Mapping Organizational Ecosystems: Artifacts & Rituals; Tribes & Institutions

This is an excerpt (Part 3) of an essay in progress 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. You can find part 1 of this series here.

A significant problem with trying to make sense of a complex environment using authoritative, static artifacts (like maps or databases) is that the environment is always changing, as I described in the parable of the elephant and the blind men (part 1), which in our case is actually more akin to an army of blind people trying to catalog a growing menagerie of rapidly evolving animals. No matter how authoritative, objective, “correct”, or useful the artifacts that we create are, their validity and usefulness rapidly diminish as time passes. Even considering an organization like the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) which is near and dear to my heart, I find myself describing it differently to different people over time for a few reasons: 

  •  The value created changes in nature and quantity depending on who is engaged in the community for a particular period
  • What I consider to be most valuable about the community changes as my context and needs change over time
  • New people join the community and active members grow silent at times due to their energies going elsewhere, changing the nature of interactions within the community and my own level of engagement

 To simplify further, how I would describe DEF changes because of the following factors:

  • I change 
  • DEF changes 
  • Both of our contexts change

DEF is not all things to all people, at least not all at once. Perhaps over a longer period of time, it could be described to have been many things to many people, but if you were to try and boil down what DEF is and will be to a static artifact, immediately others might reasonably disagree with it, and in only a matter of months, that artifact might even to you appear to be outdated.

I’d say the same thing about Agitare, the community of practice we founded for those practicing facilitation and design across the Defense community. There are periods of time where Agitare is mostly just a handful of friends sharing resources, connecting, and gathering to give one-another energy and support in all of our efforts, largely focused on the topics of design and facilitation. Lots of people are connecting within the community in direct messages, so I have no way to know what they’re getting out of it in those interactions. There are regular periods where we are a large, bustling community oriented around events, gatherings, content-sharing, discussions, and more. We are not a static or unchanging entity. We have a primary mission, values, and current objectives, all of which our core team created together and reflect on regularly to ensure continued coherence and alignment. 

 I frequently tell people that they need to co-create and revisit their mission statements and values with their teams repeatedly and regularly. In the case of mission and values, I believe even so much as annual co-creation might be warranted.

I have worked at a number of military units that believed they had firmly established a shared purpose for their people. Often, what had been done was an incoming commander had ordered some staffer to craft a vision and mission statement, perhaps tooled it around among the org’s senior leaders to collaboratively finesse the language and posted the finished product as a beacon of truth and direction on the squadron SharePoint page. Occasionally, I might stumble across them as I was looking for other information. Often by the time I arrived in a unit, the mission, vision, and values of the organization were just dusty artifacts hung up somewhere nobody would look at them. They weren’t my mission or vision. They were absolutely somebody else’s–offered up like the abstract and ineffective encouragement you might find through motivational posters on the walls of a dentist’s waiting room. 

 I advise people to use OKRs (Objectives and Key Results, as described in John Doerr’s book Measure What Matters) for strategy, accountability, and work-planning (one of the methods we employ on the Agitare core team) because there are rituals built in to reflect on the artifacts, to revisit and rebuild them regularly. There are rituals to get people aligned to these artifacts, to update them so they align to the real world, and to keep them alive because in this ever-changing, complex environment, they lose relevance rapidly as time passes.

 Artifacts, in the case of mission, strategy, and culture, are not enough, no matter how elegant they were when they were first created. We need rituals of death and rebirth that ensure our artifacts maintain coherence for all of us, the operating environment, and for our overarching purpose. Here is another article in which I explored how continued alignment (strategic, cultural, and individual) is the product of properly employed artifacts and rituals.

What if we looked at maps the same way? In the ever-shifting and highly subjective geography of our communities, what if we built maps together in a way that was fully coherent with the individual perspectives of the participants? What might that look like? What resistance might we face if we sought to deconflict our differing maps as we each felt a different part of the elephant? What could we learn from it?

Tribes, Institutions, Markets, and Networks

One of my favorite points from Adam Grant’s excellent book Think Again pops up in the epilogue, very simply boiled down in this way:

“For thousands of years, much of the rethinking that people did unfolded invisibly in groups over time.”

 He goes on to describe how with the invention of technology like the printing press and our ever-increasing ability to encode knowledge for use at-scale over longer periods of time, we’ve basically equipped ourselves with the capacity to stop rethinking things we’re certain we already figured out.

The problem is that in complexity, even if you’ve figured something out, no matter how effectively, all information needs to be revisited, because the context is always evolving. In complexity, artifacts are simply never enough. We need rituals in which people gather, collect the perspectives of those affected and affecting the actual system, and update our artifacts.

This relates closely to a concept I first discovered in the book Design Unbound by Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown–the TIMN framework. TIMN is a concept first articulated by David Ronfelt, and describes four forms of human organization, in the order in which these forms appeared with the evolution of society. I did a brief video on the TIMN framework a few months ago, as I find it an incredibly useful concept to apply to design and innovation.

