Mass Collaboration is Complex, Messy, and Vital.
Lessons on building ecosystems for ecosystem builders
(This is a draft with some of my latest observations and thoughts, as #everythingisadraft.)
The 2019 ESHIP Summit kicked off the DELIVER year (part of a three-stage, multi-year initiative by the Kauffman Foundation to Discover, Design & Deliver) to grow a professional field around entrepreneurial ecosystem building. It also marked my first year in a role with the task of “activating the community” of ecosystem builder practitioners as they design and work towards building a new emerging field by solving for the ESHIP Goals. Along the way, I have learned a lot. Some of it, I was expecting and much of it, I was not.
First, I thought I would be learning a great deal from all the amazing people I get to work with, both at the Foundation and beyond. I was right, I have learned a lot. I also thought I would discover a lot of answers; while I know more now, I also have a lot more questions. That’s part of the complexity and messiness.
Complex—As I sat down to write this, I researched complexity; I read articles, listened to speeches and podcasts, skimmed through books, and started to cull information from them.* I was reminded by someone who is a thought leader on this subject, that I have some proficiency as well. (!) I’ve had many people reach out to me this year asking how one goes about building an entrepreneurial ecosystem. While I have some experience and growing insights, it is becoming clearer that others also have parts of the equation, and only together we will be able to make bigger strides. The field is nascent and evolving through the shared learnings of a lot of insightful people. While there is a draft ** of a playbook, remember, it is a work in progress and we’re continuing to develop it. #everythingsadraft
Many of the people who spend time thinking about entrepreneurial ecosystem building are great listeners and ask good questions. They learned from their own experiences and from others who shared their own insights and experiences generously. Some actually thought to write things down, hence we have a few books on ecosystem building and that draft I mentioned. For the most part, we keep working together, learning all the nuanced aspects of this developing field wherein all the parts are often fractal and happen to be intertwined and overlap. Seemingly easy questions do not have linear straightforward answers when you dig into them a bit.
Messy—I perused some books on change to learn more about how evolving economic development could be more equitable and inclusive. The references discussed how hard it was and noted mistakes made. While a few took the view that these were “wrong” turns and how people “made mistakes,” others — like books around startups, entrepreneurship, and ecosystem building — looked upon the path with all the twists and turns as simply a journey towards discovery. Innovation and creativity don’t come by doing the same things that have been done before. It’s almost never a smooth and easy path. Of course it’s going to go in unplanned directions…THERE IS NO PATH — complex systems are emergent by nature. When you leave the road others travel, you should expect for things to get messy.
And then, there are people, who add to the complexity and messiness. There is a myriad of personalities and levels of knowledge. Added to that are the respective lenses from which they view the work. Local system focused, rural, economic development minded, mixed with access to resources and ideas outside of their scope. Most have the best intentions, though there are some who really don’t. Part of the latter comes from a place of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of scarcity, imposter syndrome, lack of self-esteem, and fear of being wrong. There’s no lack of names for them: bad actors, EGOsystem builders, community czars…but sometimes they simply lack knowledge of how to plug in. People tend to model behavior they have experienced which can be good or detrimental to progress. We tend to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions, leading to the difference between the intentions and their impact. Context is situational and in the eye of the beholder, and at times includes less than all the information needed to make a conclusion.
So, since it’s complex and messy, why should we do it? We do it because we must, and someone has to, and it’s vital. Our current economic systems are not working for most people. There is another way. I believe we can build an economy that involves inclusion, equity, purpose, and belonging. I have had people tell me it’s a matter of life and death. Others believe in ecosystem building as a pathway to… as much as they believe in God. That may seem superfluous to some, but to others, our future economies and livelihood of the masses depend on how well we can support the many, versus simply those at the top of the food chain.
