Discovery in North Carolina

This is the first article in the Explaining Synergic Organization series.

A graduate of Harvard Medical School and Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Dr. N. Arthur Coulter is a synergic science pioneer. He began searching for a better way for humanity over 50 years ago. In 1983, we would meet and work together. By co-Operating, we would discovery the organizational tensegrity.

Timothy Wilken

Independent of me, another synergic scientist N. Arthur Coulter, Jr., MD had been seeking to develop an ideal system of organization for human beings. He defined ideal as that system that would maximize both freedom, and quality of life for all within the system. He was the author of SYNERGETICS: An Adventure in Human Development. I discovered him by purchasing his book based on its title from a science catalog. I was so impressed with his book that I took a chance and wrote him. We soon developed a long distance friendship.

Coulter was also searching for a better world. He had realized that with the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Japan, humanity had reached a crossroad. That our weapons were now of such power that they threatened us all with extinction. He concluded:

“What is needed is nothing less than a major evolution of the human mind, which would give the rational, humane part of the mind a much greater control over the emotional part.”

Coming out the Army at the end of 1945, Coulter switched his focus from Mathematics and entered Harvard Medical School. He said he needed to learn all he could about the human brain and mind. Thirty years later, he was Chairman of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. But whenever he wasn’t teaching medical students, his focus was on understanding human thinking and human relationships.

In March of 1983, I traveled from my home on the west coast of Northern California to meet with Dr. Coulter. From Chapel Hill, we traveled by car a small private retreat he had built on a lake in nearby Virginia. It was a beautiful and very quiet place ideal for thinking and corroboration. He called it Synergia.

The purpose of our meeting was two-fold, first to share our research findings about human relationships, behavior, and thinking, and then to design or at least establish criteria for designing a “conflict-free” organizational system for humankind. As synergic scientists, we both believed an ideal system would be based on win-win relationships.
As our discussions began, I felt sure the system would be a form of capitalism. I had studied theoretical capitalism for a number of years.

One captitalistic theorist, Andrew J. Galambos had proposed an advanced capitalistic system which was non-coercive. Its underlying premise was to eliminate and prohibit loss. Galambos’ proposed system did not insure win-win relationships, but it promised to eliminate losing relationships. Galambos’ system was a type of SuperNeutrality. It allowed win-draw, draw-win, draw-draw, or win-win. It was committed to the protection of property. But, the definition of property was expanded to include your life, freedom, ideas, and actions. Galambos’ Capitalism was a much more powerful form than exists today. With its absolute prohibition of injuring others, it can be thought of as Moral Capitalism. Its tenets included the absolute protection of property, individual freedom, and total responsibility.

Galambos’s “SuperNeutrality—Moral Capitalism” retained many of Neutrality—Capitalism’s value systems. In 1983, I shared most of these values. However, even then I knew there was an even better way possible. I felt Galambos’s system could be modified into the synergic system we were seeking. I envisioned the ideal system would be a form of Synergic Capitalism—win-win capitalism.

As a synergy scientist, Coulter was sensitive to the wholistic view—a view he associated with theoretical socialism. He felt the needs of the species were more important than the needs of the individual. As the Star Trek character Spock said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

Unaware of Galambos’s work, Coulter assumed all capitalistic structures had to be based on win/lose dynamics, and therefore he was opposed to them on principle. Coulter envisioned a form of Synergic Socialism—win-win socialism.

Stalemate—Warring Ideologies

Socialism and capitalism are often polarizing words in our culture. And, Coulter and I also had our hidden assumptions. We discussed the issues long into that first night. And yet as adaptive and open as Coulter and I might hope to be, we were starting very far apart.

Over breakfast the next morning, we both shared our concern over the risk of a stalemate. It seemed our starting premises were exclusionary. The ideal system couldn’t be both capitalistic and socialistic. Capitalistic—Socialism or Socialistic—Capitalism? It just didn’t work.

Above all else Coulter and I were committed to the scientific way. As scientists, we knew all beliefs were only models of how Nature works. That all models were only temporary, even the best were theoretically obsolete on the day they are made. All models would someday to be replaced with better ones. Newton’s model of Universe served us well for over two hundred years, but Einstein’s model of Universe replaced it all the same. Everyday somewhere on the planet a human being is discovering something new about Nature that will eventually change all of our opinions. We both agreed that all present political systems were adversary systems. That all present systems were and are coercive  systems. Our commitment to synergy’s win-win principle required that Coulter and I be apolitical. We could not endorse any political system. Our interest in theoretical capitalism or theoretical socialism related only to their underlying patterns of organization.

