An Ecological Approach to…IT Strategy?

In technology organizations, especially when technology isn’t the core Wolfbusiness, “systems thinking” is rarely taught.  I find that interesting and deeply ironic. The more time you spend trying to help organizations transform, the more you realize how often really smart people fall victim to this gap in awareness.  The result:  much of what we call strategy is actually nothing more than ham-handed fiddling.  And that fiddling often has disastrous unintended consequences that slow the pace of change at best, and ruin careers or organizations at worst.  All this to say that in corporate IT, we need to think more like ecologists than technologists.

So Why “Ecology”?

I’ll demonstrate using a concept from ecology called a “trophic cascade”.

Question:  What is the most effective and fastest way to quadruple the size and density of Cottonwood and Aspen trees in National Parks like Yellowstone?
Answer:  Re-Introduce wolves

I know what you’re saying. “Whatchu talkin’ bout Willis?!”

To illustrate the point, below is a description of how the Yellowstone ecosystem lost Aspens and Cottonwoods (and much more) when wolves were removed:

  1. Wolves were killed at scale and completely driven out of the park
  2. Large herbivores, such as elk or deer, increased in number and foraging behavior changed significantly.
  3. These animals over-browsed preferred plants, especially deciduous trees and shrubs like cottonwood, aspen, willow, and oaks, and spent more time in riparian areas.
  4. As a consequence, “recruitment” of cottonwood and aspen (i.e., the growth of seedling/sprouts into tall saplings and trees) was drastically reduced, and uncommon plants became rare or were disappeared completely.
  5. Long-term loss of streamside vegetation caused major changes in channel morphology and floodplain function.
  6. Loss of berry-producing shrubs, and young aspens and cottonwoods, led to changes in the diversity and abundance – and sometimes the outright loss – of other species, including beaver, amphibians, and songbirds.
  7. The disappearance of top predators triggered an explosion of smaller “mesopredators,” such as coyotes, which led to further cascading effects.

The term for this phenomenon is a “trophic cascade,” defined as the “progression of indirect effects [caused] by predators across successively lower trophic levels.”

For millennia, humans have attempted to accomplish their objectives by “fiddling” with variables using the simplistic “I want A, so I’ll change A”-style. Ham-handed as it was, I must admit, some of these issues are not simplistic at all. Who could have foreseen that killing wolves in a National Park would decimate aspen trees? Or some species of bird? Or frog?

Thinking Like an Ecologist – Indirect Effects

The item I want you to pay attention to in the above definition of a trophic cascade is Indirect Effects“.  Ecologists understand this concept all too well.  Ecology is the study of connections and relationships, and therefore an ecological approach in business strategy forces its creators to think about the relationships a particular decision might have on the “system” around it.  Ecology is a foundation of systems thinking and helps us understand feedback loops, indirect effects, and dynamic (non-trivial) interconnected systems.

Just like the decision to artificially remove a “top-of-the-food-chain” predator has disastrous consequences for ALL species in that ecosystem, so too might seemingly rational decisions in IT strategy deeply, and negatively affect critically important teams, systems, processes, etc. (indirectly).

So What Might We Do?

Here are some suggestions to keep in mind as you build forward looking strategies in your IT organizations that uses an emergent, ecological approach to design {adapted from Emergent Design Solutions}:

  • Design from top down, and from bottom up simultaneously
  • Practice patience and careful observation – Only begin articulating the design when you see or experience the patterns of the system underlying the Emergent Design.
  • Practice cultivating adaptive methods rather than prescriptive methods.  Discourage reliance on highly prescriptive methods that typically introduces excess rigidity into the design. Safety and rigidity are useful only as a catalytic structure for emergence.
  • Ensure continued health, resilience and deepening wisdom in the system by encouraging adaptation to changing conditions within the system
  • Practice Continuous Improvement – No sacred cows – Be open to questioning assumptions.
  • Focus on people and their relationships rather than process – cultivate intelligence and wisdom in your human ecosystem.  Process is the guide. It is the wisdom and quality of relationships that determines the usefulness of what is produced.
  • Cultivate mutualistic respectful relationships; however be aware that negative feedback loops and frictional forces are often critical to the health of a system.
  • Seek to become aware of and engage wholes and nested networks of relationships rather than causal relationships and linear hierarchies.
  • Encourage rapid prototyping. Fail successfully and often.
  • Seek slow small simple designs over fast, large, complex ones.
  • Follow the basic law of emergence – simple principles can lead to the “complex beautiful”.
  • Engage diversity.

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