Even with the best of intentions, challenges will arise. Not necessarily because people are “bad,” selfish or incapable, though as mentioned, that is a possibility. For the most part, people simply view things from their own lens and it’s hard to wrap your head around a position that’s foreign to yours. Traditional economic development people may view non-traditional approaches like ecosystem building as disruptive. Same could be said for the tension between grassroots ecosystems builders and ecosystem builders that work in large institutions (like universities): an us vs. them paradigm. Me against you, us against them…inter-alliance rivalry. “Divides between these two groups, however, continue to be identified as the greatest threat to the field.”
Part of ecosystem building work is ironing out and working through the tension. It’s the least sexy part and something many avoid — but in reality, that’s what ecosystem building is…creating a system where diverse parts make up a great whole. When we ignore these divides or dodge the issue(s), we perpetuate the problem and it festers. We mask the symptoms hoping they will go away, out of sight, out of mind. That’s the hope, but the reality is the obstacle doesn’t leave, people do. We then think there isn’t a flaw, but it’s simply something that does not get solved. As entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders, isn’t that our ultimate quest? To identify the problems and create solutions? This is actually an integral part of the process and to truly move forward, we need to be comfortable in the discomfort. To go boldly into the muck where we are not as concerned with getting muddy, as we are about moving the field forward together. Addressing and overcoming these divides won’t be easy at times, but it will be worth it.
~Things to Keep Top of Mind~
Grassroots efforts need structure; they should be transparent, flexible, and squishy.
Some projects are fast and agile. In the case of entrepreneurial ecosystem building, it will take longer. This evolving model of economic development is a marathon, not a sprint.
We always need a first pancake. (see First Pancake Rule)
Very few of us know; some have thought and tried for a long time with varying levels of success. We weren’t taught how to do this. There are also applications that can be borrowed and modified from other practices, so while there isn’t THE perfect model, there are bits and pieces that can be cobbled together, like a mosaic. We don’t always need to recreate the wheel.
The world is small and more connected these days; we are more plugged in and have wider reach than ever before. For better or worse, we are interconnected and interdependent. For the hope and future of robust communities, we need entrepreneurial ecosystems. Which is why now, more than ever, we need mass collaboration. In order for all this to happen, we have to roll up our sleeves, work through the complex messiness, trying something new, different and sometimes awkward. None of us have all the answers, but all of us have parts of the answer. Together we’ll answer questions we don’t even know to ask yet.
The other crucial component is commitment.
It does not mean an obligation to work on this 24/7. This also does not mean you should put in 100 percent for free. Understandably, not many people are currently compensated for their time and energy (though we hope that changes). It does require follow through and some sweat equity. Without the energy and input of the community at large, this will not be anything more than a mental exercise and a couple of nice gatherings. No one organization, foundation, agency, or ecosystem builder will be able to do this alone. It will take all of us, with as many diverse perspectives as we can bring together. It’s going to take complex, messy mass collaboration.
Here’s the kicker—I’m going to use the dreaded “C” word here—we need CONFLICT.
(Oh my goodness, did I say that out loud?) We are taught to be cooperative and the importance of being a team player; it’s the hallmark of corporate culture.*** So much of what gets done is accomplished simply for the sake of doing “it” together. While together is meaningful, the product suffers when concessions and compromises take precedence just to have less friction. Collaboration is about process and not necessarily an output. Growth happens outside of your comfort zone, creativity and innovation happens when you challenge the status quo.
My ongoing role in this community is to create a fertile environment for relationships to form and strengthen. The goal is to increase visibility so we connect silos and illuminate alignments; thus enabling coordination and collaboration. As an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder, in support of this work, I pledge to assist in moving the field forward (even if it means getting a bit messy and being comfortable in the discomfort). I also vow to help foster community wherein people feel purposeful, mindful and have a sense of belonging.
How will you help empower community and show up to do the complex, messy and vital work? We need you and invite you to bring your best self to build with us.
*Some inspirational influences:
- Fabian Pfortmuller, Power of Community
- Victor Hwang, 2017 ESHIP Firestarter
- Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code
- Some books recommended by the ESHIP Community