• Fyodor Ovchinnikov

Group Reflections on the Work and Teachings of Michelle Holliday: a Collective Narrative

Produced by Fyodor Ovchinnikov

On Wednesday, May 12, 2021, a group of participants from Brazil, Greece, India, Kenya, Sweden, the United States, and Zimbabwe gathered for the fifth virtual peer learning session of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program to discuss their reflections on the work and teachings of Michelle Holliday.


Michelle is a consultant, facilitator, author, and researcher. Her work centers around “thrivability” — a set of perspectives and practices based on a view of organizations and communities as dynamic, self-organizing living systems.


Michelle was among 11 guest teachers confirmed based on the preferences and financial contributions of 40 registered participants of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program. Participants had one week to study Michelle's materials on their own before gathering for a peer learning session. The peer learning session provided an opportunity to share individual reflections, identify emerging patterns, and craft a collective message to Michelle to help her prepare for a live session with the group. Here is the recording of the live session based on this narrative:

Participants’ reflections were recorded and used to produce a collective narrative according to the Collective Narrative Methodology. Christiana Gardikioti, Flora Moon, Frank Noz, Julius Kuya, Ken Homer, Kennan Salinero, Michael Sillion, Moses Machipisa, Naveen Vasudevan, Rafael Calcada, and Zen Benefiel participated in the session and contributed to this narrative.


Appreciating the Importance on Michelle’s Work and Its Value for Practice

Michelle’s work is very much captivating and eye-opening to various organizations and systems around the world. It is an absolutely awesome work that feels really important and we appreciate that she is doing it and helping the world to shift. Michelle’s work is really relatable because it can be used in practice and it resonated with us in the context of actual, practical work that some of us are doing.

We specifically appreciated how she takes something that is highly complex and uses really simple metaphors to explain those concepts. This makes a huge difference. Some of us noted that we love Michelle’s approach to metaphors such as ‘stewardship’ and using the matrix that she proposed.

Exploring Michelle’s Metaphors and Learning How to Create Our Own Metaphors

As we discussed the matrix of an organization we started using the metaphor of gardening and saw that a lot of things are temporal, related. In that context we wonder if one way to bring this matrix to a different temporal perspective would be to use it differently, for example, from summer and winter, from planting to harvest.

Talking about metaphors, some of us were wondering how we can create better abstractions or metaphors and how we would know if they are better. For example, is more complexity exciting or is less complexity better? Michelle has already found great metaphors once, and now some of us wonder how she was able to do it and how we can do this again.

Uncovering Collective Story and Its Connection to Perception We also talked about the ‘collective story’, what it enables, how it works, and how we can uncover it. Where is this new story? As we discussed meditation, some of us suggested that the story is already here so the question is “How do we uncover it?”

Is there something that is integral, that is at a core level that can bring things together beyond the socio-economic, cultural, religious, and spiritual differences, something that can cut through all of that to create a centered place to begin from.

We would also love to know how Michelle sees the connection between the new story and the new perception. She already speaks about the new story in her videos and we wonder how it is connected to the new perception of being here in the moment of now, the living experience of interconnection, interbeing.

Finding and Visualizing Strategies to Deal with Rigid Organizations, People, and Processes

We discussed Michelle’s story about the time when she was working with the Montreal museums and she sat with her questions for a year before biologists were finally able to use the word life. We wonder what was having them not be in that perception or being before.

It would be great if Michelle could share how she finds ways through rigid organizations, people, and processes. What are the dynamics that shift people from a mechanistic to a thriving environment? What are the self-organizing principles that we might embody to create thriving at an individual, organizational, community level, etc.? As a consultant, how does Michelle know when it is the time to push the organization past the edge, to go with them, or to have them come to that space of thrivability? It would be great if she could share this using an example of the time she went to an organization and made a shift from a mechanistic organization that leaves out the being to a thriving organization.

We also discussed a visualization of three columns: the left column for the mechanistic, command and control, and all the traditional stuff we see that is unsustainable; the right column for thriving, holistic, and self-organizing; and in the middle space, as always, for the really interesting stuff, for actual steps and strategies that can help move people from stuck, unsustainable places over to more sustainable, holistic, self-organizing, and thriving? If you could do a visual on that or share some other type of response, we would love to see that.

Empowering Powerless People

As we were trying to evaluate the new narratives that Michelle is bringing about we noted that sometimes people feel that they don't have permission to dream, so this work requires changing people’s mindsets that are greatly influenced by cultural views. People need to get an opportunity to do things on their own, to dream new ideas, and we can also bring new ideas with us to give them a space to dream. This also involves healing of trauma that people normally get from outside their part of the pyramid, so if we can lessen the pressure from the outside, to give people some space, they would be able to get moving and get some instincts that would help them grow.

In this context, how can one be able to influence thrivability in an organization without being among the top-level managers? How can this be possible for a junior employee in a given organization where executives make all the decisions or for somebody in a community who is in no position to be able to influence thrivability? How can one impact the idea of thriving in a resource-constrained environment? How can thriving be possible for those of us who don't have the resources, the human capacity, or the skills, but want to thrive?

Looking at Organizational Thrivability in Social and Environmental Context

We also looked at large corporations or other organizations that are already thriving and we talked about refocusing attention towards larger goals at an organizational level. One story that played an important role in our conversations is that of first-hand experience of having access to Coca-Cola products and at the same time not having access to medication because the village has a big Coca-Cola container but it doesn't have a health facility. Coca Cola as an organization is already thriving, so the question is how can this organization be able to thrive while at the same time harming their environment? By ‘harming their environment’ we mean a range of things from pollution to not providing employees with the support that could help them become successful, so we wonder whether it is possible for organizations to thrive while at the same time harming their environment?

Knowing the Person Behind the Work

After having been exposed to Michelle’s work, we wonder what questions she is currently grappling with. Also, for a person who is doing this kind of work, how can one be a practitioner and an advocate for thriving, what does that mean and what are the challenges involved? How does she stay positive and put out that thriving energy in situations where she is facing a lot of challenges or pushbacks?

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