Living Ecosynomics: Brand Stewardship at THORLO

Past-cast Series — Seeing relevance in earlier publications

Ritchie-Dunham, James, James Throneburg, and Michael Puleo. 2010. Living Ecosynomics: Brand Stewardship at THORLO, White Paper, Belchertown, MA: Institute for Strategic Clarity, October.

This is a story about a company whose idealistic and successful leader has long been engaged in re-inventing it as an American-based, community-rooted, sustainable manufacturer and retailer. Entrepreneurial leaders, at their best, are valued for a capacity to read the changes taking place in the world and respond creatively to open up new value creating opportunities.

Jim Throneburg (JLT), owner and CEO of THORLO, a well-known hosiery company in Statesville, NC, sensed several years ago that as he got older, he was facing a management succession issue not uncommon to entrepreneurial companies. After several failed attempts at stepping back and letting his management team run the business, transforming THORLO’s business model into a something that was high performing and sustainable became a very strong mandate. The main issue was that nobody, including JLT, was able to make explicit and put in practice what JLT knew how to do unconsciously – what he calls his unconscious competence.

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Ecosynomics and Why You Care

Ecosynomics

I propose ecosynomics (pronounced “ee-co-si-nom-iks”) as the social science of the agreements that guide human interaction.  The roots of ecosynomics are eco (current usage is “relationship,” historically oikos was “household”) syn (together) nomos (rules): the rules of relationship together or, reworking the terms, the principles of collaboration.[1]   This builds on the billions of human-years of experience in the past century in learning about economics, defined by leading economists, as the social science of the allocation of scarce resources.[2]  To this experience, ecosynomics provides a framework and a research tool for understanding human agreements; agreements people have with their own selves, with others, with a group, with nature, and with spirit. Ecosynomics explains the relationship between the level of harmonic vibrancy experienced in these relationships and the level of scarcity or abundance experienced in a group.

As a framework, ecosynomics shows how a set of fundamental assumptions and the agreements that come from them can explain the extraordinary outcomes being experienced in thousands of groups globally, where these groups are operating with a completely new and emerging paradigm, based on abundance, not scarcity.  As a research tool, ecosynomics suggests, therefore, how to identify groups experimenting with new ecosynomics-based agreements, showing how to discover how their innovations are leading to much greater and sustainable efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation.

Why you care

Having looked at three levels – the three circles – of the five primary relationships and how people use these distinctions to describe the difference between the experience of scarcity and that of abundance, you might be asking, “Why do I care?”  This is a great question, as it forces me to pull everything together, concisely.

I will start with the definition of ecosynomics as the principles of collaboration.  Why would you want to collaborate?  Why not just compete?  After all, competition has led to many of the great developments in human evolution.  I take this question seriously.  When I look at “success,” as defined by the “competition” school, I find that the collaborators, as defined in these pages, are much more competitive.  These collaborators play the competitive game much better than do those who focus only on competition.  The collaborators work continuously with possibility, choosing to develop those capacities over time, out of their deeper potential, finding they can bring much greater capacities to the competitive game.  It is not that collaborators cannot compete – they can – rather that they see competition as a much broader game.  They compete with others in the moment of interaction. They also compete with themselves to continuously develop their capacities.  And, they compete with the infinite source to see how much creative potential they can embody.[3]  Thus, collaboration, as defined here, seems to lead to a higher level of competitiveness, especially in the terms of the “competition” school.

I have also found that the freer people are to develop their potential in these five primary relationships, the more abundance they experience.  Why do people want to be freer?  They just do.  Ask.  I suggest that you try asking others, and see what you find.  I too have asked, a lot.  I hear that people want to be freer in:

  • the experiences they have and the choices they make for themselves
  • the support they offer to others, in living into their talents, potential, and contribution
  • the contribution they can make to the group
  • the creativity that shines through them
  • the ability to make real a future they can imagine

In these freedoms, I hear the expression of the freedom to choose what relationships I want to be in and how I want to be in them.  This freedom means that “I choose.”  My relationships are not controlled by someone else.  This is why I think it is so critical to see that my interactions within the five primary relationships are guided by the agreements I accept in them, whether or not I am aware of these agreements.

What do the principles of collaboration (the definition for ecosynomics I gave above) have to do with being freer?  So far, I have found that people that seem to be freer are the same people that collaborate.  There seems to be a strong connection between greater freedom, greater collaboration, greater abundance, and greater harmonic vibrancy.

