Organizational Ecosystems

This is a concept that is actually really simple.

Organization has a root word: organ. So does organism. This shared root is not accidental. In this case, and organ is an entity with a specific function.

You are an organism, and inside your body you have organs. Your lungs are meant to do something different than your heart is. But they both work together. The larger system of your body has sub-systems within it that work together to promote life.

Organizations are similar. The development department does something very different than the marketing department, but they work together with other departments and staff members and roles to further the overall mission of the organization. Because the scale of an organization is larger than that of an individual, it can be instructive to view the organization as an ecosystem within other larger ecosystems.

Mapping your Ecosystem

When looking at an Organization as existing in an ecosystem, we are looking at two different ecosystems.

The first is an internal ecosystem composed of various staff, the board, members, students, and other stakeholders who are already actively engaged in the work of the organization.

The second is the external ecosystem of the community in which the organization exists. That could include nearby businesses, other organizations who interact with or do similar things as yours, potential students/clients/members, funders, etc.

Similarly to natural ecosystems the different stakeholders in the internal and external organizational ecosystems exchange resources, information and services between one another.

These stakeholders and resource flows can be drawn out physically as a diagram or map.

In a natural ecosystem, the health of that ecosystem can be measured by the extent to which the exchange of resources is reciprocal, or can be said to exist inside a 'closed loop'. I scratch your back, you scratch mine.

Closed Loops in an Organization

Identifying and closing resource and information flows within your organization can uncover opportunities and alliances that were otherwise invisible.

For example, let's say you have an organization that acts as a reservoir of information about a given topic, and that you are struggling to pay your bills. 

Let's say that 100% of your money comes from 'soft money' sources like grants and support from philanthropic organizations who understand the value of your organization as an important resource.

An example of an existing closed loop flow of resources/information is your foundation support.  They give you money, and in exchange, you agree to try your best to exist and keep doing what you are doing, and send them a report once a year about it.

The one closed resource loop in this case is working, but the issue is that there are others that can be exploited to the benefit of your mission.

For example, let's say you were able to identify different groups of people in your environment who benefit from the existence of your information and your organization.

In this case, let's say that you are an expert in plant care and preventing plagues.

Part of the money you receive is from state and local government whose employees use your research into local plagues in order to understand how to handle situations that are questionable and prevent large scale loss of local production from plagues.

Although local residents also use and would benefit from your resources, you have not yet 'closed' the resource flow with this population.  What would closing that flow look like?  It could look like providing a class for local gardeners.  It could look like teaching a course in the community college.  It could look like creating and selling booklets or pamphlets. 

The point is that you put a little energy into formalizing a service or product that is interesting to this population and that can be promoted through the networks used by this population, and essentially you open up an income stream that is no longer 'soft' by 'formalizing' and 'closing' the resource flow with that population. 

In doing so you ideally generate enough income to justify the energy expended creating and promoting the new product/service. 

Examples of closed loops in natural ecosystems

Example 1

  • A human being breathes in oxygen, and exhales (as waste) carbon dioxide.
  • At the same time, trees and other plants are 'breathing' in carbon dioxide, and 'exhaling' oxygen.

This exchange can be said to exist in side of a closed loop. This loop doesn't have to be direct.

Example 2

Let's take the case of a mulberry tree, and bird, and the soil (which is a whole community of a lot of micro-organisms).

  • A bird eats the mulberries from the tree, and as she is eating them passes the digested mulberries onto the ground (and into the soil) as waste.
  • We say "yuck", but the micro-organisms in the soil say "yummy", and they eat the waste of the bird, and in turn create their own waste.
  • Which is lucky for the Mulberry tree, because it's roots cannot uptake the waste from the birds directly. They have to be eaten, digested and excreted as waste by the micro-organisms before their little root hairs can absorb them.

Without these closed loop exchanges, an ecosystem cannot sustain itself.

Examples of closed loops in organizational ecosystems

Example 0

A website with various different types of content.

  • Initially, you have had a strategy of driving traffic to a specific set of pages.
  • Despite your best efforts, people will go where they will go, and they happen to be hitting a particular page that you were not paying much attention to or thinking was central to your mission.
  • Instead of trying to shift that engagement, you decide instead to re-tool the page and develop it further.
  • In so doing, you discover the chord that seems to be resonating with people, and decide to rework your services and your content to provide more along those lines.
  • This ends up expanding part of the scope of your work in a way that enables you to reactivate and inspire a future line of projects/work.

When we listen to what works, we can find creative ways to re-energize and engage new audiences and projects.

Example 1

An organization whose mission is to house the homeless.

  • Instead of thinking about homeless people as a net strain on a system, what if we turned it around and looked at them as a net resource.
  • When we examine characteristics of this population, we see a notable section of that population has an abundance of time, but very little money.
  • As a homeless shelter, we decide to get creative about ways that the people we serve can exchange things like 'a bag of aluminum cans for recycling' or 'trash bags full of street trash' in exchange for vouchers for food and clothing.
  • At the same time, as time goes by and more people see homeless folk contributing to the beauty of their communities, the attitude about homeless people and homelessness shifts.
  • Along with this shift is an inner shift for the homeless person who sees themselves as holding down an important role for their communities.

