Mapping Organizational Ecosystems: Introduction

This is an excerpt (part 1) from an essay I’m working on to describe developing perspectives and practices for mapping organizational ecosystems. I recently facilitated 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 part specifically introduces why I felt this subject warranted deep reflection, research, and experimentation. Part 2 is linked at the end of this excerpt.

What if artifacts aren’t enough?

What if it doesn’t matter that someone already captured “all the information” about our organizational geography and laid it all out for us in neat rows or nested charts?

What if no matter what anybody puts on paper or in a PowerPoint deck or a dizzying horse-blanket, the maps we use to make decisions are mostly inside our heads? What if the most important thing isn’t the content we create, but rather the conversation had in creating it and how that interaction affects our internal maps?

Recently, I ran a little experiment with 36 people from across and beyond the defense innovation community, exploring some ideas and information that maps of our organizational landscape don’t tend to capture, and experimenting with some facilitated, collaborative, intersubjective mapping exercises that might get after what is missing. I had harbored this sense for a number of years that maps of our organizational landscape weren’t ever enough. They didn’t ever seem useful or accurate, despite how much time and care was placed in their creation. 

In the lead-up to that session, I spent a lot of time trying to think of ways to describe why this exercise and exploration felt important to me. I’m still working on getting it into a succinct, coherent form (you won’t find this one particularly succinct), but this is my latest attempt to describe why I think we’re thinking about, creating, and using organizational maps all wrong.

When our little innovation cell at the 70th ISR Wing stood up with a small team of NCOs a few years back, our primary focus was on experimenting with ways we could enable our Wing of thousands of Airmen to become activated as innovators and change agents. There was this Staff Sergeant on our team named Cory who had been trained up as a Product Manager at Pivotal Labs in the early days of Kessel Run. He later went on to become the Air Force’s first dedicated Product Manager. His knowledge and skills of design practices and facilitated design synthesis exercises kick-started my passion for both facilitation and design as key enablers of innovation. I became immediately convinced that the most valuable thing that Kessel Run could possibly do for the Air Force and Defense community was to serve as a pipeline to create more Cory’s (Cories?). When I found out what their actual mission was, and how they were really more concerned with producing software solutions for a particular customer, I was actually annoyed. From my perspective, simply solving problems through product development was small potatoes compared to what would happen if we had a bunch of Cories running around. I still hold the view that innovation resourcing should primarily go into enablement and immersive education rather than problem-solving, but the point I want to make here is that my perception of the role of this organization was very different from how they presented themselves. To me, Kessel Run represented and provided something completely different. I spent a lot of my energy that year trying to describe why it wasn’t sufficient to have detached labs and “skunkworks” doing all the innovation for us. By Kessel Run’s account they were one thing. To their customers and connected organizations they might be something else. To me, they were primarily this pipeline, this critical enabler, and they didn’t appear to be aware of just how important that role was to us or, from my perspective, the larger innovation ecosystem. 

This was the origin of my impression that the roles that organizations play in the innovation ecosystem are not simple or fixed or even singular. They vary from observer to observer. I have experienced significant frustration with the way that organizations describe themselves or are described to me by others, and how it often strikes me as incomplete, or worse, wholly inaccurate. We’re looking at these organizations from different angles, from entirely different positions, and our perceptions of value or structure are significantly distorted by those differences. You might think it would help to just believe organizations when they say their function is one thing, but I’ve found that marketing often outpaces actual value, and sometimes organizations aren’t even aware that they’re providing a significant type of value to a particular type of user or entity.

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There’s this Chinese Idiom you might have heard, about four blind men standing around an elephant, trying to come up with a way to describe the nature of the animal. One is feeling the trunk and tells the others that an elephant is like a stalk of bamboo. Another feels the side and says that an elephant is like a wall. The third feels the leg and tells the others an elephant is like the trunk of a tree. The fourth feels the tail and says the elephant is like a rope. The meaning of the story is that we all just have a piece of the puzzle, and no singular viewpoint, being too narrow, is capable of capturing the whole picture in all its complexity.

As a facilitator, I’m fairly certain I could come up with an effective approach to help the four blind men come to agreement about what an elephant is. One of the most important functions a facilitator serves is to bring diverse perspectives to an equal volume and help them negotiate a common picture until a useful consent or coherence is achieved.

But I’d argue our task with organizational ecosystem mapping is even more difficult than this, because we’re not just faced with determining the static nature of one unchanging animal. There are a large number of animals, of various types, and each animal we’re seeking to grasp fully is evolving at such a rapid pace that by the time we’ve documented all its body parts, what once was skin became scales, then feathers and now wings; and what we actually documented is now a defunct historical snapshot as we move on to the next animal. 

To make matters worse, these animals are intermittently, intricately intertwined and interconnected, and their evolutionary processes are mutual catalysts for the evolution of others. How do you capture such a messy menagerie within a single picture? How useful is the picture once you’ve created it?

Let’s just start with the seemingly simple problem of capturing the roles of organizations within the ecosystem – their value served to others within the system and as a component of the larger system’s value. One thing we have to account for here is the fact that this system is complex, and that has a pretty significant impact on the nature of roles in the first place…

Here is a link to part 2 in this series, on how complexity affects the nature of roles within a system

2 thoughts on “Mapping Organizational Ecosystems: Introduction

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