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Are You Building an Organization or an Ecosystem?

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

Once in a while you run into a business misnomer that has been staring you in the face for years, completely unseen because it’s so common. Organization is one of them. Organization and company are often used interchangeably. In our opinion at Volition Partners, the technical definition of organization is woefully inadequate as a descriptor for most companies. Organization also means to put things in order, to arrange neatly. Part of Merriam Webster’s definition of organization is “characterized by complete conformity to standards and requirements.” When was the last time you came across a company that meets that standard in its internal operations? It’s very rare, and often not desirable, for a company’s operations and processes to be that rigid. Especially for companies that are going through rapid growth or change.

As we’ve so clearly seen recently, words matter--and often they have more impact on how we think than we might imagine. The dual meaning of organization means it is a synonym for company, but it also implies conformity and order. Something that is “organized” is usually pretty static, and it can be upsetting if “organized” is what you expect, but not what you get in the messy world of building companies.

In our view, a far better descriptor is “ecosystem”. Ecosystems certainly have discernable design to them but they are fundamentally dynamic in nature. The activities of one part will have an impact on the others, and an ecosystem is constantly adapting to internal and external competition and collaboration. Healthy ecosystems thrive when presented with new opportunities and evolve strong defenses and adaptations to ward off threats. Thriving ecosystems will self-heal from injury, and often grow stronger as a result of changes. Organization falls into chaos when disturbed.

What this means in practice is that when we help companies and teams perform better, we start with the assumption of dynamism. For example, in dynamic systems, we use team charters that can flex and instruct decisions as situations change, versus “org charts” which are rigid and often create silos through their inherent “my-job/your-job” nature. Team charters go much further than defining areas of responsibility. They contain stakeholder and dependency mapping so that the work of the team can be understood within the context of the whole company ecosystem.

Similarly, we look at strategy through the lens of time and altitude so that the output informs day to day decisions, and provides more general guideposts for adaptation as situations change. In one current example, we are helping a large environmental non-profit drill down on levels of strategy that start with a hundred year vision, and also imagines the fifteen year horizon to guide its day to day evolution. The vision creates clarity of purpose, and the strategy creates a roadmap. Together, these stepping stones create more alignment on how the team should respond to the rapidly changing world of conservation and philanthropy.

Nowhere is this concept of dynamic ecosystems more important than in the area of company values. One of the frequent challenges we see at startups is that their leaders struggle to hold onto the company culture during times of rapid growth or change. This inevitably leads to hours of discussion about cultural values and the development of employee handbooks or cultural manifestos. There’s nothing wrong with writing down your values (quite the contrary!) but left at that, they too frequently end up as a bunch of aspirational words that ring hollow in practice. Just as important (and maybe more so) than asking the question, “what are our values?” is asking “how do and should our values manifest in our day to day actions, decisions and behaviors?” And what concrete commitments are we making to one another to codify those values over time? The bottom line is that company culture and values don’t emerge from what you say. They evolve as the result of a million small decisions, actions, and behaviors that make those values self-evident.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to quickly understand if you are thinking about your company through the lens of “organization” or “ecosystem”:

  1. Does it feel like your company is going through countless “re-orgs” or are teams adapting well to changes in the outside operating environment?

  2. Is your strategic planning a moment in time (e.g. “the annual strategy offsite”) or are your strategic principles front and center in virtually every decision you and everyone else at the company makes every day?

  3. Do your company’s purpose statement and values ring a bit hollow? Or can you instantly think of recent situations where the company’s values drove a tactical decision, or influenced the behaviors of team members in a challenging situation?

  4. Does everything you do seem like it needs to be thoroughly “process mapped” or do your workflow and processes mostly evolve naturally across well-functioning teams?

These are very common challenges so if you’re interested in reimagining your company as a thriving ecosystem, please get in touch! Contact us here.


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