Mapping Organizational Ecosystems: Predetermined vs Relational Roles

This is an excerpt from an essay I’m working on to describe developing perspectives and practices for mapping an organizational ecosystem. I recently ran a workshop with Agitare, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, and the Federal Innovation Network to explore how we view, create, and use maps of our massive, interconnected community, and how co-created and inter-subjective approaches might not only create more useful artifacts but also powerful and beneficial interactions in the process. This excerpt specifically addresses roles in systems.

The thing that’s most important to understand about complexity within the context of mapping organizational ecosystems is that the nature of the roles of agents within a system is different for complex vs ordered systems.

In an ordered system, the role of an agent is predetermined. I like to use the example of an alternator in the closed, ordered system of a vehicle. The alternator’s purpose is predetermined. It charges the battery and supplies electricity to electrical systems while the vehicle is running. It was designed to serve that function within the system; and the system is designed to incorporate the alternator into its overall function. The alternator won’t unexpectedly start cleaning the windshield because within ordered systems, roles are predetermined and fixed. Similarly, the tires of the car won’t unexpectedly start playing music. The dial to turn up and down the volume on the radio won’t all of a sudden serve as the steering mechanism. Because of the domain of the system (ordered), we can expect a substantial degree of predictability, which is part of the reason why in ordered systems, cause and effect can be determined in advance.

This might all sound very obvious to you, that roles are pre-determined in these systems, but we often fail to account for the fact that in complex systems, it is simply not the case. In complexity, the role of an agent is entirely dependent on its current relationship with other agents in (and even outside) the system. My favorite example of this is the role of “leader” within the complex system of a team or unit. I have encountered countless individuals who were given the title of “leader” on a team or unit but still failed to serve that function. Even when enabled with the positional authority to punish or restrict the choices of others, a person can still fail to function as a leader, and the primary driver of whether they do or don’t serve that leadership role is their relationship to those they seek to lead. That relationship is modulated by elements like trust, fear, respect, and even love–as described by Col DeDe Halfhill in Brene Brown’s wonderful book Dare to Lead.

I have been in a number of organizations and teams that were led by those without rank, position, or authority. They often had competencies, relationships, and connections (internal and external) that enabled them to exercise influence over their “peers”. I feel like this illustrates why it’s important to recognize the domain of leadership as complex, so that we don’t make the mistake of trying to modulate its efficacy like we would the components of a vehicle. I would argue that despite the fact that leadership is complex, we still think of it as an ordered system (as we do many complex things). We still rely heavily on simple levers of control like incentives and punishments to try and modulate the behaviors of leaders and subordinates but put little energy into instilling leaders with what will enable them to have the relationships that would actually make that leadership manifest.

How does this relate to mapping organizational ecosystems? If we view these ecosystems as complex, then it should follow that the roles of organizations can’t be seen as predetermined or fixed. It should follow that no matter what they say their role is within the ecosystem, their actual role might be variable and subjective, changing from entity to entity (personal or organizational) depending on the relationship between that organization and that entity. This is at the heart of why I decided we need to think about mapping differently, because I found myself in disagreement with the official, stated, and subjective views of others about the roles of organizations within the Defense Innovation Ecosystem, often depicted as clean spiderwebs or cascading hierarchies primarily depicting command-and-control relationships. I found the maps that others had created didn’t align with my perspective, experience, truths, or needs. Organizational ecosystems are simply not like circuit boards. They are not like engineering diagrams. Perhaps others find those models useful, but I personally do not.

I felt a facilitated, participatory, co-creative approach might result in more useful and action-inspiring information, and thus far my experiments are proving quite useful. Stand by for further thoughts.

If you’d like to explore complexity further, here’s a quick video I did on the subject of complex vs ordered systems using the Cynefin framework and how that relates to design and organizational practices.

This is an excerpt of a larger essay on the subject of organizational ecosystem mapping. Part 3 can be found at this link.

Please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and responses in the comments, as that may assist me in my exploration of these topics.

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