Brynn McNally from Sustainable Brands interviews Maria and I about Holonomics

Photo: Linda Peia

Photo: Linda Peia

In the run up to Sustainable Brands San Diego earlier this year, Brynn McNally interviewed Maria and I about our work relating to Holonomics. A shorter version was published on the conference web site, and here is the full interview.

What has been the reception to Holonomics since its publication, in Brazil and internationally?

SR: We have been absolutely delighted and amazed at how people have responded to the message of Holonomics. Holonomics launched in April 2014, and that month Harvard Business Review Brasil also published our nine page article Holonomic Thinking, allowing us to immediately reach senior executives.

The HBR team here in Brazil have really supported Holonomics a huge amount, with Maria speaking at a number of their leadership summits, including one where she invited Sergio Chaia, previously the CEO at Nextel and now Symantec. Sergio, who we interviewed for our book, is also a practicing Buddhist and he and Maria discussed Buddhist principles in leadership, happiness and human values.

Outside of Brazil Holonomics reached bestseller status in Germany, being #1 in Amazon’s Business Ethics chart, and people have been in touch from all around the world, both to discuss our ideas and also to really support and help spread the message. For example we’ve been guests twice now on Olivia Parr-Rud’s Quantum Business Insights show on VoiceAmerica, and The Institute for Open Economic Networks (I-Open), founded by Betsey Merkel, have really integrated Holonomics into their network.

MRR: Of course the other major event that happened for us was in January of this year when Sustainable Brands nominated Holonomics as one of the Top 36 Sustainability Books. Sustainable Brands had their first Brazilian event in Rio de Janeiro last year, and are truly recognised both here in Brazil and around the world as one of the leading authorities on sustainability, especially having so many global brands as corporate members. Since the announcement was made many more people have been in touch with us, including directors and practitioners of sustainability from a number of major brands, and so this recognition has really contributed to a much wider awareness of our work for which we are extremely grateful.

Since the book’s publication, have reactions from readers yielded new insights/ideas that you’re now integrating into your thinking or Holonomics Education?

MRR: In Holonomics we introduce the term ‘holonomic thinking’ which describes a change in consciousness, meaning that the mind shifts from being a medium of logical thought (purely analytical) to being an organ of perception, where what is being studied is not only reduced to quantitative measures, which happens in the majority of business analyses, but is also allowed to become more fully visible without imposing subjective mental constraints.

This insight, once fully understood, has major implications for all aspects of business life, and a number of our readers who first contacted us have now become both friends and partners who are taking Holonomics into their own specialist fields.

One of our first readers was Gunther Sonnenfeld, a visionary entrepreneur who serves a number of CTO/CIO roles for companies he advises and building technology solutions for, and is a technologist who designs platforms that enable organisations to innovate with a strong social conscience. Gunther immediately recognised that our phenomenological (experiential) and human-centric approach strongly resonated with his own philosophy and life mission, which has led Simon’s company Holonomics Education to being one of the partners of his new venture, co-founded with Tirza Hollenhorst and Philip Horváth, a global innovation network focused on changing the way we do business across corporate, institutional and governmental domains.

SR: Mikkel Larsen, is the Group Head of Tax and Accounting Policies at DBS (Development Bank of Singapore) as well as being the global chair of the IIRC (The International Integrated Reporting Council). After reading Holonomics Mikkel got in touch and he is now working with us to understand how holonomic thinking can inspire the development of new more holistic measures for “integrated reports” which articulate how companies can provide long term sustainable value.

Nirav Shah, a senior strategist at Tata Group in India had discovered our blog ( and decided to get a copy of our book while on a trip to US. He got in touch with us as he realised how deeply Holonomics resonated with his own work and thinking relating to emergent strategy, co-creation and innovation. He uses our book and the blog to set the context or as pre-reading material prior to workshops. He has also introduced Holonomics to a number of executives both at Tata and other organisations which has been wonderful for us. He thinks that Holonomics is an idea ‘whose time has come’ and we hope to make a trip to India to exchange thoughts soon.

How do you describe the value of a ‘philosophy of wholeness’ to a skeptical executive (under pressure to produce quarterly returns)?

MRR: The main point here is the need to be humble, and realise that some senior executives act and speak the way they do because they learnt that the only thing that counts is to give results. The systems we work in at times only seem to value results over all other factors. What we do is to show this audience that the price of pursuing results without understanding what is producing these results can cost a huge amount.

If there is no conceptualization of the whole system, and only a view on results, so many opportunities that a systemic approach offers are simply lost. When departments have conflicting targets across competing departments, the organisation as a whole loses energy, is not sustainable in the long term and therefore achieves worse results.

