Listen to Your Ecosystems

Wardley says “listen to your ecosystems.”

There are many different forms of ecosystems and ways to exploit them. You can build powerful sensing engines (e.g. the ILC model) for future change, sources of co-operation with others, defensive and offensive alliances. But ecosystems need management, they need tending as a gardener tends a garden — sometimes you allow them to grow wild, sometime you harvest, sometimes you help direct or constrain them. These are particular skills that you can develop but most important is the principle — listen to them. (Wardley Maps, Chapter 11)

So what exactly does that mean? Let’s break it down.

Wardley mentions several possible actions, and then one principle.

The first is Sensing Engines. Roughly, I think of it as a way of architecting a system so that information about the ecosystem flows directly to you. Contrast this with how “listen to your ecosystems” would otherwise have to work, with you going out and searching for information yourself (more on that later).

An example of Sensing Engines is the ILC play. ILC stands for Innovate-Leverage-Commoditize. You provide something useful and encourage others to build new things with it. Then you watch how they use it and what they build to spot interesting patterns: “Hmm, it seems like there are several companies using our platform to build an *insert innovation here*.” Then, you harvest from the ecosystem by building your own version of that new innovation or acquiring one of the existing players. And lastly, add the innovation to your platform or basket of useful things, and encourage others to build new things with it. Then it repeats. Cory Foy has a nice explanation of ILC here.

Wardley also mentions sources of co-operation with others. Maybe there’s a common problem in the ecosystem, and a few players decide to get together to build something to solve it! But in order for that to happen, someone has to notice that it’s possible.

Then he mentions defensive and offensive alliances. A group of small players can’t form an alliance to stand up to a big player if they don’t know each other exists. Someone has to notice, and then start building the coalition!

Wardley also says that ecosystems need management. To be clear, the ecosystems will do their thing regardless. You can absolutely let them grow wild. It’s just a matter of whether the consequences of that growth will be good for you.

We already talked about harvesting a bit. If you’re listening to the ecosystem, you’ll notice when good ideas arrive on the scene. Harvesting can help you make the most of their arrival. But of course they come at a cost. If not done with care, harvesting can poison an ecosystem.

If you’re using an ecosystem to identify future success then remember, you’re the gardener of that ecosystem. If you harvest too much, it’ll die off. So think carefully – you need to harvest and nurture. (Wardley, On PST and Theft)

By directing ecosystems, you might encourage growth or investment in a particular direction. How? Great question. You’d probably need a map to identify the exact mechanisms, but it might be interesting to start by understanding the dependencies at play in that part of the ecosystem, the value chain. Manipulating dependencies is one way to encourage or discourage growth, or constrain it altogether. There are all sorts of other plays to consider in Wardley’s playbook.

So those are all the specifics actions Wardley Mentions regarding ecosystems. But above all, he shares a general principle: Listen to them!

Listening starts with noticing

None of those actions are possible without first developing the capacity to notice what’s going on in the ecosystem. That’s what listening entails.

Borrowing a little from Observability, I’m interested in the questions, “How do you make something observable? How do you make it something you can notice?”

We of course ignore the vast majority of things all the time. After all, most things we encounter are irrelevant. (No sense taking time to admire the color of the paint on the wall if you’re in the process of searching for the murder weapon at a crime scene). We’re practically trained to ignore the ecosystem. And if we ignore the wrong things, we might come to regret it.

So we need a way to notice the right things, while still ignoring the rest.

To observe something, you have to first find out that it exists. How do you find out that something exists in an ecosystem? Well, by looking for it.

To listen to an ecosystem, you have to explore it and learn about what’s there. In my own work, I often rely on OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) to learn about an ecosystem, one section at a time. That means reading lots of news articles, corporate reports, job listings… anything that’s already public. Sometimes I even go on LinkedIn and read every job title of every person that works for a particular player in an industry.

All that helps me build a model of the ecosystem, bit by bit. That model starts out as one or more Value Chains and eventually turns into a few Wardley Maps as I learn more.

Slowly over time, the models becomes more valuable, because they’ve been tested and refined as more information comes in. Mostly because I find out all the ways I was wrong. All the different players, all the different needs getting met, all the different capabilities in play… it all ends up as hypotheses, represented in my maps.

“What changed?”

Once you “know” about the ecosystem, then you can finally start to listen to it. You have a baseline against which to compare, so when something changes, you’re more likely to notice.

There are generally two ways to notice when something changes:

1) Going out and getting information about it, checking it against your models, perhaps on regular intervals.

2) Creating a system that brings the relevant information to you instead. (We discussed this earlier, with Sensing Engines).

So, to recap, to listen to your ecosystems, you have to explore them, model them to get a baseline (perhaps with Wardley Maps), and then make sure you’re around to notice when things change.

That’s listening to your ecosystems.

If you want to get weird with it, here are two recommendations for further reading:

First, if you’d like a bit more of a philosophical framework for thinking about why you would bother listening to an ecosystem, I recommend digging into Derek M.C. Yuen’s book titled, “Deciphering Sun Tzu”. Specifically, study the “conditions-consequences” idea. Tasshin Fogleman wrote a good blog on it here.

(To hint at it, knowing that it’s the conditions that produce the consequences, it makes a lot of sense to study the conditions and get practice learning how they produce those consequences. Study the ecosystem to understand the consequences it creates!)

Second, there are other methods for exploring and modeling ecosystems besides Wardley Mapping. One that I learned from Jabe Bloom is the Multi Level Perspective (MLP) by Geels. There’s a fun paper out there called “Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways” worth digging into.

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