Tending the Field

The “organization as house” metaphor explored in the last post is increasingly insufficient. The open exchange of ideas and resources now blurs the boundaries between organizations. The house has become more of a plaza, with shared spaces overlapping with owned spaces. The value chain has evolved into a value network. For any organization, the network is vast: an ecosystem of networks.

A very helpful metaphor is thinking of organizations as living systems – dynamic networks. The modern, industrial view is that an organization is like a machine, not a living system. With machines, you can repair the system with new parts (people), lubricants (policies), or software (processes), and the machine may work more effectively. With living systems, you need a whole new set of perspectives and skills because every participant in the system is dynamic, impacting every other participant, creating incredible amounts of complexity.


In order to affect change in these systems, strategy must be adaptive and supplemented by tending to the “field,” or environment, in which interactions happen and decisions get made. Successful organizations in the network era have the capacity to shift their attention from nodes to links, from objects to relationships, from spreadsheets to dynamics. The nodes – anything that can be entered into a spreadsheet – are still vitally important. But these relationships, the connections between the nodes, are the primary drivers of value in an ecosystem. As Victor Hwang writes,

“An economy is not just indicated by the existence of things, like assets or wealth. It’s also about how those things flow in the system. And flow is driven by how interconnected people are, and how effectively the system enables connections to become valuable exchanges. Trust among strangers, connections between diverse parties, mutual collaborations, shared visions, new teams being formed—these qualities drive flow, they lower systemic transaction costs. That’s what we mean when we talk about ecosystems.”

One of the key questions for each business executive is, “How do we create the best possible conditions to enable these connections?” Adapting physical spaces, organizational structure, strategy, or leadership can help, but are inadequate in addressing the core dynamics of an organization.

Tending the “field” is an essential responsibility if business is to become a positive force in culture and society. Organizations that embrace the intangible links, along with the tangible nodes, have a distinct advantage. They can shift more quickly, and are more connected with mutual understanding, sparks of energy, and continual flows of quality interactions. This is not just conscious business, it is more effective business that leads to greater profits.

Mutual Understanding

Mutual understanding requires listening and responding, comprehending and sharing. “Listening” with the goal of mining information, probing for opportunity, or scanning for crises may yield data but not deepen relationship. An organization that listens well is able to respond, is response-able.

The cycle of listening/responding/listening is a pathway to mutual understanding. These feedback loops, both inside the company and out in the community, are another way that networks build capacity and trust. When the listening and responding are extended, following the paths of impact, organizations can begin to sense their roles, responsibilities, and opportunities within a larger ecosystem.

Market research, in this regard, is insufficient so as long as the “listening” is periodic and extractive. Controlling an inquiry within a focus group or survey, or scraping and collecting customer data, are not inherently bad practices. But devoid of participation and transparency, these methods become transactional at best. They may lead to insights and short term opportunities, but not to mutual understanding and better connections.

Inside organizations, understanding needs to be expansive, not just limited to boss and team. The cycles of listening and responding need a greater diversity of voices and ears, and more unfinished ideas rather than status reports. Get the engineers out into the field, the accountants talking with customer support, and the executives at corner cafes. Office wandering, tangential discussions, and web browsing should be encouraged.

Team meetings should be reconsidered. As an example, the French manufacturer FAVI does not permit meetings to be scheduled unless there is representation invited from all teams, thus severely limiting the number of meetings while simultaneously insisting they are inclusive.

What if people lose focus? If there is autonomy and purpose in their work, along with organizational guardrails, the divergences will most often be productive.

Organizations need an enterprise nervous system. Most have been trying to sense the world with a lone ear and a blind eye. The deeper forms of understanding emerge when we follow curiosities, track impact to the edges of a network, and commit to cycles of listening and responding.

Sameness, Diversity, and Energy

There is a spark of energy in the process of understanding between people who are alike, and a different one between people who are different. This is one reason why diversity is so important. Diverse networks are resilient and creative networks. We need difference. We need interactions that don’t fully make sense until we develop empathy. John Hagel calls this “productive friction.” Beth Comstock refers to the importance of “tension.” My colleague, Marti Spiegelman, talks about the constructive “dissonance” that accompanies complementarities.

As leaders, we have the opportunity to hire accordingly. We also have the responsibility to create the conditions where deep diversity in thought, background, perspective, skin color, anatomy, beliefs, and worldviews are not just tolerated but celebrated. This is more than a socially responsible practice. Ecosystems thrive with diversity.

Architectures of Collaboration/Cooperation

With the understanding and the spark of energy, we then need the architectures for collaboration and cooperation. This involves tools and habits, but also setting the tone and scope of interaction. Why are we sharing? The difference between cover-your-ass sharing and a generous exploration of thoughts-in-process is the difference between a static company and a dynamic company. Mandated sharing is just reporting, and may provide information but does not maintain the spark.

Technology platforms, artificial intelligence, and work spaces should promote permeable membranes, resisting the urge to over-design and over-categorize according to team, group, document, folder, or project. Where are the shared spaces? The overlap? The water coolers? Designing for connections and designing for serendipity are the same thing. Zappos built out their downtown Las Vegas headquarters with “intentional inconvenience,” making it possible for unknown co-workers to start conversations with one another.

The tone of the interactions becomes generous when there is trust and shared empathy, along with an openly-evolving purpose. Invitations to risk and experiment raise the level of excitement and engagement in this environment. Creating the conditions for a continual flow of quality interactions means learning to work between form and formlessness, and even letting structures emerge from the flow. Agile informs these practices, as does jazz music, the Golden State Warriors, or watching kids play on the playground.

Working together need not be limited to the organization and its partners. Communities of practice exist for people in a field to share insights with one another. In the past decade, global solutions networks have taken off, creating forums for NGO’s, companies, individuals, and governments to collectively address poverty, human rights, sustainability, financial inclusion and youth unemployment, to name a few. Organizations that embrace these networks embody working within a plaza rather than on a cul-de-sac.

Collaboration and cooperation deliver opportunities to collectively exchange value that can provide benefits to all – better outcomes, happier employees, faster learning, and more thriving organizations.

The Challenge

In his 2016 book, How Will Capitalism End?, economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck predicts that this current cycles of wealth accumulation will continue and capitalism will consume itself. The size of the dust bunnies in the corner will clog all the filters. Social disintegration will accelerate as only the apex predators – the top of the food chain – will wield power.

I take a more positive view, believing that the power of networks, along with business leaders, workers, and citizens working together within our planetary limits, will lead to a new era of qualitative growth for communities everywhere. As economist Kate Raworth says, “new perspectives on what constitutes economic success must emerge.” Take this challenge and responsibility seriously. We can save capitalism from itself and create a future in which everyone thrives.

This article originally was originally posted at LinkedIn Pulse