We also agreed that finding the ideal organizing strategy for humankind was important if not critical. Neither of us wanted a statemate. We both committed to openly considering the other’s point of view, and further pledged a willingness to modify our positions based on the power of each other’s arguments. But after hours of discussion, I still believed the ideal system would be a form of synergic capitalism, and Coulter believed it must be some form of synergic socialism.

Korzybski’s General Semantics

We decided to formalize our discussions by utilizing the powerful communication science—General Semantics. Alfred Korzybski originated General Semantics to take the misunderstanding out of communication. He is quoted as saying:

“There can be no disagreements only misunderstandings. We are all looking at the same universe, in the end we must agree.”

I hoped Korzybski was right, and that Coulter and I would somehow discover we were only misunderstanding each other. But I had my doubts, capitalism and socialism—could they ever be resolved into a single system? No, it had to be either one or the other.

I hoped General Semantics would lead us to an answer. If it was to be socialism, then I was willing to change my position. But Coulter, would have to prove he had a better system.

After breakfast, I began by presenting the basic postulates underlying theoretical capitalism and its underlying relationship to hierarchical strategy, and then Coulter presented the basic postulates of theoretical socialism and its underlying relationship to heterarchical strategy. First I would teach him, then he would teach me. We alternated back and forth.

By late in the afternoon of our second day, we had both learned a lot. I was beginning to see the power and value of heterarchy, and Coulter was discovering the power and value of hierarchy. Both of us had held a number of false assumptions about the other’s position. However no real progress was made towards our ideal system. And, we still found ourselves butting heads over the terms capitalism and socialism. It seemed both of us carried strong emotional opinions about the terms in our unconscious. Our strong emotional attitudes seemed to block any hope for a solution in the little time we had available. If we didn’t change our focus, hope for any meaningful solution would be lost. Because our unconscious attitudes were sabotaging our efforts, we agreed to drop the terms capitalism and socialism completely from our discussion.

Beyond Capitalism & Socialism

Coulter and I both agreed that what was really important was to create a system that produced only win-win relationships. If we succeeded at that, then whether it was “capitalistic” or “socialistic” might not really matter. At this point, we agreed to change our focus to “hierarchy” and “heterarchy”. We began seeking a unique system that would transcend both capitalism and socialism—perhaps we could call it simply synergism.

I began by discussing the underlying structure of capitalism. I felt that even if the ideal system wasn’t capitalistic it would still have to retain hierarchy.

Hierarchy is a vertical system with many levels of organization. Those with greatest responsibility and authority occupy the higher levels. Hierarchy creates a feeling of difference or individuality. Individuals within the system see each other vertically, “He is over me.” “I work under John.” “He is way up in the company” “She is the lowest one on the totem pole.”

Hierarchy is humanity’s oldest organizing strategy. It was born in the jungle, was nurtured in the cave, grew up in the tribe, blossomed with feudalism, and today dominates nearly all the corporations, institutions, governments, and militaries of earth. Hierarchy is often experienced as the chain of command or pecking order. It is most formalized in military combat.

In business organizations, hierarchy is often experienced as an extension of the personalities of those individuals who founded the company. The operating policies of the company are a reflection of the values of the individual founders. Individuals with similar values are often selected to continue the company. So we see the primary concerns of a hierarchy are the goals of those few individuals that control it.

This is why American companies have individual decision making, and individual responsibility. Hierarchy has a particulate focus because goals are particular to the individuals who create them.

Hierarchy’s focus on the individual does lead to the stimulation of individual innovation, creativity, and originality. This leads to the development of a few individual stars who tend to dominate the company. Individuality has its strengths—one of which is rapid decision making. One individual can always decide much quicker than a group. I highly valued the individual and felt reliance on the best individuals had to be good for the whole group. Now it was Coulter’s turn to speak for heterarchy.

Coulter was just as sure the ideal system must be a heterarchy. His commitment to heterarchy was supported by research findings which revealed human relationships are optimized when humans feel they are valued at the same level.

The primary organizing strategy of theoretical socialism is heterarchy, this is in sharp distinction to political socialism which is usually hierarchical.