So, what are the principles of collaboration, as seen so far?  In this first conversation, I have already peeled back four specific principles of collaboration.

  1. People prefer abundance to scarcity, and higher levels of harmonic vibrancy to lower levels.
  2. People need all five primary relationships (self, other, group, nature, spirit).
  3. Higher levels of harmonic vibrancy require higher levels of all five primary relationships.
  4. People make different agreements and interact differently at different levels of harmonic vibrancy.

[1] The word “ecosynomics” acknowledges and builds on the word “economics,” derived from the Greek for rules of relationship, oikos nomos, which originally translated as “household management.”  Back 2,500 years ago, the rules of relationship for a home and a government of the people were seen as the same.  Historian of economic thought Roncaglia suggests that, “in Greek culture we find no contrast between the viewpoint of the family administrator and the viewpoint of the government of the polis.  Xenophon and Plato explicitly stated this fact,” according to economic historian Professor Roncaglia (Roncaglia, 2006, p. 25).  In 390 BC Xenophon, a student of Socrates, writes, “The management of private concerns differs only in point of number from that of public affairs.  In other respects they are much alike.” (Goold et al., 1997, p. 189).

[2] Nobel laureate in economics Paul Samuelson in his popular economics textbook (Samuelson & Nordhaus, 1995, p. 4) defines economics as “the study of how societies use scarce resources to produce valuable commodities and distribute them among different people.”  In Harvard economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s top-selling economics textbook, he defines economics as “the study of how society manages its scarce resources” (Mankiw, 2008, p. 4).  How long has economics been around?  While political economic thought dates back to at least Babylon in the 1700s BC, it was only recognized as a discipline independent of other social sciences in the early 1600s AD, and as a profession in the 1800s AD (Roncaglia, 2006, pp. 18, 23).

[3] Michael Porter, one of the fathers of modern strategy, coined the term “competitive advantage.”  Porter describes competition in similar terms, invoking the outcomes, the process, and the possibility (Magretta, 2011).

Ecosynomic Axioms

To find order in seeming confusion is the pattern-seeking, sense-realizing effort of the theorist and practitioner. Axioms are the building blocks of assumptions about the primary agreements that guide human interaction. Since these underlying axioms are deep assumptions that guide the development of guiding principles and agreements, it is important to make them explicit. Since Nature does not bring order to experience, it is the human need to impose order on ordered experiences that necessitates theory building and making axioms explicit. An axiom is “a proposition that commends itself to general acceptance; a well-established or universally-conceded principle; a maxim, rule, law.”

A set of social-systemic axioms must minimally indicate the level of analysis of human behavior, the intended purpose or outcome of the behavior, how the individual and collective levels of behavior relate, and how human behavior relates to the resources that sustain it.

The four axioms of ecosynomics are:

  • Holonism. The level of analysis is the whole that is a part of a greater whole.
  • Vibrancy maximization. Everything humans do is a means and an ends to the vibrancy of prosperity for oneself, another, and community.
  • Systemic leveraging abundance. The aggregate prediction of the behavior of the individuals is only achievable as a process of synthesis and dynamics.
  • Abundance in relationship. The factors of production are abundant when in harmony. It just depends on how we are in relationship with them.

Each axiom is now described and grounded in examples.

Holonism

Holonism is an integral approach to looking at the level of analysis, acknowledging and integrating simultaneously the whole and the part. Since a system is a whole and it is a part, it is necessary to understand that a system is not simply the aggregation of parts, rather a completely different phenomenon that cannot be derived or arrived at from any of the parts.

Holons are parts that are wholes that are parts.  Simply put, at one level an individual is a whole, a whole person. A whole of many parts, whether they are roles, personalities, or body parts. This whole person is also part of a whole family, which is also a part of a whole community, and so on.

We know this from our own experience. For example, working with the essence of string, a whole unto itself, one thinks of flexibility and pulling when in tension. Working with wax, also a whole unto itself, its essence is malleable when heated and it holds its structure when cooled. Understanding these essences in isolation does not bring about the essence of luminosity produced by a candle, when the wax and the string come together as parts of a greater whole. Likewise, from the essence of accounting, marketing, or production one does not arrive at the pleasure of the experience of wearing warm socks. Thus, we know from everyday life that the essence of the part and the essence of the whole are different. Holonism sees that the essence shifts when something is seen as a part or as a whole.

