Psychology, Ecology, and Organizations: Understanding Systems

Ecology is a term that refers to an interconnected environment but is also challenging to conceptualize in practice. Let’s start by exploring a way to view individuals and systems together.

Ecology is one of those ‘million-dollar words’. It’s a sophisticated term and can be used in myriad ways, and few people challenge you when you use it (even when it’s unclear what you mean — people think they know and don’t ask). It’s all about nature, right? (and what is nature?) It’s about systems thinking! (another term that can mean many things). It’s about being sustainable (and that means???). Ecology falls in that same group.

The ecology of [insert here ] can refer to nearly anything. In a previous post, I referred to ecological systems and what they mean for organizing ourselves. I argue that traditional linear-style, human-centric thinking only fits some of what we deal with in our organizations, networks and communities. Our present context is far too volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous to be able to predict and control things with any confidence. Henry Mintzberg admonishes those who believe we can use reductive, analytical means to derive strategy today: it doesn’t work.

But knowing this and doing something about it are different things. This is one of many articles in a series looking at how to translate what we know about systems into how we develop organizations. Let’s first start by using a framework that was first developed for children and apply it to organizations.

Applied Systems Thinking and Organizations

Ecology is all about systems thinking. This means looking at ourselves in a broader context through the structure of relationships, interactions, and mutual influence. One way to illustrate this is using a model first developed for children but equally applies to humans and groups with some modification. Urie Bronfrenbrenner’s model was intended to describe the many layers of influence on children and how child development is influenced by and exists within a larger social-ecological system.

Bronfrenbrenner’s model is designed around a series of concentric circles of influence. It’s a useful way to introduce how systems thinking becomes practical for understanding and acting within organizations.

Let’s start with the centre: the individual.

The individual in this model is at the centre of the system, just as it’s represented in the visual. The intention here is to illustrate how the other layers can affect a specific person, and for organizations, we can look to a variety of roles for this individual. It’s a useful frame because we see systems from where we sit within them. We experience systems as if we are at the centre of them (because that’s how we see the world).

It’s not that we can’t empathize or hypothesize about different places within that system, it’s just our experience is what frames our first look at any system. That’s how humans work.

Organizing Out from the Individual

What I like about Bronfrenbrenner’s model is that it grafts onto how organizations make decisions. By that, organizations are ego-centred, and most managers and CEOs build out strategies from their position within the organization. (How often have you heard a CEO say, “we need to make cuts, so I am firing myself”). This doesn’t always lead to a good strategy, but it’s a useful place for us to begin the conversation about applied systems thinking.

By having more and better conversations, we see systems with greater clarity because we reveal and enhance relationships. It’s relationships that make up a system. To apply this model, we need to take a design-oriented approach and use personas — imaginations based on data — to represent different people within the organization. The idea is that we might develop multiple systems models using the same framework. (We’ll look at these in a future post).

The next layer in the model is the microsystem. For an organization, this is the immediate environment and might include a person’s team, immediate colleagues, workplace, and those things that have direct contact with the individual.

The mesosystem is a layer where the microsystem connects similar things within the microsystem. Consider interactions between colleagues, teams, worksites, or tools.

The exosystem might include formal and informal social structures within a domain of practice. This might include competitors, peer organizations, and other organizations within a community or sector.

The next layer is the macrosystem, which might be considered the field of practice. This includes market conditions, geographic factors, and most of what we might see in a STEEP-V model (Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Political and Values).

The final layer is the chronosystem, which reflects time. This layer affects all others by considering how things evolve and significant events (e.g., pandemic, environmental disaster, economic downturn, or war). These can also include transitions within a market, a community, or the environment.

Applying the Framework

This framework provides an opportunity to frame the experience of any particular role, position, or function within a system. When we go through the layers we begin to identify what is included. By identifying the components of the system we can start to articulate how these components might relate to one another. For example, let’s compared a front-facing clinical staff member’s experience with that of a senior administrative leader. We’ll see how two hospital staff engage the same system in different ways. The same is true if you had placed a farmer at the centre of a system compared with a grocery clerk or a grocery chain CEO.

Each layer of the system will contain some similar elements, but even that is experienced differently based on role or position.

By articulating the system this way, we can develop scenarios to help us envision how changes at any of these layers might affect others. It’s possible to hypothesize how planned and unplanned changes at any system level might affect operations, staffing, resources, and outcomes. Our systems thinking has now become a practical means to plan, evaluate and strategize.

Linking frameworks like this one with ecological thinking is where we go next.

In our future posts, I’ll look at this idea of applying frameworks like this using scenarios in more detail.

If you want to build systems and strategy that takes your work further and achieves more, let’s grab a coffee and talk about how to apply this to what you do.

Image Credits: Both images from Valeria Hutter on Unsplash

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