Heterarchy is a very different breed of organizational strategy than hierarchy. It is a horizontal system with only one level of organization. All are equal within the heterarchy. Individuals within the system see each other as  being on the same level. “We are a team.” “Its like a family rather than a job.” “We all respect each other.”

Heterarchy is ideal for communication and discussion, because it  allows for the sharing of responsibility and authority within an informal environment. Task assignments following open discussions, produce more cooperative working relationships. In a setting where associates feel valued, openness and integrity emerge. Individuals often take much greater roles in the tasks of their departments. In this setting, there is less conflict, and this usually results in improvement in efficiency, productivity, and quality of work-life.

Heterarchy creates a feeling of oneness—a feeling of community. Members of a heterarchy strongly identify with the whole system. Morale and espirit de corps are optimized. Because heterarchy is highly inclusive, all feel that they are a part of the system. This is in strong counter distinction to hierarchy’s exclusiveness. Individuals within heterarchy tend to protect the system. Individuals within hierarchy often ignore the system, and sometimes even attack it. The wholistic focus of heterarchy is on the needs of the whole organization. This wholistic focus leads to collective decision making and collective responsibility.

Decision making in heterarchy is slower. It takes time to gain the consensus of all the individuals within the heterarchy. However, implementation is much more rapid because the attitudes of those responsible for implementation have been considered in the decision making process. This not only eliminates conflict, but also encourages all members to feel responsible for the successful implementation of the decision. Anyone who has ever built a house knows it is much less expensive to erase lines on a paper, than to demolish mortar, brick, and stone.

As we focused more tightly, our discussions intensified, and to our mutual surprise we began to discover much agreement. Both hierarchy and heterarchy were emerging as valid strategies. They could both be seen to have major utility. They were very different, but equally valid methods of organizing. Heterarchy seemed better for meeting the needs of the whole system, while hierarchy seemed better for accomplishing the goals of the individuals within the system.

Heterarchy reduces conflict by seeking consensus. This appears to be the secret of its success. This is also why we see slow decision making, but rapid implementation. Hierachy produces rapid decision making, but slow implementation. Individual decision making always occurs with minimal knowledge of the attitudes of those who will be responsible for implementation. This lack of awareness produces inevitable conflict which slows and limits the success of implementation.

Neither seemed universally superior, heterarchy worked best in some areas, but hierarchy clearly worked better in other areas. But despite our agreement, if our two positions were found to be equally valid, then which one should we use? Our discussion of heterarchy and hierarchy did not trigger the emotional reactions that discussing socialism and capitalism had, but we seemed no closer to our goal than we had the first day. Heterarchy and hierarchy seemed to be exclusionary as capitalism and socialism. It had to be either heterarchy or hierarchy, it couldn’t be both.

Exhausted, we decided to break. Coulter invited me to take a walk along the lake that bordered his property. For some minutes we walked in silence, both of our minds grateful for the rest. Eventually, we reached a pleasant spot beside the lake and we sat down.

A few sailboats could be seen on the lake chasing the spring breeze. The scene was pleasantly reassuring, no sign of the troubled world that had prompted our quest for a new way for humankind. I thought of all the years I had been seeking a better way. It seemed so long ago that this journey had started. Even as a child, I had believed in a world without conflict. Coulter too seemed quietly sad, he too had been searching for a long time. His journey had begun even before my birth. I lay back and closed my eyes. The noise of the water gently lapping against the shoreline began to soothe my troubled mind.

Beyond Right & Wrong

Later, as we lay by the lake, Coulter told me of a powerful thinking tool he had developed:

“When I find I am confused, I test the idea by placing it in the following multiple-point-of-view rotary.

“The “idea” is right.
“The “idea” is wrong.
“The “idea” is neither right nor wrong.
“The “idea” is both right and wrong.

“First, I think of all the examples of when and where the idea is right, then of all the examples of when and where the idea is wrong. Then I look for examples where or when the idea doesn’t seem to apply, and finally I think of examples when the idea seems paradoxical—both right and wrong simultaneously. I have used this tool many times, and I have always understood the idea much better because of it.”

After resting a few more minutes we slowly walked back to his cabin. Following a break for supper, we resumed our discussions. We continued to learn from each other, but agreement seemed no nearer.

