The Ecocycle: A Mental Model for Understanding Complex Systems

Three Dragons on a Moebius Strip

I found this evocative image a short time ago. It captures the intention and spirit of the book admirably: three dragons – I have named them Passion, Reason and Power – scramble on a Moebius strip in a never-ending three-cornered struggle of the rock-paper-scissors variety. In the picture Reason is taking a snooze, leaving Power and Passion to duke it out – an apt description of the current American political scene! The “detuned” version of this in The New Ecology of Leadership is called the “ecocycle”. It is the heart of the new ecological mental model for making sense of the behaviour of complex systems. It was developed originally as the “adaptive cycle” by the Canadian ecologist, C.S. “Buzz” Holling, to understand the dynamics of ecosystems like forests and estuaries. I have spent much of the past twenty-five years or so adapting it for use to understand human organizations, especially private and public-sector organizations and, to a lesser extent, other groupings like cities and societies.

It must be emphasized that the ecocycle is a mental model that allows the user to anticipate what might happen in a particular organization not to predict. Anticipation, of course, often allows one to take pre-emptive action thwarting the predictions of others! So managers should always prefer anticipatory frameworks to predictive ones; prediction implies inevitability, anticipation leaves one the capacity to take action. Used in combination with other frameworks from several fields, including management, psychology, sociology and philosophy, the ecocycle yields stunning insights into the dynamics of complex systems.

Here is the basic ecocycle as used in the book. It consists of two S-shaped logistics curves, with one reversed, so that together they form an infinity symbol.

The ecocycle with sweet zone, three contexts, two logics and twin traps

The “front” loop (solid line) is the familiar long, slow life-cycle; organizations are born in contexts of trust, grow through the application of logic and mature in power. Here their strengths (competencies) eventually become weaknesses in changing circumstances. If they do not respond adaptively, they will get caught in a spiral “success” trap. This leads to crisis and eventually, if they still cannot adapt, to destruction.

General Motors spun around in a success/competency trap for forty years, unable to forsake the strengths of muscle and scale and the structures and processes that had made it so successful. It could not escape until it had been through the fires of bankruptcy. Even the intellectual understanding that you are in a success trap does not guarantee that you will escape it. Kodak understood very well that digital photography was rendering its film business obsolete. Despite this knowledge, it could not change itself fast enough to escape bankruptcy and avoid further reductions in scale as well as in its liabilities.

Destruction clears away the “deadwood” and opens spaces for new growth. This process is shown in the less familiar “back” loop of the ecocycle (dashed line). It is a short, fast cycle of destruction and renewal that every ecosystem goes through. Destruction not only clears away the debris: it also recycles it as nutrients for the young organisms coming into the open patches it creates. Here there is equal access to sun and rain and room for small-scale experimentation to take place. The city of Rochester has many young ventures that have been spun off from Kodak over the years that have prevented it from being totally devastated by Kodak’s collapse.

Much of this experimentation will fail, hence the presence of the “failure” trap on the lefthand side. This is the entrepreneurial trap, which will be familiar to almost everyone. This is where we try a lot of things but nothing seems to take off. One can spin in this trap for years. Of course every successful organization has to escape the failure trap at least once, but after that it should aim to dwell for as long as possible in the “sweet zone” between the two traps.

The Sweet Zone of Sustainability

The sweet zone lies between the failure and success traps and is traversed by twin “logics” – systems of cause-and-effect. The first is the logic of large systems, labelled “Strategic Management” in the diagram. This is the logic that allows young growing organizations to be rationalized, so that they can handle huge scale. It is concerned with finding and implementing effective means to given ends. It is the longest, smoothest phase in the ecocycle and the one that the American economy passed through from the early 1900s to the mid 1970s.

The second logic, at a rough right angle to the first, is the eco-logic of people, labelled “Creative Leadership”.  Readers of my earlier blogs will recognize this logic as synonymous with “contextual intelligence”, “practical wisdom” and “ecological rationality”. Creative leadership is concerned with finding desirable ends – purpose and meaning – for the organization and its people.

The idea is that if leaders and managers can use eco-logic and logic together in an effective dialogue between ends and means, then the organization can “dwell” in the sweet zone for an extended period of time. It is not easy. The sweet zone looks large but there all kinds of turbulent forces active within it. Standing still is not an option.

In addition the sweet zone is very “thin”. The time dimension in the diagram actually comes out from the page toward you. Behind the page is the past; above the page is the future. On the page is the present, the perpetual “now” of subjective time, in which we spend all our waking hours. In the book I call it the “slippery thin moment of Now“; it is the time in which all learning and creativity takes place.  Staying in the “Now” is a constant challenge.

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2 Responses to The Ecocycle: A Mental Model for Understanding Complex Systems

  1. David, It’s great to see how you apply lessons from in the phases of succession for natural systems to the stages of competitive strategy in business. It’s a really powerful approach, as the lessons of nature for her self-organizing systems really DO apply to ours as well. It’s part of learning why “there is no equation”, that we have to become active learners just as the self-organizing systems we’re working with are themselves! 😉

    I think there are various ways my approach could hook up with yours, like some of my mathematical methods for locating and measuring emergent systems. It’s generally a good sign to find someone working with much the same source material, looked at from another side.

    • David says:

      Hi Jessie,
      Thanks so much for your comment. My use of systems thinking is analogical rather than analytical. I find that if I talk to executives about analytical methods their eyes glaze over within seconds! With the analogical method, with the analogies “disciplined” by systems thinking, the systems stuff itself become almost invisible to the reader. So all the mathematics would have to stay behind the scenes!