Thousands of years ago, society only existed at the tribal level. Tribes were kinship-based social units, like extended families, clans, bands, etc. They relied on oral communication, especially storytelling, for their cohesion and alignment, and thus were limited to a specific geographic proximity. Tribes are groups of people aligning regularly and refreshing information with one-another through storytelling. They engage in regular “campfire” conversations about what’s happening and what it means about what should happen next. There is a significant aspect of relationality and emotional context with tribe-level social technologies. Tribes tend to be extremely flat in nature and communication isn’t strictly controlled, because sensemaking at the level of tribes benefits from equal amplitude from all voices and perspectives. 

Institutions came along shortly after the cognitive revolution and the emergence of agrarian society, as described in Yuval Noah Harari’s excellent book Sapiens, which required the need for a larger-scale type of human organization and alignment. We needed to keep track of much more information for many more people for a longer period of time, and institutional forms of organization equipped us to do that. Institutions are hierarchical in nature, exemplified by the church, military, or bureaucratic state. Everybody can’t know everything, so you divide up into tiers and categories at higher levels of organization which enable society to do things at a higher scale. Information has to be transcribed into writing that can be disseminated to larger groups in books, records, policies, and commands. The printing press equipped us to scale institutional forms exponentially, allowing much larger institutions to form and function. 

 The third form is markets, which are systems we create for competitive exchange. The most obvious examples are facilitated by merchants and traders, responding (and driving) forces of supply and demand, highly reliant on the interconnectivity and mobility provided by infrastructure, supported by institutions like states and cities. 

 Lastly, networks are web-like ties that rely on digital hyperconnectivity. They are extremely fluid in nature. They can spin up rapidly and just as quickly disappear. An example might be an event or a collective response to an event. We no longer have to use institutional forms to self-organize into movements. We can simply put a prompt out there and if conditions are right, tens, hundreds, thousands, even millions of people might mobilize or converge for a short period.

 These forms don’t replace one-another. They build on and influence one-another. Sometimes they compliment each-other and form a larger integrated system. Sometimes they are at odds with one-another, and tribal forms can disrupt the existing institutions so that new institutions can be built to replace them. I am reminded of my first assignment where a small group of us disillusioned enlisted operators in the belly of a faceless bureaucracy used to gather together, as though around a campfire, and offer one-another cynical support and a safe space to hate our jobs together.

What Adam Grant is describing in his statement that “for thousands of years, much of the rethinking that people did unfolded invisibly in groups over time.” is that we used to rely significantly more on tribal social technologies to make sense of our world. 

 Laggy social technologies that hoard information power at the center do not work well for sense-making in complex problem environments. We need a good mix of conversational (tribal) realignment methods to compliment and challenge our institutional forms. I’m not talking about briefings either. Those probably don’t count for a number of reasons.

 As we consider the problem of trying to map the defense innovation ecosystem, it’s worth considering what non-institutional forms of organization exist here that wouldn’t have been captured in previous mapping efforts. I often describe Agitare as primarily tribal in nature because we don’t attempt to carry too much information too far forward in time. The ever-changing nature of our community has, up until now, proven to defy any attempts at standardization or structure at scale. We are an organic convergence of people around a mission, and the shapes of our efforts change often depending on who is involved and what the expressed need is in the moment. Institutional forms, having to carry information further forward in time and to more people, require significantly more energy than tribal forms, which only require that people congregate sometimes and engage fully with what’s happening. Obviously, the balance that works for Agitare would likely not work for a military unit that needs to have a degree of resilience and structure in order to serve a lasting purpose within a larger system, but I also like to point out how the Joint Special Operations Task Force under General Stanley McChrystal incorporated a whole lot of what amount to tribal social technologies in their transition to a Team of Teams (as described in his excellent book Team of Teams). It’s not about identifying which social form your organization needs to use. It’s about identifying how much of each form you need to be as structured, self-reflective, and agile as your context and objectives demand. 

Another interesting thing to consider with regards to TIMN and mapping organizational ecosystems is how and whether to capture those tribes that don’t have names because they lack any institutional structure at all. One thing that came up in the defense innovation ecosystem mapping session that we ran (spoiler alert) was that often times the connections between organizations are actually connections between individuals, and that connection is modulated by the relationship that those individuals have with one-another, perhaps as part of a larger tribe of friends, acquaintances, or associates. If a person moves to a new location, that relationship-driven organizational connection is broken and a new one might be created with the organization they move to.  

Should we map that connection between organizations as though an institutional relationship exists, or could we perhaps create a map showing tribal connections? Furthermore, how might appreciation for tribe-level social technologies help us understand how to act once the map has been created? Could we recognize an imbalance of tribal vs institutional forms? Could we see where energy and resources ought to be allocated to rather than our default methods of just beefing up institutions?

Could we possibly diagnose where new tribes need to form?

This is an excerpt of a larger work in progress on mapping organizational ecosystems. You can find part 1 of this series here.

More to follow…

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