Working with Systems

I get repeatedly asked about the difference between working with the ecosystem (or human system) and working with formal organisations. For me this is largely a perceptual difference and yet perception is a critical and deeply influential thing.

First, for me a formal organisation IS a human ecosystem. It displays all the characteristics of any ecosystem AND it has specific characteristics that arise from our perceptions of how power and control play out in that organisational setting. In other words, the organisation is created as much in the mind, in our collective intelligence, as in reality. Seeing organisations in this way frees us up to observe phenomena and design approaches that are denied to us when stuck with the hierarchical paradigm.

And yet, just as we know newtonian mechanics is incomplete in comparison to quantum mechanics but we still find it more than ample in fashioning amazing machines, so too our incomplete view of organisations through their hierarchical structures may be sufficient to work with them at smaller scale over more limited timeframes. I will therefore turn my attention to what is behind the original question.  Usually what people are asking is; 

how do you work with collections of organisations? or

how do you work with an organisation in its setting of customers, markets, regulation, suppliers and competitors?

A big difference in working in such a setting is that those intervening, whether they are external advisers or internal leaders, must give up the illusion of control. There is rarely in such an ecosystem a shared view of who is charge, the direction we are heading and what the appropriate actions are. The challenge therefore is to build coherence, to determine what unites and separates the group, and to surface the differing world views. This is made doubly difficult by the belief, held by most, that there is a single right view to any situation, and usually it is the view held by the individual. The experience of working in such ecosystems is that there are differing and at times conflicting realities, all of which may be entirely tenable. So in moving from formal organisation to living ecosystem we must make a mental shift from finding the right answer to finding collective intent.

Having given up the illusion of control,  a number of things start to happen. For people in the system this is at once both hugely liberating and daunting. It explains that the reason we are not meeting our expectation of effectiveness is not our own incompetence. At the same time it raises grave doubts as to our ability to get anything done. For the external adviser working with the ecosystem it says that any design for intervention, any workshop session, any conversation is not about steering activity towards a pre-agreed outcome but is instead an exploration into what is possible, for the ecosystem and for you.

This sense of external and internal players ‘all being in it together’ (in truth there is no external, you become part of the system) leads to another phenomena for the adviser. You travel through the process with that ecosystem, experiencing with them the ups and the downs. You cannot play the role of detached critical observer. Indeed, to do so denies you vital feedback as to what is happening. This takes you on an emotional ride throughout your engagement, constantly questioning during the downs whether things are just going horribly wrong or whether the ‘down’ is a valuable and necessary stage in creating something new.

What guides you is your experience of similar interventions, your theoretical frame for how ecosystems behave as way of interpreting what you see and your intellectual, emotional, somatic and intuitive sense as to what is going on. Through these things you build with the other players a collective sense of ‘what next?’ or ‘what’s right?’ and use this to shape the work. It is an adaptive not a planned approach. 

This means you need an altogether different contracting relationship with your client in the system. A transactional, output-based contract measuring time spent and things delivered stands firmly in the way of this being successful. If you don’t build a strong relationship with the client, broaden who is included in the definition of client and constantly attend to what is happening in that relationship, then the system will digest you and spit you out.

But hey, don’t take it personally, it is what ecosystems always do.