An ecosystems approach to business . . .

Destroying rainforests for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.   ~E. O. Wilson

Between 1970-1973 I was fortunate enough to be a graduate student in biology at Harvard University.  It was during this time that Professor E. O. Wilson, along with Professor Robert McArthur from Princeton, were breaking new ground using systems theory to study ecosystems as varied as evolution on tropical islands and New Guinea ant populations. Basically a systems approach stems from an understanding that there are a complex set of interconnected relationships between species within a given region and that these interconnections dictate the health and stability of the ecosystem. Disturb the relationships and you also disturb the stability of the ecosystem.

For example, overfishing of one species, tuna, in the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea has allowed another member of the ecosystem, jellyfish, to explode to epidemic proportions and disrupt the entire ecosystem.  As we now know, an ecosystem develops over thousands of years into a delicate balance that can easily be disrupted in ways we have yet to understand.

For the past 20 years I have been looking at business organizations as complex systems of interconnected relationships, similar to an ecosystem.  The major entities in most organizations, analogous to species in an ecosystem, are business functions.  The common organizational functions are Human Resources, Finance, Manufacturing, Sales, IT, Marketing, Quality, Purchasing, Engineering, Merchandising, etc.  We traditionally call these Departments and in many business organizations they often act like separate species, with different goals, different behaviors, and sometimes very different cultures.

Much attention at business schools and among consulting firms is focused on how to best improve the functioning of a specific department (for example, reducing IT costs or reducing turnover in Call Centers). While this may improve that particular department’s metrics and KPIs, it may do very little for the overall performance of the organization.  It is not uncommon in business for one or more departments to achieve their objectives, but the company miss its overall performance targets.

I have taken a radically different approach to organizational improvement, looking at a business organization as a set of interconnected relationships that must link together in order to maximize the overall performance of the system.  As a result, we have begun to build strategies and business plans that link the various departments together in a way that maximizes the whole.  We call this ecosystem approach, Line of Sight Shared Objectives and use a visual mapping process to link the overall business strategy from the senior team down to every department and all departmental objectives.  Like a finely tuned ecosystem, all the functions are working together for the overall benefit and success of the entire enterprise.

In heavy silo focused corporate cultures with poor cross functional teamwork, the key we have found to changing behavior patterns and reducing silo-thinking is to use a joined-up company-wide scorecard with total transparency of actions, accountabilities, metrics and performance outcomes from top to bottom.  By building the joined-up strategic plan together, the senior team ensures all activities are linked together for a common set of objectives.  In this case, the growth and stability of the organization.

While we as global citizens are being urged from all directions to think in terms of saving ecosystems and not just individual species, it is also time to bring a systems improvement approach to business organizations.

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

E |      T | +44 207 584 3774      M | +44 7833 493 999

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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1 Response to An ecosystems approach to business . . .

  1. Pingback: A Look at the Fossil Fuel Ecosystem | John R Childress . . . rethinking leadership

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