Holonomics argues that the modern business world, dominated by technology and left brain thinking, has been at the expense of other ways of knowing –including sensing, feeling and intuition. Yet these three modes arguably also inform rational thinking to some extent.  How do we become conscious of these other aspects of our minds as separate but equally valid drivers of our actions? (e.g., how does one recognise and use their intuition in the workplace?)

MRR: One great example relates to change management programmes. For example when you have to communicate and stimulate people in respect to a new strategy which will introduce new ways of doing things, new processes and new tools etc, if this is only done in a rational way, you will only communicate to people what they have to do, and expecting they will change because rationally they have understood because things will now be different.

But in fact people are used to doing things in a certain way, and unless they understand the deep meaning behind the need to change, and what the impact will be in their daily work, and unless they really feel that this will be important and effective, they will not make the changes. So it is important to understand the different aspects of the culture, the relationships between people in an organisation in order to be able to promote the necessary change, and this is not a purely rational thing.

So those people managing change must be able to deal with observations, intuition, and be able to perceive the hidden connections that exist in between people which are often much stronger than the organisational chart and structure.

SR: In order to help people break out of working in a purely rational manner, we have many different experiential exercises which we do with executives, one of which for example we did at our workshop at Sustainable Brands London last November, when we blindfolded people, and asked them to create a model in clay. These exercises allow people to make the shift into a higher mode of consciousness which facilitates deeper insights which impact on them in an intuitive and not just a rational manner.

The call for people to ‘upgrade their mental operating system’ to Holonomics seems to reflect the left-brain paradigm you critique. Was this an intentional paradox?  Given that changing people’s ideas/modes of being is likely a gradual process, what are the first steps to integrating Holonomic thinking into an organization?

SR: It is extremely important to understand that in Holonomics we are not critiquing the ‘left-brain’ paradigm. Without the ‘left-brain’ i.e. analytical mode of consciousness, life as we know it would simply not be possible. Holonomic thinking is an expansion of consciousness, where as we have already mentioned, we first become aware, then develop an ability to function using all four ways of knowing – thinking, feeling, sensing and intuition.

The next aspect about Holonomics to understand is that a holonomic approach to the analysis of an organisation has the following four interrelated aspects:

Systemic – Understanding the organisation as an organic and dynamic system of interrelated organs.

Experiential – Understanding the lived experience of each person – employees, management, leadership, stakeholders and the community.

Meaningful – Understanding how shared meaning emerges in the organisation over time, allowing the organisation to be able to become agile, efficient and transparent – an authentic whole.

Ethical – Understanding how human values determine authenticity, agility and change within an organisation.

Probably the four biggest areas we have found businesses responding to the need for holonomic thinking are in strategy, change management, customer experience design, and human resources. Of course with a holonomic perspective, these are four major activities which contribute to the development of an authentic and fully integrated vision for a business

In the global discussion about the development of sustainable brands, we do feel that up until now the role of people within HR has not received much visibility. We are working with a number of HR teams who are championing the introduction of programmes of profound organisational change within their businesses, and so we would suggest that a great place to start is with HR professionals who are looking to facilitate a profound shift in mindsets within their organisations.

Holonomics argues it is not enough to measure brands economically, because people experience and connect with brands in broader ways.  Are there ways we can measure or track these other types of value?

MRR: Firstly it is important to recognise the great work you guys are doing at Sustainable Brands with many of the members who are doing so much good work re-imagining sustainability measures. Many people now realise that we have to shift our thinking on measures from being Cartesian, i.e. focussing on single objects, to being systemic, measuring processes and the impact they have on the whole system, organisation or ecosystem.

What we also need to realise is that we have to combine quantitative measures with qualitative measures, and this is one of the great insights from systems thinking and complexity theory. Relationships cannot be measured, they have to be mapped, a methodology which reveals patterns within networks. Traditional measures alone can not capture patterns such as networks, cycles and boundaries.

SR: As for specific methodologies, one in particular which is entirely holonomic is Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, a qualitative inquiry technique. Cindy Barnes and Helen Blake, along with their colleagues at Futurecurve are doing some excellent work integrating IPA into the development of value propositions, allowing businesses to innovate and create new strategic models where both people and planet truly matter.

At SB London last year, you provided an example of a Holonomics workshop with Hospital Sírio Libanês that yielded an exciting ‘breakdown of social hierarchy.’ How can this breakdown benefit an organization?

SR: This is a great case study where I worked with the strategy, marketing and HR functions to help design an event in order to communicate the strategic map (of which people, sustainability and philanthropy were major pillars) across the whole organisation, all 4000 ‘collaborators’. In Brazil one specific problem is that there is a much wider social gap between those at the top of society, including doctors and surgeons, and those in other strata such as nurses, junior managers, secretaries, porters, and admin staff.

