in Management, Twogs, WorldOfWork

Managers as Ecologists

I have recently been gripped by what I consider is a very powerful idea and I would love to share it with you, in the hope that you might ‘Yes and‘ it (make it better/ enhance it) and perhaps explore it in practice at your business.  ‘Business Ecosystem’ is a much abused term. I find that many CEOs and senior management use it as buzz phrase to mean their organisation structure (typified by their organisation chart).
In the most common misuse it depicts no more than the chain of command or the boundaries of blame.

What might happen if corporate managers reframe their roles to understand their organisations more like natural ecosystems and set about being stewards of understanding what needs to thrive in that ecosystem and helping to establish and sustain the conditions to support the organisation’s vision?

This is simply a first pass at this idea. Enough, I hope to get the early adopters amongst you thinking more deeply about this approach. More will follow.

Disclaimer: I cannot be held responsible for the untold learning and outright wonder that this information may unleash in your life.  Proceed at your own caution, but enjoy it. 

A Word About Ecology.

Ecologists are interesting  people.   Geeky (i.e. intelligent and obsessive)  for sure, but interesting. They study nature at various scales. The stuff that lives in it and the stuff that lives on them and so on.  They think about the conditions in which life exists in the space they are studying ( those conditions that most of us wouldn’t give two hoots about like how much nutrient is in the earth, what puts it there etc).

Ecology is painstaking. It all starts with a study of what is present in the space under study and how those components are related. This is complexity in action.
In natural ecosystems, ecologists talk  of food webs and chains, nutrient flows etc.  All of which point to how energy in the system flows (through death, decay and being eaten by some predator).

It all starts with a Picture.

Artist’s rendering of the complexities of the Gulf of Alaska marine ecosystem. Image courtesy of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council GEM (Gulf of Alaska Ecosystem Monitoring and Research) project. Click for a larger version.

This picture is, as you may have guessed, from the Exxon Valdez oil spill case. Take a moment to really look at this picture. It has a lot of detail. Go on, get comfortable with it.
What is it saying to you?

But why all this effort for a picture. Well one word…understanding.  Very deep understanding of the forces at work in the system. Understanding of the subtle and delicate balance that exists between apparently independent components.  With understanding comes wisdom, with wisdom comes better informed and more responsible action.

Let’s test just how much understanding you have gained from this picture alone.

Let’s say I asked you to suggest ways to help salmon thrive, purely from the detail in this picture, what might you say?
Or what might we do to increase the population of rare sea birds?
What if I asked you to imagine another potential spill occurring around the center of the picture, what might be the immediate likely risks and how might we need to respond to minimise it?

The point is, you can make a pretty good set of suggestions and recommendations (and you likely aren’t an expert, geeky ecologist!) just from this picture – let alone the deep underlying data that went into creating it.

Beware Social Engineering

Now before you freak out and accuse me of advocating social engineering, let me say that in the brave new world of business agility – in which we are seeing the biggest challenge to traditional management since the industrial revolution, the role of management needs clarification.  Coaches and ‘thought’ leaders talk of ‘servant leadership’ and ‘change agents’. All that is well and good, but still managers are generally befuddled. The rise of self organising teams to solve complex problems has only amplified the need to get the role right

I am suggesting that management can  be that part of the organisation that is specifically tasked to pay attention to the conditions  under which work is done.
They can understand what they should be measuring and monitoring (like water quality to understand health of fish stock!) and measure them effectively (and efficiently). They can explore the feedback loops that will be most effective.

The beauty of an ecosystem  based management approach lies in where it leads the curious and engaged mind.
It leads the ecologist to follow the threads of interdependence, encouraging them to widen the boundaries of their ecosystem until they form a clearer, richer  picture of the real dynamics that exist in their organisation.  It leads them to ask ‘what should our ecosystem be optimised for and why?’ (goals!).
It leads, if you let it, to a more holistic and human view of a deeply human system that is often deeply dehumanising. It may lead to more joy at work.

Note of Caution:  Using this approach is , of itself,  neither good nor bad. It is informative.  It rests with a healthy organisation to hold itself accountable to act ethically and not use the visibility that an ecosystem based management provides to megalomaniac ends.

The Metaphor Only Goes So Far.

But it goes far enough to be useful.  Be creative about how you consider this methapor, particularly about:

Food Chains.
In natural ecosystems, the primary way energy is released or transferred is by predation (i.e. something eating something else).  Now hang on, I’m not advocating that you start feeding on your colleagues.  What might be the analog of ‘food’ in your organisation? What forms the ‘energy’ of your organisation.  In many that I work with, it is information.

The ecologist is part of this picture.
Usually, the ecologist is studying a system as an observer (unless they are studying systems with human components that include them) . In this approach, the managers are part of the ecosystem they are tasked with studying and understanding. The other living components of a corporate ecosystem are other human beings, with opinions , feelings and the ability (and intelligence) to articulate them. So ecosystem management here is more about doing things with the the ecosystem vs doing things to the ecosystem.

My Challenge To You.

Hopefully I have described the basics of my idea well enough for you to do something with it. I would like you to consider these as next steps.

  • Draw a picture of the components in your ecosystem (start with your team as a space under study) – look at living (e.g people, pets, plants) and non living components (e.g code, servers, food!)
  • Identify what represents the things that are exchanged (the energy that is flowing) – what is the primary thing (e.g money, information, code?)
  • Identify how your components are related and interdependent. If it helps, consider who influences whom and how?
  • Then, think for a minute about something you would like to see improved in your ecosystem (for example, attitude to risk, reduce blame) and see if you can identify how your picture might need to change to help this improvement emerge.  If you can’t, try reworking the components and relationships until you can.

It’s worth it.

Drop me a line @mhsutton on twitter to let me know how you get on or if I can help you think it through.  I’d be delighted to.

 

What do you think?