The term ‘ecosystem’ is mentioned rather often as one of those annoying buzzwords, along with synergy, disruption, and agility. And when that happens it’s often because there really is something interesting and relevant to it. The Global Peter Drucker Forum even had ‘ecosystem’ as the theme for the 2019 conference in Vienna.
But that is your organizational ecosystem – and can you even lead such a dynamic and seemingly fluffy construct?
The development towards ecosystems
We have moved beyond silos, hierarchies and functional approaches to organizational designs. Or at least we think we have.
Several CEO’s, board members and C-level managers still refer to their organization and value streams as ‘gears and cogs in a well-oiled machine, where everyone matters and contributes to the same goal’. The truth is, that daily work – and tactical work for that matter – does not play out that way. At all.
A bunch of new designs has seen the light over the past decades, matrix organization being one of them. Over the past decade, Deloitte and McKinsey have several times described the paradigm shift away from the hierarchy. Instead, movements like sociocracy, Holacracy, Agile/Scrum/SAFe, Lean Startup, and Teal (as made famous by Frederic Laloux in his book ‘Reinventing Organizations’) have described new alternatives to the gears-and-cogs narrative. All of those are based on collaboration, relationships, organizational democracy, interactions, and equality … all of which are tremendously hard to lead and to fit into standard descriptors of organizational design. And all those designs have teams, or network-of-teams, as the central and important element: The team is the crux, the structure is not.
Clearly, something new is emerging, something that is dynamic and adaptable by design which is exactly what we need in a world of volatility. This ‘something’ can very well be described as an ecosystem: According to Wikipedia, “an ecosystem is a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment, interacting as a system”.
Replace ‘ecosystem’ with ‘organization’, ‘living organisms’ with ‘self-managed teams’ and ‘nonliving components’ with ‘organizational mechanisms’ above, and you have a perfect metaphor for the modern organizational design:
“An organization is a community of self-managed teams in conjunction with the organizational mechanisms of their environment, interacting as a system”.
The organizational mechanisms in an ecosystem
Seeing the organization as an ecosystem requires that you begin to decipher the mechanisms that make the team and network-of-teams thrive: Are you capable of monitoring the maturity of the individual teams regarding self-management? What leadership style is needed for the teams to gather, deliver, and dissolve? Who are the informal leaders, that are socially adept and capable of handling emotions and relationships? Who are the liaison officers between teams and networks-of-teams? And, do you have the internal rhythms, that ensure synchronization and distribution of knowledge, tasks, and resources?
From my experience of working with both huge traditional organizations and small progressive scale-ups, these nine elements must be in place to establish the mechanisms for the ecosystem – and to enable the dynamics of the teams:
- The purposeful organization, as a platform for the teams.
- Culture and fellowship, to create a sense of belonging.
- Individual coaching and stewardship, to support each employee.
- Distributed leadership and decision-making, to create a nuanced approach to empowerment, and to leverage the hive-mind of the teams.
- Self-managed delivery teams, as the crux of the organization.
- Advisory boards, to support the teams in their daily work.
- Rhythms in and across teams, networks, and organizations, to ensure synchronization and alignment.
- White space mastery, to ensure that gaps between teams are filled and that blind spots are found.
- Networks between teams and individuals, as the organizational glue and nervous system for information, dialogue, and signaling.
Together, these nine elements describe the dynamic ecosystem, and creates dynamic stability that has several benefits: It is shock resistant and adaptable.
And, it is fitting both for teams that require structure and repeatability (for running the business) and teams with fluidity and bohemian subculture for creativity (for developing the business). The ecosystem embraces both kinds and requires a new kind of CEO and leadership team.
The role of a Chief Ecosystem Officer
Leading an ecosystem is next-level-leadership. On top of both ‘leading products’ and ‘leading people’, you need to master ‘leading ecosystems’.
Leading an ecosystem is about:
- Understanding all the moving parts: both the teams and the people, and the mechanisms that make them move and interact
- Maintaining an overview of the health and maturity of the moving parts and the surroundings
- Nurturing and growing the parts and oiling the interactions
- Infusing energy and nourishment
- Removing the garbage, pollution, and unwanted or poisonous elements
You must master the craft of leading flow, interactions, and cross-boundary problem-solving, as well as constantly keeping an eye on the health of the nine elements of the ecosystem.
The modern Chief Ecosystem Officer can identify and nurture the elements in the ecosystem. They can apply situational leadership of teams and components, can design and develop intercompany mechanisms, and can ensure relevant and highly personalized support for each individual employee.
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