Mapping Your Organization’s Ecology

Mapping an organizational ecology is an essential step to functioning as a Genius Organization.  Whom do you serve? Where do you do business? This includes the work of understanding market and value stream but it goes considerable further.

Mapping the Market & Value Stream

Who buys your products? Most companies have a clear answer to this, with a break-down by demographics and psychographics. We won’t review the well known basics of market research. The one suggestion we will make here is that you use personas — prototypical (perhaps fictional) examples of your users / customers that everyone in your company can develop a personal (imagined) relationship with — to capture the demographic and psychographic figures. Many people find it difficult to remember statistics, but find it easy to remember details about a person. This is especially useful if most of your customers fit one type, but a substantial minority have several significant differences.  It is also useful if your customers are very different from your employees. You can use short fiction to help your employees understand who your customers are in the moment they deal with your company. That understanding will improve not only marketing but customer service and product design.

Mapping the value stream is less widely understood. Detailed and rigorous instructions are available from various Lean sources; the Lean Toolbox by Bicheno & Holweg is a good place to start. We offer a very simple version here on the theory that it is better to do a simple version than nothing.

In order to map your value stream, you must make a simple flowchart of every step that must take place in order to deliver value to your customer. If often helps to start with the customer and work backwards. By the time you are finished, you will have a web of materials and services that starts with recycling and resource extraction and finishes with the customer acknowledging receipt of delivery. We recommend that you begin this process at a high level of abstraction (the rough-and-simple version), and refine it over time.

Once you have mapped the web of firms, processes, and materials that delivers value to you customers, it is time to look at the web that surrounds the use and disposal of your company’s products. Again, we recommend a simple initial overview before putting a lot of work into detail. What processes, people, and materials are required by your customers’ use of your products? (We specifically include services, experiences, and guided transformations in the word “products” throughout this article). What processes, people, and materials are involved in the disposal or recycling of your products? Draw the flow of materials and processes, until you reach its end (or until it loops back to your manufacturing or delivery process).

Since the mid-1980s (when Interface Carpets began pioneering the practice on an industrial scale), we have been moving into what is now called “the circular economy”. This refers to the “cradle to cradle” approach of tracking our products after they are sold, through the end of their use cycle, and taking responsibility for their disposal or recycling. This shift is absolutely required in order to function effectively as a Genius Organization. How will you know how your customers’ lives are changing if you do not at least track the long-term impact of your products? Fortunately, it is not only necessary, it is also the source of significant savings and additional revenue for those firms that truly make the shift. The shift from selling software as an object (disk plus documentation) to software as a service (cloud-based and membership-based) is driving a great deal of commerce. That is the same shift that Interface pioneered when they began selling carpets as a service rather than a good, and it is also driving the “sharing economy” where people own fewer things but rent “thing plus service” more frequently.

Once you have mapped market and value streams, you are ready to define the communities you serve.

Defining Your Community

Defining a community requires you to ask yourself not only “who are my customers” but also “who are my people?” Your organization probably serves several communities:

  • the people who are upstream from you, from materials extraction to component manufacture to professional services, the physical towns or cities where they live, and the virtual associations where they work or socialize;
  • the physical communities where your facilities are based;
  • the physical or virtual communities to whom you sell your products;
  • the people who are downstream of you, who receive the results of your work and develop it further, recycle it, or clean up after it, and the physical towns or cities where they live, and the virtual associations where they work or socialize.

The list of communities you serve may be quite long, but again it is enough to start with a high-level overview — if you have a very large company, you will need to do a much deeper exercise later, but with a small company you may find that you only serve two to four communities.  The key here is to decide who deeply involved your company is with any given community along the value stream (and if you should be more involved than you are). For example, an oil company operating in the coastal delta of Nigeria should probably include the people living in that coastal delta in its list of communities, even if they currently do not devote much energy to serving those people. On the other hand, an accounting firm in Manhattan may regard its communities as being the schools where its accountants trained, the physical neighborhoods where its employees live and where the company is located, and the industry groups to which most of its customers belong.

Mapping the Ecology

Once you understand your market, your value stream, and your communities, you understand most of your organization’s ecology.  The last thing to do is to make a brief best-estimate assessment of the ecosystems or other elements which drive the well-being of your communities.  You can do this very simply: make two columns, one with a list of elements in a community’s environment which drive that community’s wellbeing, the other with a list of elements that impede its wellbeing. These lists should include key allies or trading partners, key enemies or competitors, and key ecosystems on which they depend. This obviously includes biotic ecosystems such as farming systems or watersheds, but for virtual communities it may include “a free and open internet”, for example.

Mapping the ecology of your organization will give you a significant resource for developing your organization’s ability to deliver remarkable value, and for cultivating the ability of the communities you serve to do the same

Game Design is Necessary

Games are about, among other things, freedom. To design a game is to create a system in which people are free — free to play, free to explore, free to excel. The boundaries — rules, game board, etc. — define the space of freedom.

