organization lies in the treasure of our basic thoughts. (as cited in Shiva, 2005, p. 68)

Lijjat Pappad was founded in 1959 by seven women and has sustainably grown to 40,000 members, while sales have increased from just over 6,000 rupees to over 3 billion today (Shiva, 2005, p. 68). Shiva notes that, “their success and connection with living economies lies in [their] philosophy and organizational structure” (2005, pg. 68). The philosophy informing their structure and operations is comprised of common ownership, non-discrimination, voluntary participation, autonomy and independence and ethical business practices dedicated to quality, not profits (Shiva, 2005, p. 69).

Conclusion – Organizational Innerwork

The difficulties faced by NPOs are not exclusively “out there” and many challenges arise from internal operational considerations. The crux of the matter seems to involve creating community in a business culture that is often dependent upon the community fracturing tendencies of capitalism and globalization. An inner organizational conflict between traditional capitalistic motives and new paradigm values are quite common, confusing, and often leads to antithetical rhetoric that denies the exploration of how the two are mutually supporting. However, when healthy internal community conditions are seen to strengthen operations, then there is no fundamental conflict. This view makes it much easier to experientially discover how operations and mission values symbiosis (or don’t), and surely their co-mingling is needed to inform fundamental social transformation. Gaining that wisdom, through a commitment to nurturing the internal community conditions, will also make these organizations the most capable of catalyzing change without.

Positive social change cannot be arrived at solely by policy and procedure, but when healthy community is absent within NPOs, traditional regulation increasingly becomes the only means to at least hold the space. The capacity of historical modeling to preserve institutions in the absence of healthy community can give a false sense of success to NPOs, a temporary feeling that they are affecting real change for the better. However, any organization can literally thrive regardless of whether or not its mission is embodied or experienced by those engaged with it – authenticating mission effectiveness is not requisite for organizational existence. Such a measure does not show up on the balance sheets and no government regulatory body checks in on it. Indeed, a history of organizations presenting their products and services as fulfilling while hiding or ignoring the cost to the greater community likely gave rise to NPOs in the first place.

The Senge quote this paper began with can be considered a cautionary one that expresses the need for a fresh vision of community-geared operational systems within NPOs. The seeming urgency and need for external solutions can draw organizations of any kind into quick, unexamined, and historically reinforced frameworks that can only produce historical results. If the truly worthy missions of NPOs are quietly appropriated by traditional operational tendencies that ignore and invalidate the human condition in places of work, then NPOs will be misguided into believing they are on a new and different path, unaware that the road they travel is well trodden. Changing the world will require more than covering up dilapidated organizational systems with shiny new mission statements.


Berman, M. (1984). The Reenchantment of the World. New York, New York: Bantam Books.

Byrne, J., Glover, L., & Martinez, C. (2002). Environmental Injustice: Discourses in International Political Economy. Piscataway, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

Capra, F. (2004). The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living. Anchor Books.

Cascio, W. F. (n.d.). Responsible Restructuring: Creative and Profitable Alternatives to Layoffs. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Pfeffer, J. (2010). Lay Off the Layoffs. Newsweek, February 15, 2010, 4.

Senge, P. (1994). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of Learning Organizations. New York, New York: Doubleday.

Shiva, V. (2005). Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace. Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press.

U.S. Job Satisfaction at Lowest Level in Two Decades. (2010, January 5). The Conference Board. Retrieved April 15, 2010, from

Wheatley, M. J. (1999). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

| EMAIL: EMAIL: | PRINT: print

Comments are closed.