Buddhist and Taoist

Systems Thinking


The Natural Path to Sustainable Transformation



"Fascinating book. Highly recommended!"

Otto Scharmer
Senior Lecturer, MIT; Founding Chair, Presencing Institute; author, Theory U

Available worldwide

Praise for the book

“Addressing the core challenges of our time means to create pathways for transformation. Creating these pathways means to deepen our capacity for systems thinking. And to do that we can return to some of the earliest sources of holistic systems thinking: Taoism and Buddhism. In this fascinating book, Josep M. Coll takes us on a journey from the frontline of transformation for sustainability to the origins of Buddhist and Taoist thought. Highly recommended!”


Otto Scharmer

Senior Lecturer, MIT; Founding Chair, Presencing Institute; author, Theory U

“Transformation: what it is, why it matters, how to achieve it, and meaningfully evaluate it. That’s the territory of this book. Systems understandings can propel transformation, but to do so must cut through the cacophonous demands for more rigorous methods to pursue the challenge of engaging in more rigorous thinking. Drawing on ancient and enduring wisdom, this book illuminates the pathway to sustainability where what is at stake is nothing less than the future of humanity on Earth.”


Michael Q. Patton

Founder of Utilization-Focused Evaluation, author of Blue Marble Evaluation and former president of the American Evaluation Association

“Professor Coll is an intriguing and reflective author who incites a quiet yet formidable revolution in his articulation of the complex challenges facing the global economy. The book is not only insightful on the destruction greed and unchecked interests that have wreaked on our planet but hopeful in the need for spiritual reconciliation as the path to healing the most perplexing challenges of poverty, climate change and inequality. The author is exceptionally thoughtful in his articulation of bringing together Buddhist-Taoist thinking with more traditional theories of economic development that can truly lead to the equitable growth and prosperity needed to revolutionize our approach and engaging with our Universe more harmoniously.  A must read for any economist, development professional, politician or humanist.”


Laila Baker

Regional Director of the United Nations Development Coordination Office, Arab States

“Coll’s groundbreaking book builds a solid bridge for you to connect the inexplicable and impenetrable world of Eastern philosophies with the wicked and vexatious challenges of sustainable management. From Chapter Five, you can ride on his Zen Business Wheel to roam back inside the mysterious domain of Taoism and Buddhism and forward to apply its wisdoms to your triple business bottom lines, principles, and practices. With this new book, you no longer will feel that sustainable management is akin to teenage sex: everyone talks about doing it; everyone thinks everyone else is doing it; but no one is doing it well.”


Yuwei Shi

Academic Director, Blue Pioneers Program at University of California, Santa Cruz

“This book argues that emerging economies contribute to global economic growth, bringing a wealth of wisdom that is essential to fix capitalism. From a business and holistic management perspective, Coll’s new book explores a novel interpretation and enlightening application of Eastern systemic philosophies to build a more conscious, harmonious, regenerative and inclusive economy in turbulent times.”


Lourdes Casanova

Director of Emerging Markets Institute at Cornell University, S.C. Johnson School of Management

“This book takes a fascinating journey by building a new approach to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western management disciplines. This journey brilliantly explores the application of Buddhist and Taoist Systems Thinking into sustainable business management, and it does so in very practical ways. We are experiencing how our business system is vulnerable and unable to effectively respond to unforeseeable events like the COVID-19 crisis. In this book, Prof. Coll’s new systematical approach brings not only new management principles but a set of indispensable and essential management tools to guide and transform organizations through more sustainable daily business practices in both the private and public sectors.”


Jung-Hoon Lee

Chair of Smart City Committee of Seoul Metropolitan Government and Professor of Technology and Innovation at Yonsei University

“As an Asian business academic trained in the West, I found “Buddhist & Taoist Systems Thinking” to be an eye-opening and original book that explains why Asian companies have succeeded in global markets while retaining their cultural characteristics. Succinctly exposed, the many tenets that many Asian cultures have adhered to for thousands of years can be learned and applied effectively to business practice. In the Oscar-winning Korean film Parasite, the main character asks “You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan.” If you read this book, you can understand why that dictum is important especially in the turbulent times that we live in today.”