Two very different approaches to dealing with the part and the whole have emerged, with analysis tearing systems apart to understand the behavior of the disaggregated parts and synthesis examining the relationships of the parts to understand the behavior of the whole. Recent innovations have begun to interweave analysis and synthesis, providing different perspectives on the part-whole – the holon.

This can be drawn graphically as ever more encompassing concentric circles, as in the case of the work in Guatemala (see Figure 1). In this way, the health of any outer circle (the whole) depends on the health of the inner circle (the part). In the other direction, however, the health of the inner circle does not necessarily depend on the health of the outer circle.

In the Guatemala case, one’s access to education does not directly influence whether one has access to supportive relationships; however, without a healthy level of collective support for access to healthy relationships, it is very difficult to develop the access to education. On the individual, interior levels, the healthy ability to learn is contingent on the healthy ability to feel, but not necessarily vice versa.

In social systems, holonism integrates the actor and the structure. One does not precede the other, rather they co-exist. The individual has agency in determining what they want as a whole unto themselves and the structure determines what the individual receives in resources as a part of the greater whole.

 

Figure 1: Holon of Individual and Collective Prosperity in Guatemala

 

 

Vibrancy maximization

Vibrancy maximization is an aspiration-reality, discrepancy-minimization effort. Aspiration-reality discrepancy minimization means that the end goal is to minimize the difference between the aspirational and current reality levels of behavior. People seek greater vibrancy, working towards their aspirations of the possible, by changing their current reality. Humans across all cultures and ages are finely tuned instruments for sensing vibrancy, the flow of spirit in every dimension of their lives.

In the case of Guatemala, the aspiration-reality discrepancy was the difference between the desired ability to self-determine and the actual ability (see Figure 2). The end goal of all the efforts in the project was to close this gap.

 

 

Figure 2: Guatemalan Aspiration-discrepancy Minimization

 

It is, in fact, vibrancy not utility that humans seek to maximize in their lives, using whatever dimension of the human experience is most appropriate at the time. Utility is the consumer’s satisfaction, assessing how much consumers prefer goods and services. Vibrancy is the human relationship to its experience of life, in all of its forms. Where as consumers seek greater utility from their goods and services, humans seek greater density of harmonic vibrancy in their life.

 

Systemic leveraging abundance

Systemic leveraging abundance is a process of synthesis where abundance becomes available in the system through the interaction of the agreements within the system, as they engage healthy growth engines and recognize healthy sufficiency for all individuals and the collective.

The part relates to the whole through a web of relationships, which can be described as a system. It has become clear in the past fifty years that because of systems effects, small causes can lead to big effects and large causes can lead to small effects. This is counter to the prevailing logic that small interventions lead to small changes, and only large efforts lead to large changes. In systems it is more about shifting the behavior of the whole, through its interrelated individuals, than trying to move all of them at the same time with a massive push. This lesson has been lost on many of the world’s largest organizations in government, civil society, and business.

 

Abundance in relationship

There is abundance in the relationship to enabling resources, the factors of production, influenced by the dynamics of perceived scarcity or abundance. Scarcity is defined as restricted in quantity, and comes from the Old French eschars and Classic Latin excerpre for selecting out. Abundance is defined as more than sufficient or existing in great plenty, and comes from the Latin abundantem for overflowing, to flow in waves away from. Many communities around the world have asked themselves the questions of what their assets are. Many are wealthy in the key resources of healthy people with a strong social fabric, good land, knowhow, clean air and water. Some of these only lack access to markets. While what is lacking varies by collective, most collectives are abundant in many of the key resources to human prosperity.

 

The four axioms

In summary, the four axioms highlight a world of potential and possibility, a world that aligns with how individuals and collectives look at their own lives. The axioms describe a world where people form wholes, with their own, unique intentions, which simultaneously make contributions to larger wholes. Everything people do, as parts and as wholes, is to increase the vibrancy of prosperity they experience for themselves and for others. They work within collectives, leveraging the system of relationships to maximize abundance for all. They do this in relationship with the resources that are given and those developed. The degree to which people’s aspirations for these relationships and reality depart creates the urgency to minimize that discrepancy.