Those who are familiar with governance best practice (for example the Carver system of corporate governance, also known as “governance by policy”, or the sociocratic system of governance) will recognize the idea of a bounded space in which players are free to act to accomplish their shared goals.  

The value of freedom in an organization cannot be overstated. People require clear boundaries, but when the boundaries are completely prescriptive — when there is no room for experimentation or improvisation or learning in one’s work — people begin to suffocate and die.  

The past twenty years of research into the phenomenon of Flow illustrates this point well.  As pioneering researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has shown, people thrive in environments where they experience the right balance between challenges and their skills. 

This chart illustrates that balance. Where people must bring their best-developed skills to bear on significant challenges, they enjoy peak experiences in the ‘flow state’, where the sense of time falls away and deep fulfillment occurs. When challenges begin to outstrip a player’s skills, that person moves first into arousal, then into anxiety. When skill outstrips the challenge, a player moves into control, then relaxation.  If neither challenge nor skill is high, the player experiences worry, apathy, and boredom.  This is true in games, and in the workplace.

(Thanks to Wikipedia contributer Oliver Beaton for this chart).

In order to confront meaningful challenges, a player must be free to experiment and apply skill to meaningful choices.  The art of game design is, in part, the art of defining meaningful choices and challenges in a way that matches players’ skills.  For that reason, we know that game design is essential to the Genius Organization: the task of drawing out the genius of employees and customers requires us to consider the games that will leave them most creatively alive, and to set up the rules so they are free to face those challenges at the appropriate time.

Beyond the Learning Organization

We face a dramatic challenge. We are changing our climate and driving species to extinction on a scale similar to the asteroid and/or volcanic eruption that destroyed the dinosaurs. We struggle with social inequality (from slavery to the prison industry to our failure to invest in poor youth), theft of our cultural commons (theft both legal and illegal), and the tyranny of mass surveillance and robotic war. Our global governance systems pit one nation against another, one social class against another, and all against the very ecology on which we depend for life and livelihood. Learning organizations are necessary, but getting better at capitalism — improving our ability to extract value for shareholders — is not enough. Humanity and the biosphere — what we think of as ‘the world’ — needs more than ‘learning organizations’ at this point in history. We need radical change. We need Genius Organizations.

We are indebted to Peter Senge and his collaborators for the concept of the learning organization.  That concept, and the various practices shared through books such as The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, have been constant guides through our  professional lives.  For those reasons, people who hear the phrase “Genius Organization” may think we simply mean “learning organization, re-branded”.  It is true that every Genius Organization must be a learning organization, but it must be a very specific kind of learning organization — perhaps what every learning organization should be.

Defining the Genius Organization
A “Genius Organization” is an organization which serves a community both by cultivating the community’s genius and by delivering a particular set of products the community values.

We understand the “genius” of a community to be a combination of special resources (tools, location, history, etc.), useful complexity (knowledge, social organization, social diversity, biodiversity, etc.) and integrity (mutually beneficial connectedness within the community and with its environment).  A community’s genius allows it to produce value in a way that no other community can.

A Genius Organization must be able to maintain a long-term commitment to delivering human development that also benefits the ecologies on which people depend, and must deliver on that commitment with ever more skill over time. A Genius Organization is what Arie de Geus would call a “living company”.

When we use the word “community”, we include the physically co-located communities of neighborhood, village, and watershed, the virtual communities of social networks, the temporary communities of festivals and gatherings, and the broader extensions of these meanings to cities, regions, industry sectors, social classes, psychographic and demographic units.  The important thing is that a community must in some way be self-organizing — “teenagers” are not a community, but “teenagers that go to Beatles concerts” were a community, in the way we use the term.  “Baby boomers that went to Beatles concerts and still love the Beatles today” are a community in the way we mean it, because that group of people accesses the same media and shares an “imagined territory”.  Most of the communities served by Genius Organizations today are imagined communities, in the sense Benedict Anderson used when coining the phrase.  In other words, the people do not all know each other, but they relate to the same media and the same stories about a shared “imaginary territory” — an imaginary territory which may also be physically real, like the physical territory controlled by the United States of America, or which may be virtual or temporary, like the performances of a pop music act or the playspace of an online game.

The Genius Organization provides a kind of servant leadership to its community by enabling that community to develop and transform, in addition to providing whatever other products it may offer.  In fact, those “other products” are usually the means by which the genius organization delivers the transformation.  CSR (“corporate social responsibility”) is usually a separate functional silo within large companies; it makes grants to deserving charities.  While making grants to charity is a desirable thing, a Genius Organization requires CSR (like all functions) to be integrated in the product-based divisions of the organization. Corporate social responsibility is a practice throughout a Genius Organization, and results in strategic benefits that disconnect charitable grants cannot.

Required Ingredients
Every Genius Organization must have certain qualities or practices in order to reliably deliver the servant leadership that makes it a Genius Organization.