When we become creative about understanding different kinds of abundances we may have that are going unused, we can harness the power of closing those loops.

Example 2

Let's take a different case of a printing business.  

  • As a printing business I naturally create bins and bins of waste paper that is not in a form or size we can use in our machines.
  • At the same time, there is a school 3 blocks down with an underfunded art department.
  • In exchange for help around my business (which is also a training opportunity for young people), I allow the students to take this paper back to their school for use in art projects. 

Closing loops in your business can turn waste products into input streams for new industries and projects.

Example 3

Let's take a different case of a small micro brewery.  

  • As a small microbrewery, I create organic waste products that I have to pay to take away.
  • With some small modifications, and a bit of capital, I decide to build algae ponds that convert the waste from my brewery into food for the Algae.
  • In a second pond, I have Tilapia fish, and I regularly switch out the algae collectors I have so that they are cleaned/eaten by the fish in the second pond.
  • I sell the Tilapia to local restaurants who I also sell beer to.

You can turn your waste products into additional products and services by smartly retooling your operation with an eye for optimizing and facilitating ecological exchanges.

Example 4

Let's take a small collaborative of artists.  

  • Artists join collaborative groups because they understand the benefit of pooling resources and time.
  • Traditionally, artists see their work as 'making art' or making products.
  • An untapped or 'unclosed' resource loop is their experience and their tools.  Art programs are underfunded in America's public schools.
  • The artists decide to see the pool of their shared tools and knowledge/experience as a resource, and begin to create curriculums for in-school demonstrations, after-school programs, and apprenticeship programs for those who show an additional interest. 

In this way they activate the space they share together, and supplement their collaborative incomes, as well as provide important services for their community and the youth.

Example 5

Let's take the case of a multilevel housing unit with some separate living spaces and a main house.

  • The landlord has been thinking of the space as a room rental for people, but has had difficulty consistently finding housemates who get along or who stay very long.  
  • As a strategy, the landlord decides to rent the main house to a small non-profit organization to use as their offices, while moving the longer term residents into the outer casita and basement level apartments.
  • Because the residents of the house work during the day, there is minimal disturbance to the operating of the non-profit.  Similarly, when the workers of the non-profit organization go home, the house is empty.  This reduces the mutual disturbance of conflicting residential schedules and has the effect of 'two ships passing in the night'.
  • In addition, renting the House level as one unit and as office space to a non-profit or start ups can bring in a higher value of rent than filling the two rooms in the house with individuals, but for less money than the nonprofit or business would pay for office space in a similar part of town.

In this way they activate the space they share together, but syncopate schedules such that there is overall less strain and turnover in residency.  I've also seen something work similarly well where you have a training center by day and bar/restaurant/dancing at night.  If the training center is exchanged for a kindergarten, and the restaurant is straight up a bar...well.  Let's just say there is a delicate balance to the pairings.

Example 6

Let's take the case of a retired chef.

  • Retirement can be a super lonely experience for anyone who had a professional life they enjoyed, or whose community centered around work.
  • There is a school down the street whose kids are being fed uninspired meals.
  • You crack a deal with the school where you get to direct menus, train their staff on culinary arts, and consult on meal plans in exchange for having a sense of real contribution in the world.
  • If you were not in a position to work for free, you could also work this into a business by working with other schools in your district in a similar way.  For example, sharing your income among 5 school budgets, as well as the reduction of food waste as a result of your training, could make the investment for individual schools well within reach.
  • In addition, using the partnerships you formed with local farms and food producers as a professional chef, you are able to source much of the menu from local farmers and food producers.
  • A curriculum explaining the methods to your madness can be developed in such a way that students can contribute to the preparation of food for the school as part of their studies.

In this way you are able to 'upcycle' the skills you had, contribute to career development for less experienced chefs, and improve the health and taste of the food offered to kids.

Example 7

Let's take the case of a cat called 'Max' who happens to be a Manx.

  • Cats are lazy, and are so difficult to control that there is a euphemism about the difficulty of herding them.
  • It also turns out that your cat in particular has something unique he does.  Max is a special cat who creates brown tracks of poop by pulling his tailless ass across your new carpets when he has an urge to go, and in quasi-demonic retribution for leaving for the weekend with your friends.
  • You have a Youtube account and some growing video editing skills and have put together a growing body of work comprising compilations of this behavior that most boring people find obtuse, but that weird people are watching in a viral frenzy.
  • At some point Youtube starts sending you checks and you dial in on the magical algorithm for videos that are getting the most hits.
  • You quit your job and retire essentially having transmuted your horror into money in the bank.  Having put your cat to work for you, you build many cardboard castles for your cat, and live happily ever after.

Okay, maybe this one is a stretch, but you get the idea. :)

Mapping Works

It works in large part because instead of going over the same issues in your mind over and over again and personalizing them, you are putting it on paper, and are able to see a birds eye view that was not available before.

When you view the resource flows from this perspective, it becomes very apparent which of them is not working.

To find out more, fill out the contact form or email me directly at ana(at)