top of page

Organizational Alchemy Part 1: Introducing the Master Integrator

Throughout history, we have had a drive – or maybe an obsession - with trying to create something of great value from commonplace materials. This is apparent when looking at our myths, fairy tales, science fiction, and even religion, science, and sustainability theories of today – stories spinning gold from straw, hidden treasures, fountains of youth, nuclear physics, the Gaia principle, transformation, freedom from suffering, transcendence, enlightenment. We are constantly looking for means to get more value from what we have available – sometimes selfishly, sometimes altruistically. There is one long, mysterious, and fascinating thread that runs in the shadows of all the histories of the world – alchemy – or the quest to create the “philosopher’s stone” – an elusive material that can change lesser metals into noble metals (such as gold and silver). Alchemy is not only intended to “cure” lesser metals of their impurities, but may also be able to do the same for humans in the form of the fabled “elixir of life.” This may sound a bit antiquated, but the quest for “gold” and “immortality” are very much alive and well in today’s world just as throughout history.

The first documentation of this process of transforming base metals into silver or gold goes back at least two millennia and is universally referenced across Hindu Vedas, Buddhist texts, ancient Egyptian and later Islamic scholars, and in Europe from the Hellenistic period through the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment as part of the works of Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle. In modern times, alchemy has taken on a very different look and feel. We now are constantly looking for ways to transform our “common” selves, teams, and organizations into a “more noble”, higher state – or what we have witnessed with in the dotcom work where data and user volume have created fortunes out of barely anything. Just as the alchemist of centuries past, we try different processes, make use of new technologies, and explore certain beliefs – all in the hope of finding the fabled “philosopher’s stone.”

Regardless of era, culture, or reason - alchemy relies on a few basic principles:

  • Understanding of elemental properties – The alchemist needs to deeply understand the characteristics and behaviors of various elements. By understanding the nature of each element, the most appropriate compound can be used at exactly the right time in the process and in exactly the right way to achieve the desired result.

  • Mastery of catalysts - Understand the means and mechanisms by which you can alter or affect the properties of various elements and their interactions with other elements. Sometimes this may involve developing new processes or tools to create the types of reactions that you are looking for or modifying existing tools and processes. The pursuit of alchemy is what brought about the creation of acids, various apparatus and processes for distillation, refinement of the scientific method, etc. This library of tools and processes are at an alchemist’s disposal in order to help them manage, manipulate, and encourage the reactions they are looking for.

  • Careful observations of relationships - Understanding of the reactions between elements –both the very subtle and the gross. Major reactions are easily observed, but really taking the time to understand the subtlety in reactions and how a little more of this alters the properties of a reaction ever so slightly. Alchemists found that metals behaved differently in the presence of mercury, sulfur, or salt. The key finding being that certain properties of certain elements are accentuated or dampened when in the presence of other elements. A careful study of these relationships can give the alchemist not only a deep understanding of a material’s static properties (as discussed in the first bullet), but also a deep understanding of it’s true nature and variability under a wide range of stimuli.

  • The “Other” - There also is a bit of “magic” involved. “Magic” is the placeholder for that which is currently unknown or unknowable. Only recently have we begun to explore the effects that things such as intention, concentration, meditation, and prayer have on outcomes. These factors certainly impact the alchemist’s perception (and as we discussed in previous weeks – perception is everything in some cases). However, there is also an interesting pattern throughout history where the most famous alchemists were those with deep spiritual practices or gifted geniuses that worked at the nexus of the known and unknown. There are common threads throughout history - clarity of mind, discipline, and dedication to a greater purpose - that seems essential to enabling this type of work.

How does all this discussion of alchemy apply to our everyday modern organizational context? Often I find myself in meetings where as I look around the room, there are a dozen people in attendance that each have anywhere from ten to thirty years of work experience. Aggregated, that means that the collective years of work experience in the room could be anywhere from 120-360 years. However, I’m often amazed that the outcomes of those meetings fall significantly short of what I would expect from something that is informed by and average of 250 years of experience. Why is this?

One of the most famous texts on alchemy is The Sum of Perfection written by a nebulous character known as Geber who was either the English name for a 13th century Islamic scholar or the alias of a Franciscan monk from southern Italy. For centuries, The Sum of Perfection was highly regarded as the “bible of alchemy”. This title got me wondering – why do so many of our interactions fall short of their potential (this would be the alchemical equivalent of starting with copper and ending up with mud)? So, why does 1+1+1= 2.3 (or less) so often in our world? One part of the answer is that there is a lot of waste in the process – seen or unseen. When working with other people, waste can manifest itself as ambiguity, ulterior motives, inaccurate translation, lack of motivation, lack of full understanding, etc. Even if all those factors where eliminated or greatly minimized, we would be closer to 1+1+1 = 3. However, that would just mean that copper stays copper. Is there a possibility that we could turn copper into gold (organizationally speaking)? What needs to happen for 1+1+1= much more than 3? One potential answer lies in the development of a special breed of professional that acts as an “organizational alchemist” of sorts – someone that I’ve been referring to for years as the “master integrator.”

The next four weeks of posts will be part of the Organizational Alchemy series and build on this on specific characteristics that these master integrators should possess. Much of these posts will be based on sections of Chapter 5 of The Collective Potential: A Holistic Approach to Managing Information Flow in Collaborative Design and Construction Environments.

Featured Posts
Check back soon
Once posts are published, you’ll see them here.
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page