Defining Organizational Risk with Autopoiesis

Maturana's domains of structural determinism provide a set of questions for figuring out what the risk and the hazards faced by an organization are as well as discerning how big of a punch an organization can face.

Defining Organizational Risk with Autopoiesis


In the simplest terms possible, the theory of autopoiesis is concerned with the capacity of a system to continually maintain and produce itself as itself while the environment changes around it (Thompson, 2007; Varela & Weber, 2002). Introduced by the biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, the theory of autopoiesis has been integrated into countless narratives beyond its original context of the cell and multi-cellular living beings such as humans (Maturana & Varela, 1980; Maturana & Varela, 1987). My own interests in autopoiesis pertain to how we might use the theory to understand and navigate dynamic landscapes. Moving in this direction, the following article applies autopoiesis and the related notion of structural determinism to the management of organizational risk. At the center of this article are questions about threats to an organization's capacity to continually reproduce itself as itself as the world changes around it.

Describing the Present

The notion of structural determinism is a component of the grand theory of autopoiesis. Founded on experiments exploring the biology of cognition, structural determinism suggests that all that can happen within a system is determined by the structure of that system and not by external events. One of my favorite examples comes from the work of Capra and Luisi (2014):

“If you kick a stone, it will react to the kick according to a linear chain of  cause and effects…If you kick a dog, the dog will respond with structural changes according to its own nature... the resulting behavior
is generally unpredictable" (p.136).

Although it evokes a rough image, the above provides an excellent example and starting point for discussing structural determinism. First, structure refers to the way the dog is, its entire history embodied in all of its parts and the way they are linked together through the brain forming sensorimotor connections. When the dog is kicked, it responds on the basis of this structure as it exists at the moment it is kicked. Different responses can be imagined from dogs with different structures. It is important to note that it is not just the history that matters but how that history is unfolding in the present context as well - is the dog angry or sad? Playing or defensive? For another layer of insight into structural determinism, consider the following directly from Maturana and Varela (1987)

In our daily lives, in fact, we  behave as though all things we encounter are  structurally determined unities. An automobile, a  tape recorder, a sewing machine, and a computer  are all systems we treat as though they were  determined by their structure. Otherwise, how  could we explain that when we find a breakdown  we try to change the structure and not something else? If we step on the gas pedal of our car and the  car doesn't move, it will never occur to us that  there is something wrong with our pressing foot.  We assume that the problem lies in the connection  between the gas pedal and the injection system,  that is, in the structure of the car (p.97).

Throughout his work, Maturana (1983) presents four domains of structural determinism. They are provided here from a paper titled "What is it to see?"

Domain of changes of state: Its domain of possible structural changes without loss of class identity (with conservation of organization)
Domain of possible perturbations: Its domain of possible interactions that trigger in it changes of state
Domain of possible disintegrations: Its domain of possible structural changes with loss of class identity (loss of organization)
Domain of Possible Destructive Interactions: Its domain of possible interactions that trigger in it a disintegration (p.259)

In the same paper, he refers to these four domains as a way of systematizing the characteristics of a system at any moment. I take his phrasing here to mean that  each domain provides a different way of talking about a system as it exits at any moment as any system can be described by each of the four domains at any instant.

In the above quote, Maturana (1983) introduces a new term that accompanies structure: Organization, or class identity as it is also known. The term organization (class identity) refers to what something is that can be realized by many different structures. For example, car is an organization that can be realized by many different structures such as makes and models (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008; Thompson, 2007). Maturana's own words below may provide even more clarity.

The components plus the relations between them that at any instant realize a particular system as a system of a particular class constitute its structure. The structure of a system includes both components and relations between them, and therefore has more dimensions than its organization, as the organization entails only relations (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008, p. 164).

Possible Applications

In my own early adaptation of these domains I changed some of the names, attached additional descriptions, and visualized them in a grid. One of the largest abstractions away from the original theory was the removal of the terms organization and structure. The meaning of Maturana's organization was retained in the term "identity" and the phrase "who we are,” whereas structure was recast into "what we are doing" (this language is improved in more recent adaptations). Doing so was intended to maintain the distinction between organization and structure without requiring any knowledge of the supporting theory.

Visualizing and restructuring these domains was a first step in thinking about how Maturana's theory of autopoiesis might be used to engage with the risk facing organizations, teams, or departments. It is my thought that Maturana's domains of structural determinism collectively provide an interesting perspective and set of questions for defining what the risk and hazards faced by an organization (or team, project, etc.) are as well as discerning how big of a punch an organization can take" Can we continue to reproduce ourselves as ourselves if X happens? Do we need to respond to Y if it happens? If Z happens do we have the capacity to transform who we are so we can survive?

To demonstrate how this may be used I like to use the example of a friend's company that makes equipment to support warehouse workers in effectively picking items for shipment. In the domain of preservation, this company can continue doing what it is doing in addition to introducing new products to help workers effectively and efficiently complete their tasks. The domain of preservation is about conserving the present.

