How ecology can help organisations navigate change

by | Aug 27, 2013

Leaders already know that rural industry service bodies need to adapt faster to survive rapid and disruptive change. External drivers of change dictate this need for adaptation, as well as the costs of complacency; such as loss of relevance and extinction. A key question is what can you do so that your organisation is positioned better to navigate change?

If you have been to meetings and seen people nodding sagely about the need for adaptive management, you may be left wondering what is actually meant in a practical sense. Rather than some mysterious formula, the main message is that people usually know what they need to do, but are not actually doing it.

Set aside traditional thinking on business management for a moment, and instead reflect on how ecological systems adapt. It will provoke your thinking on what makes your organisation viable in its ‘business ecosystem’.

For example, the term niche is straight out of ecology and commonly used in business (e.g. when describing sources of competitive advantage). For organisms (and businesses), the prospects of survival are enhanced if they fulfill their unique role and value in the broader ecosystem.

The niche concept implies two things for managers. Firstly, does your team have a shared understanding of what makes your organisation distinctive and valued today? Besides providing coherence, a shared understanding of niche also helps an organisation stay focused. If you know what you provide that is uniquely valued, you will pause before deciding to allocate resources towards initiatives that fall outside your niche.

The second insight is that you need to modify your unique positioning to maintain ‘fit’ as the system itself changes. Failure to regularly revisit and question what makes your organisation unique is a commonly overlooked issue. Instead, people tend to believe that their niche is set in concrete (sometimes it is set in legislation, which can seem close enough).

Thus, when boards and management are confused or uncertain about the organisation’s unique role in the business system, it can be a sign that the external system has changed, but the old view of the niche is prevailing. For example:

  • Being great at enabling rural research will diminish in value if your investors are now placing more value on services that enable development outcomes (results, with research as one input).
  • Rural industry associations that enable local grass-roots meetings for farmer members to develop policy are vulnerable if farmers are now placing more value in services that enable online connectivity and advocacy on national and international issues.

Left unresolved, the gap between the old and new niche widens. You will observe people investing effort into justifying the original (valuable) reason that made the organisation and its services unique in the first place. This is another sign to watch for.

In summary, there are some things within the control of rural industry service bodies that help them adapt rather than react. One of these is the concept of niche. If there is a shared view of what makes your organisation uniquely valued in its system, and you are regularly re-visiting this as your external market changes, a basic building block to navigate change is in place.

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