Dae-Ryun Chang

Professor of Marketing, Yonsei School of Business, author of Mastering Noon Nopi: The Art & Science of Marketing in Asia, former president of the Korean Marketing Association

“What if the deepest guidance for leaders set on business systemic change toward sustainability does not come from Western-based management theories? What if, instead of looking outside for inspiration, we look inside ourselves? Could the ancient teachings from Taoism and Zen Buddhism be applied to squaring the circle of creating a harmonious, value-driven, purposeful, equitable and sustainable society? With this book, you are about to find out. Drawing from perennial wisdom, Coll proposes a brand-new set of sustainable management principles and methods that allow us to reconnect with our nature and thereby to regenerate our business and society.”


Carles Navarro

Managing Director and Country Cluster Head Iberia BASF

For who is this book?


This book offers a vital toolkit for purpose-driven practitioners, leadership and management researchers, students, social entrepreneurs, evaluators and change-makers to reinvent, create and mindfully manage sustainable and agile organizations that drive the regenerative, inclusive and systemic transformation.



Introduction: the consciousness gap

Chapter 1

The emergence of the new business paradigm: from the ego-system to the eco-system

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This introductory chapter contextualizes the Earth’s most pressing global challenges of today, in relation to the Anthropocene: the human-made era that is provoking rapid and unprecedented geological, ecological, biological and socioeconomic changes on the planet. Anthropocenic challenges are explored through the lenses of the Western economic theories and concepts that prompted an extractive economy that still characterizes the current predatory capitalist system, based on human self-interest and domination over nature (business as a root cause of the systems challenges of today). This analysis is contrasted –conceptually and factually—with the rise of a new business paradigm based on the Eco systemic view of life, where business is conceived as a solution to complex systems problems. In this contrasting comparison, the drivers of change and the features of the new paradigm are decoded.


Chapter 2

Tao 4.0: adaptive thinking amidst exponential change and complexity

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This chapter explains why Buddhist and Taoist Systems Thinking is more relevant today than ever (for organizations and entrepreneurs that are transitioning to the new business paradigm), and what potential contributions can bring to sustainable management. The arguments are grounded in three core ideas. First, it illustrates how the modern application of Taoist fundamental principles that have long been missing in the science and practice of management (the East–West knowledge gap) can help guide the sustainable transformation. Second, it argues that Taoism and Zen Buddhism, its perennial foundational philosophies of the Axial Age, are pioneering and unique in developing a systems body of knowledge. It is based on the ideas of constant change and adaptability to complex (and apparently contradictory) environments and phenomena. Third, the concepts are contextualized within the emergent VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). They are updated and adapted to help contemporary organizations deal with the increasing convergence of the physical, biological and virtual domains that condition the way business and labour is, and will be, understood and practiced.


Chapter 3

The quest for balance and harmony: the Yin–Yang and the Five Elements

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This chapter introduces and explores the two fundamental Taoist systems theories (the Yin–Yang and the Five Elements), its core principles (oneness/wholeness, paradox and interdependence) and dynamics (balancing cycles of generation and control, self-regulation and harmonization). This explanation is framed against two central aspects that make the theories applicable today. On the one hand, it identifies the type of Yin–Yang creative tensions that work as harmonizing opposites as a way to raise awareness and better manage systems challenges. On the other hand, it illustrates how these two theories are utility-focused. They are useful sustainable management tools for navigating amid increasing complexity in the mindsets, behaviours and agency of entrepreneurs, executives, managers and organizations. Utility is illustrated with real case examples and metaphors.


Chapter 4

T-Qualia, a bio-logic of learning for transformation: The Eastern systems approach to the process of knowing

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This chapter explains the long-standing empirical Eastern systems approach to transformation, understood as radical change. Transformation follows the logic of nature. Humans, standing between heaven and earth, behave as a small universe that connects the outer world with the inner self through subjective experience (perceptual, sensory and emotional). This experience (also referred to as T-Qualia) triggers cognition (the process of knowing) and influences the level of consciousness (both primary and reflective). East-Asian philosophies have long enquired about how this subjective experience affects change and transformation, an issue that has long been dismissed by classic science. The level of consciousness triggered by T-Qualia is a precondition to transforming the way humans and organizations perceive, feel, understand and behave. This chapter argues how sustainable business is directly related to this process of transformation. The bio-logic of transformation is contrasted with the parallels between Buddhist and Taoist systems thinking and modern science, particularly with the latest developments in quantum physics, neuroscience and cognitive science.