Alone, in my room preparing for bed, I took Coulter’s advice and jotted down his rotary.

Hierarchy is right.
Hierarchy is wrong.
Hierarchy is neither right nor wrong.
Hierarchy is both right and wrong.

Heterarchy is right.
Heterarchy is wrong.
Heterarchy is neither right nor wrong.
Heterarchy is both right and wrong.

As I lay down to sleep the rotary kept dancing in my head. Coming into our meeting, I had never felt so sure. How could so many things that seemed certain suddenly become so uncertain?

How could things be so right and so wrong all at the same time? What is the value of our science, if it can’t answer our questions?

And tomorrow, was our last day.

Last Day

The third morning, we began our discussions on mind-brain science. This has been a primary focus of both Coulter’s and my research for a number of years. Here we found an abundance of agreement. By midday we had reached a number of accords concerning human thinking. As we broke for lunch, we were pleased with this progress.

As this was scheduled to be our last day of meeting, we agreed to try for the ideal system once more after lunch. Coulter was still committed to heterarcy, but I had opened his eyes to hierarchy. Likewise my eyes were now open to heterarchy, although I still leaned toward hierarchy.

The night before I had completed outlining the operation of a hierarchy, so it was Coulter’s turn to talk. Coulter began to describe his ideal heterarchical system in terms of decision making and project execution.

Coulter’s voice modulated with excitement as he described the “heterarchy with  mission teams”. He had imagined a system of associates that were organized as a heterarchy. All members would sit on the same level as equals. No one would have more authority than anyone else. All problems and projects would be discussed at length in the heterarchy. All individuals would serve as information sources for each other, however participation was always voluntary.

Coulter leaned forward, “Now any individual would be free to declare a mission. Then other members of the heterarchy could examine the mission and participate on a negotiated basis in the creation of a mission team. If a declared mission found no voluntary allies, it would die for lack of support.”

“What would be the structure of the mission teams?”, I asked.

“The teams will be organized any way they like, remember it’s all voluntary. The individuals of the heterarchy will decide how they want to organize themselves, or even if they want to participate.

“Only those missions adequately supported by the heterarchy could occur. All involved would be voluntarily participating. Commitment would be 100% . When a mission was over the team would return to the heterarchy.”

“Could the mission team be a hierarchy?”, I asked.


Coulter paused momentarily stunned. He seemed deep in thought, then he relaxed with a sigh and responded, “I had never really thought about the structure of the mission team. Yes, I think you are right. The structure of the mission team would be a hierarchy.” He paused again, deep in thought, then continued, “But with an important difference from many hierarchies because everything is voluntary.”

I realized he was describing negotiated hierarchy, a powerful form of hierarchy that served a vital role in Galambos’ non-coercive capitalism. As Coulter continued talking, I saw the heterarchy in my mind’s eye begin to move. First, there was the heterarchy, then one member of the heterarchy declared a mission. The heterarchy suddenly configures itself into a mission hierarchy—a negotiated hierarchy. During the mission it functions as a hierarchy. Each member standing where he agreed to stand, performing those tasks he volunteered to perform. The system was strongly self-organizing. Once the mission was completed, the hierarchy was abandoned the members return to the heterarchy.

Heterarchy becoming hierarchy becoming heterarchy becoming hierarchy becoming heterarchy becoming hierarchy and on and on and on………….

The model danced in my head. Always a heterarchy, occasionally a hierarchy. The heterarchy was the continuous pull—always pulling information. The hierarchy a discontinuous push—only occasionally pushing out a mission. Coulter was describing a tensegrity. A tensegrity made up of heterarchy and hierarchy.

Hierarchy is both right and wrong.
Heterarchy is both right and wrong.
Hierarchy is neither right nor wrong.
Heterarchy is neither right nor wrong.

In a flash, Coulter and I had got what we were after. I had been blind to heterarchy and he to hierarchy. But there it was, both strategies in one system. I had not come to North Carolina looking for tensegrities, and Coulter had never even heard of a tensegrity. And yet, his “heterarchy with mission teams” was in fact a tensegrity—a tensegrity with an equal balance of heterarchy and hierarchy.

There are no accidents in Nature and the tensegrity is no exception. This is the way we humans were meant to organize. Life’s most powerful organizing strategy for us is the organizational tensegrity.

Read the full description of ORTEGRITY