If an organisation is to be truly sustainable, the values, mission, strategy and very essence of the organisation needs to be understood and then expressed by each and every member, but communicating a technical strategic map simply will not work, since so many people will not understand it, and may even be slightly intimidated.

What we did as a team at Hospital Sírio Libanês was to first convert the strategic map into a story, which meant that when we mixed doctors and surgeons and senior executives on tables with people from every other function and department, we rapidly achieved a shared sense of understand as to where the hospital wished to be by the year 2020.

So by designing an event in which strategy is not communicated by senior staff, but the meaning is actually co-created in small groups which fully represent the whole hospital, we are able to break out of the normal social hierarchies and create an event where each and every person both has an experience of being a part of an authentic whole, and also importantly, is able to make a meaningful contribution to the continually evolving strategy, of which people, sustainability and philanthropy are key pillars.

You talk frequently about companies developing an “authentic” purpose, writing in recent SB article, “Brands now have to be authentic and not only communicate, but actually be authentic in their wholeness.” What do you mean by this? How can we tell if a company is authentic in their mission?

SR: This is a great question which brings together some key themes which I have previously written about on Sustainable Brands. Firstly, we hear a huge amount about the shared economy and co-creation, but often when people are still operating from a position of ego, what seem like ecosystems and networks are anything but – they are what we call ‘knotworks’.

If an organisation is actually operating with multiple knotworks, what seems on the surface to be wonderful and sustainable networks of relationships will soon become dysfunctional due to the clashing of egos, where words such as humility, love, sharing, and transparency are just paid lip service.

There are two cases I wrote about recently on Sustainable Brands which really show the difference between organisations whose values are authentic and those which are just greenwash.

In the first example Brazilian juice company DoBem created a fake story about the origins of the fruit which goes into their products. When the Brazilian consumer protection authorities took legal action, the company barely made any apologies and kept the story on all their packaging.

In a second example, the lager brand Skol from Ambev launched a hugely misguided advertising campaign just before carnival which ad as its tag line “I left ‘no’ at home”. This was seen as both encouraging reckless drinking behaviour, and was especially offensive to women to whom the campaign suggested treating women with no respect or protection. When Brazilians responded angrily on social networks, Ambev responded swiftly, recognising their error, removing all advertising, and replacing the campaign with one which encouraged men to respect the rights of women to say no to their advances.

MRR: It is not easy to ensure that the whole (or the deepest essence of an organisation) is at all times fully present in the parts. But when an organisation does have values, and has a certain level of humility to recognise a mistake, they become extremely agile, and are able to make sense of situations rapidly, making the necessary adjustments to their activities. Companies with values do sometimes make mistakes, but authentic ones are able to rectify as their mission is authentic.

You work with companies to develop value propositions based on a ‘deeper and more meaningful engagement’ with all stakeholders. What’s an example of an organisation or company that is doing this successfully?

SR: I think one of the best examples comes from Lyf Shoes and their founder Aly Khalifa who we had the great pleasure of talking with after his brilliant presentation at Sustainable Brands London. It is a brilliant example of what can be achieved when entrepreneurial vision meets the desire for a sustainable future, and the business model of Lyf fulfils all four holonomic criteria which we spoke about earlier (systemic, experiential, meaningful and ethical).

Lyf’s business model is inspired by nature, and focuses on both people as well as the planet, therefore creating an authentic systemic solution where all the parts truly belong together. What we really like about this business model is the way in which it is not just about the physical aspects, the flow of raw materials and parts, but the way in which the brand is an essential ingredient, and the way in which the brand is expressed through the lived experience of all people in this ecosystem – the customers, the sales team, the producers and out towards those whose lives will be enriched through the localisation and vitality of their neighbourhoods and towns and cities.

Can all companies adopt Holonomic thinking, regardless of the product they sell?

SR: Given how human values form the basis of holonomic thinking, there are clearly some products that are not holonomic, such as cigarettes.

After saying this, it was amazing for us that you invited us to open Sustainable Brands London with the key message from Holonomics which is the need for the five universal human values of peace, truth, love, right-action and non-violence to be full present in everything we do. It is not enough to talk about these human values, we really have to live them.

MRR: To fully understand Holonomics is to be taken on a transformational learning journey, where our entire conception of wholeness and of systems changes. This change of consciousness leads us to more fully realise the impact of our actions on the whole ecosystem, people and planet, and of course we are not separate from nature, we are nature, so actions which are harmful to others are harmful to ourselves.

A holonomic business is one where people and planet matter. In order for a business which currently does produce and sell products which are harmful to people and planet to be holonomic, there first has to be a change of consciousness, so this would be our primary message. Focus on the five universal human values and all else will follow.