The domain of adaptation includes every event that can make my friends company  "zig" to someone else's "zag." The release of a new product by a competitor not imagined by his company may necessitate a response that produces (thought not directly) a change in what they are doing. This change may materialize in any number of ways including the creation of a similar product, a revision of existing products, or a change in strategy. The domain of adaptation is a domain of quantitative change.

Events that can be categorized in the domain of transformation lead to larger changes than those in the domain of adaption. Imagine workers are no longer needed in warehouses. To survive, the company in question would need to change their identity from a company who makes tools for workers to one that creates equipment for automated warehouses. While the company is able to survive, it has to fundamentally change its identity to be able to do so. The domain of transformation is about qualitative change.

The last is the domain of dissolution. All events that could lead to the sudden destruction of the company belong here and include a loss of market share, (potentially) bankruptcy, and large-scale environmental changes such as the disappearance of a need for warehouses. The domain of dissolution is the domain of game over.

Influenced by Cynefin, I included to the left of the domains three questions to potentially guide the filling out of the different domains and prompt the drawing of dynamics on top of the board (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003). The first question asks "What events belong in each domain?" The above discussion of my friend’s company provides an example answer to this question. The second question asks "What events are moving domains?" This question probes about the events inextricably linked to our own behavior as an organization that are becoming more or less of a threat as they move from one domain to the next. The third and final question digs into opportunities for regulation by asking "How can events be moved in a clockwise direction?" This question targets the capacity of an organization to move events to decreasingly less threatening domains.

Newer Versions

My project to understand how autopoietic theory can be used to shape conversations about risk is presented below in its current form.

Aside from its horizontal presentation and changes in the descriptive narratives, the most marked change is the introduction of a boundary of viability derived from Di Paolo's (2005) extended narrative of autopoiesis. To Di Paolo (2005), autopoiesis alone is insufficient for understanding how living systems make sense of and seek to actively improve their standing in the world around them. He adds to autopoiesis the notion of adaptivity, defined as:

A system’s capacity, in some circumstances, to regulate its states and its relation to the environment with the result that, if the states are sufficiently close to the boundary of viability,
1. tendencies are distinguished and acted upon depending on whether the states will approach or recede from the boundary and, as a consequence,
2. tendencies of the first kind are moved closer to or transformed into tendencies of the second and so future states are prevented from reaching the boundary with an outward velocity.

The boundary of viability emerges as something an organization cannot move past and is thus put between the first three and last domain to represent an unrecoverable transition. It is then "adaptive" when an organization moves an event found in the domains to the right to the left. The inclusion of Di Paolo's (2005) theory also helps to extend Maturana's domains beyond the present into the future, as thinking beyond "now" is a violation of structural determinism that only deals with the present.

The current version of the diagram also focuses further on identity and how it is produced. A distinction is drawn between identity, what we think of ourselves, and how we produce that identity which was formerly described as "what we are doing." I think this revised language allows for some needed disconnection between the identity of an organization and how they continually reproduce it as these elements may exist at a distance from one another.

Identity as Images of Ourselves

A few days after sketching this last version of the diagram I began thinking of identity as the image (or perhaps an idea) of an organization held by its members that they continually reproduce through their actions and language every day. This aligns with Maturana's extended writings on autopoietic theory that present identity as that which is conserved (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008; Yáñez & Maturana, 2013).

"Every time a set of elements begins to conserve certain relationships, it opens space for everything to change around the relationships that are conserved” (Yáñez  & Maturana, 2013, p. 77)

Identity then becomes an image of what an organization is that is conserved day in and day out and is hoped to be conserved moving into the future. Following from this, it seems the amount of risk faced by an organization, meaning the amount of events that can be placed in each domain but particularly the domains of dissolution and transformation, is somehow linked to how much its members are trying to conserve. If the image of the organization is large and detailed there is less room for change to take place leading to an overly populated domain of dissolution - everything is a fatal threat. On the other hand, if the identity image of the organization is small and lacking detail, nearly everything is possible and the domain of preservation becomes full. It seems then that identity images of a middle variety may make the most sense as they allow at the outset for the possibility of constrained change following events in the domain of adaptation and qualitative change if necessary in the case of transformative events. This understanding may also be context-specific and relate to the overall degree of the environmental turbulence presently surrounding an organization. It may be that an organization should seek to conserve a larger, more detailed image of its identity when dynamic change is regular. However, if it seeks to conserve too much it may break at the exact moment it should bend (Cilliers, 2006; Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008).


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Cilliers, P. (2006). On the importance of a certain  slowness. Emergence: Complexity and Organization, 8(3), 105-112.

Di Paolo, E. A. (2005). Autopoiesis, adaptivity,  teleology, agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences(4),  429-452. doi:10.1007/s11097-005-9002-y

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