In order to understand its community and serve it effectively, the Genius Organization must be a Lean Enterprise (or at least a Lean organization) — it must understand what its customers value, and take responsibility for the whole value chain involved in delivering value to its customers.

A Genius Organization must understand its product in terms of the customer’s experience, and it must bring the different elements of customer experience together into a guided transformation.  This requires an understanding of personal, organizational, and community development and transformation.  At a minimum, this means that the Genius Organization implements the five disciplines of the learning organization. Most Genius Organizations will benefit from practice of user-centered design, lean or agile product development, and personal transformation of the kind documented in ‘Presencing’ by Senge et al. or taught by the Hendricks Institute.

Finally, the Genius Organization must have the structures, processes, and skills necessary for it to govern and manage itself in a deeply participatory manner. If the governance structure is not strongly participatory, there will be a tendency over time for an influential group in the company (such as management) to enrich itself at the expense of the other stakeholders (e.g. shareholders, other workers, and the human and biotic communities where the company does business).  Cautionary tales abound — such as the example of WireMold, once an exemplary Lean company, which was sold and placed under management that was not committed to Lean, resulting in the evaporation of a decade’s devotion to learning and excellence. Either the Genius Organization uses a management and governance structure such as Sociocracy, or it will endure great risks with each new owner and each new generation of management.

Progress on the Journey
When a company is functioning as a Genius Organization, that is the beginning of a journey which may continue for centuries.  I suggest that, as a leader, you track your ongoing success on at least these measures: the productivity of your colleagues, the wellbeing of colleagues, trading partners, and ecosystems where you operate, customer satisfaction, and the resilience of your communities.

To truly transform our world for the better, we must go beyond the learning organization.  Genius organisations learn constantly, but they intentionally serve their communities in very particular ways and they are structured to ensure that they continue to serve into the indefinite future.

What is Genius?

This is the first of a series of posts on genius, and genius organizations. Enjoy!

At Genius Engine we define genius as “the ability to create remarkable value”.

We say that genius is an ability to create value, because we are not interested in an abstract definition that ignores the context of a person’s or group’s genius.  Value is always valuable to someone in particular.  We use the word “remarkable” because we want to express that genius is something exceptional or beyond the norm — but again, we know that it is beyond the norm because people perceive it as specially valuable, not because it meets an abstract test about which few people care. Genius matters — if it does not matter, it is not genius.

Historically, people have understood genius to be a fortunate spirit (giving good luck to a place, a family, or a person); more recently genius has been seen as a personal quality — a particular sort of talent, even a measurable level of general intelligence that is produced by some combination of genes and environment. There has been a shift from looking at genius as something external, collective, and mysterious, to something internal, individual, and measurable.  By talking about the ability to produce remarkable value, we keep the measurable aspect of modern ways of talking about genius, but we allow ourselves to focus on both individual and collective, internal and external, qualities of genius.

Some scholars still think of genius as a collective trait. Keith Sawyer makes a clear argument (which is consistent with the pioneering work of historians and sociologists of science such as Thomas Kuhn and Bruno Latour) that every invention is the result of a wide network of previous work, of critics and collaborators, of patrons and customers.  The airplane could not be invented without certain materials, certain engine innovations, certain scientific disciplines, and the Wright brothers are known as the inventors of powered flight not only because of their insights but also because of their embodied skills as bicycle mechanics, hackers who were very familiar with reworking vehicle technology by hand, and because of their ability to popularize their work — which allowed them to develop positive relationships with a curious world.

Certain qualities allow individuals and groups to create remarkable value. We look at genius as having three primary drivers: special resources, useful complexity, and integrity. Special resources includes internal resources such as genetics, external resource such as access to the right tools, and personal history which is both internal and external. Useful complexity includes individual types of complexity — mental and emotional — as well as collective types such as social complexity and genetic diversity. We define integrity as the mutually beneficial connectedness within a living system (person, organization, or community), and between that system (the person, organization, or community) and its environment.

One of the benefits in looking at genius in this way is that we can see potential strategies for increasing the genius of a person or a group.  One might look at a person’s ability to create value, and think “this person is very detail oriented, and enjoys logical puzzles — if only this person could use better tools, they might be able to produce some amazing electronics”.  That would be an approach to enhancing genius using special resources.  One might also look at that person and think, “I wonder if they have learned about cybernetics?” By adding the cognitive complexity of cybernetics to the person’s repertoire, that person might be able to create more valuable electronic craft-pieces.  Lastly, we might address the person’s integrity — “how is this person relating to himself and his colleagues? Could he take a stand more often? Could he love himself as he is? How could we support him in developing his integrity?”  Any one of these approaches might yield a significant increase in this person’s ability to produce value.

When we ask these questions over and over, for ourselves, our colleagues, our organizations and our communities, we begin organizing ourselves for genius.  This is the path to the Genius Organization.