Chapter 5

The Zen Business model: from metaphysics to sustainable management

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This chapter explains the operationalization of the aforementioned Eastern systems theories into an applicable methodology of sustainable value creation for organizations and entrepreneurs that aims to generate positive impact. This model is called Zen Business, a model I created in 2013 after years of experience and research in Asia. This method guides, for the first time, the systemic application of the symbiotic relationship between Taoism and Buddhism to sustainable management. The chapter explains the Zen Business methodology and tools in detail: the five corporate stars (Human Leadership, Stakeholders, Marketing and Innovation, Full Profit, Brand Impact Recognition); the dynamics of transformation (system diagnosis, value generation and control cycles); the five organizational archetypes; and the Zen Business wheel for sustainable business model design.


Chapter 6

Building the Gaia organization:
Principles and practices


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This chapter introduces the brand-new concept, first presented in this book, of the Gaia organization. This type of organization is named after Gaia, the mythological Greek goddess that symbolizes the personification of the Earth and mother of all life. The name Gaia also builds from the Gaia systems theory of James Lovelock. The Gaia organization, as is the case with planet Earth, is a living organism constantly interacting with itself and its surrounding environment. The Gaia organization synergistically evolves as a self-regulating complex system that helps perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet. The chapter introduces the overarching principles of lifefulness, consciousness and bio-logic; as well as the operating principles that guide the practices of Gaia-type organizations. The chapter also includes real-life case examples as well as the implications that existing organizations (built according to the old business paradigm) face when they aim to transition to the Gaia organization (the new business paradigm).


Chapter 7

Designing the Gaia startup:
practical guidelines


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This chapter focuses on how entrepreneurs can leverage the concept and principles of the Gaia organization in order to design a startup business. The practical guidelines follow step-by-step the implementation of the Zen Business model. These guidelines contain strategies and tools by corporate star, and they are all illustrated with real cases, practical examples and implications in implementing the model.


Chapter 8

Managing abundance beyond the triple bottom line


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The triple bottom line is an accounting framework developed by John Elkington that has largely been integrated in the management of sustainable business. It reflects the idea of introducing environmental and social benefits besides economic in the equation of profit. This idea expanded the concept of value beyond the economic domain. However, the triple bottom line is still confronted with measurement challenges in translating environmental and social expected value to actual impact. Moreover, organizations are mostly focused on measuring quantitative output-based indicators. This chapter explores the concept of managing abundance from a qualitative point of view, a key characteristic of the Gaia organization. It does so by means of providing an analytical framework grounded in the Buddhist and Taoist approach to abundance. This framework is applied at both individual and organizational levels, highlighting major implications. The application of the framework is based on the principle of lifefulness/liveability. Sustainability focuses on maintaining the status quo, while lifeability fits the bio-logical purpose of living organisms for creating and nurturing life.


Chapter 9

Business mindfulness:
evaluation for systems transformation

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About the author

Josep M. Coll is a professor of Strategy, Sustainability and Innovation at EADA Business School, visiting professor at Yonsei University in South Korea, and research associate at Maastricht School of Management. He works as an independent consultant for a wide range of private and public organizations, such as the European Commission and the United Nations. In the United Nations system, he co-led the first corporate developmental evaluation and adaptive management movement in UNFPA. As an initiate in Taoist metaphysics and Zen practitioner, he applies East Asian perennial philosophies into practical systems approaches and methods for regeneration. He regularly speaks internationally on sustainable transformation and coaches organizations, managers and entrepreneurs in transitioning to the new sustainable, regenerative and inclusive business paradigm.

Copyright 2021 - Josep M. Coll