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Organizations as Ecosystems

What are Ecosystems?

Living ecosystems are environments comprised of interconnected living and non-living parts that work together to sustain the ecosystem. These systems can be complex when they are they are made up of multiple components and layers. They are variable because of natural cycles which lead to change, and they are multifunctional because systems have the capacity to combine elements differently to address new challenges.

Interconnectivity, Flow, and Balance

We tend to limit our perspective of ecosystems to nature, but organizations are also ecosystems that coexist within larger, interconnected systems that operate according to the natural principles of Interconnectivity, Flow, and Balance®. Interconnectivity encompasses relationships, and structure, their interdependence and how they facilitate balance and change within the ecosystem. Within nature interdependence happens when bees pollinate flowers or when trees are a source of food for herbivorous animals and herbivorous animals are a source for others. In the same way some processes within organizations require interdepartmental interaction or input to be completed.

Flow in nature happens with seasons and cycles, within rivers and oceans, or the flow of pests or diseases. Flow is directly connected to relationships in nature, so flows can be stopped, changed, or accelerated by relationships. Similarly, within organizations, the health and purpose of flows are strengthened or limited by the quality of relationships and structures. Even when structures are well designed, when they are constantly overridden, this can lead to confusion, chaos and unpredictability that leads to impaired flows and organizational inefficiencies.

Every ecosystem has a dynamic self-balancing feature. In nature, predators keep populations in balance, plants process carbon dioxide and emit oxygen through photosynthesis, they also serve as sources of food and medicine. Like nature, organizational ecosystems have the capacity to be self-balancing, because when they are out of balance internally, or within a larger external system, they take measures to balance themselves to avoid demise. When organizations allow this dynamic self-balancing without giving thought to it, there are pros and cons.

An obvious benefit of a self-balancing mechanism is that organization can continue to survive. The downside of this is that when allowing self-correction to happen without ensuring the shifts are aligned with the organization’s strategy and core values the rules of engagement, decision-making and operation can gradually shift, creating layers of complex overlays that are difficult to disentangle as they move the organization further away from its origin.

The Genesis of The Command-and-Control Model

Many organizational ecosystems operate according to the command and control model this model is predicated on control and conditions us to view organizations through the lens of the industrialization model which came into being during the economic shift from agriculture to manufacturing.

This means that in a modern digital age our sources of information are still conditioning us using vestiges of thinking that emerged centuries ago. For example, concepts like Theory X are still present. It asserts that employees are lazy and dislike work. This theory is still being perpetuated by academia and managers in the 21st Century still refer to employees as lazy. A newer characterization of laziness applied to younger generations is entitlement so it hasn’t yet gone away.

Whether management is aware of it or not, at the heart of the command-and-control model is distrust. Control structures are designed to strip away discretion with the intention of standardization of quality and results. Some companies are extreme, creating policies every time something goes wrong that the policies don’t cover.

Too many policies can create confusion or undesired changes within ecosystems when they are created without considering how they impact existing policies or the use of management authorities. These are the same companies that complain about the management layer being weak. The trouble is that when managers are not able to exercise discretion, they become reliant, incapable of or unwilling to make decisions, and this reinforces Theory X – The thinking that people are lazy and dislike working.

Why Control Based Ecosystems Persist

Organizations can achieve high performance within control based ecosystems because the structures are designed for high performance and the level of compliance with the policies, systems, and structures is high.

In actuality, policies, systems, and structures can be designed to create whatever you want to create. However, when the well-being of people is not a part of the design, frustration, burn-out, disengagement, and turnover happen. This is evidenced by high global disengagement levels outlined by Gallup and other research organizations. There are also elevated levels of global distrust revealed in the annual Edelman trust surveys. Despite the disengagement and low trust, organizations take steps to address employees’ challenges, and this keeps them around a bit longer. However, the interventions are not always long-term focused.

Another reason why they persist is because they are familiar, the principle of control can be found in many organizations so employees seem to expect it within some cultures.

Healthy Ecosystem Growth

For organizational ecosystems to grow and expand in healthy ways over the long term, there needs to be healthy binding factors in place that go deeper than working toward goals. Employees need to trust management, management needs to trust employees, management and employees need to be developed, structures changed, and accountabilities implemented so trust can grow.

This means management needs to review structures that communicate distrust and align with the core values. Employees need to be forgiving as mistakes are made and model the core values. Superficial solutions are not sustainable when trust is impaired. Within a healthy organizational ecosystem, trust undergirds interconnectivity, facilitating healthy communication, structures, and teamwork.

These balanced relationships lead to the kinds of flows needed for the survival of the organization. Balance in these organizations is not haphazard, instead of allowing circumstances to balance themselves out, management takes ownership of challenges both obvious and subtle, and actively works toward solutions that take core values into consideration.

With knowledge gained from over 30 years of Fortune 500 and consulting experience, Yvette shares her rich experience and proprietary model for changing businesses from the inside out. She is a thought leader in the areas of trust, leadership and organizational ecosystems, an award winning author and cultural consultant.

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