An ecosystem approach to making stuff happen

An ecosystem approach to making stuff happen

How can you use the thoughts of an Austrailan Army Infantry Officer and top advisor to the US in their war on terror to make your organization or project better? This is something ill be speaking about at the upcoming Social Innovation Sydney event, coming up on Saturday the 6th of November. You can register here if you’re interested in coming.

I recently finished reading a fantastic book called Counter Insurgency, by David Kilcullen. In the book, Kilcullen discusses how the US and allied forces have been fighting various wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Indonesia over the past decade or so. Particularliy, he outlines how the management of troops has changed markedly over that time, in part to manage and maintain better outcomes from the wars they are in. Whilst reading the book, I couldn’t help but see many parallels between what Kilcullen was saying and how projects and project teams operate. I feel like there is a number of Lessons we can take from this.


The key with an insurgency is that it is not a war, but a fight for the hearts and minds of the civilians.

Kilcullen makes it startlingly clear in the first chapter that the war that we are fighting in Afghanistan is not an old style war. Insurgents use different methods to organize themselves into a network of operatives spread throughout a given area. They don’t tend to use a heirachy model to operate. They spread themselves throughout a target community, and begin inserting themselves; either forcefully or peacefully, into the lives of average citizens. 

One of their most successful tools is terrorism. It’s important here not get the idea of terrorism confused with a terrorist. An insurgent force only uses terrorism as a tool to further progress their cause. Al Qaeda; and closer to Australia, Jamar Islamir, are examples of insurgent organizations which utilize the brutal force of terrorism for the progression of their objectives.

Kilcullen mentions that, often, Western forces have misunderstood this. They have traditionally utilised very brute force attack methods to target insurgent forces, such as air strikes and large bombing campaigns. The problems with this is, many locals (who are not on either side, but simply want to remain safe) will begin to side wih the insurgent forces because they don’t much care for having their houses blown up.

Many families that are located in the conflict area often have sons or daughters involved in both sides of the war – with many having one son in the allied forces and one in the insurgent forces, hedging their bets.

There are some parallels here between war and social innovation. Most people, if left to their own devices, will choose the option of staying safe. Most large organizations will choose the option of remaining calm and steady. Most small organizations will choose the option of continuing to complain about the big guys and how hey don’t change. Both parties view points can become narrow minded prisons. 

Any form of project or social initiative must be something that is launched and built with the local community in mind. Marc Andreessen, in a presentation on iTunes U, discussed how when Netscape launched they targeted people who were using FTP to transfer files over the internet in the early days of 1995. This seems to make intuitive sense, but I’m sure that even given that, they approached them in a very specific way. Using Kilcullens thoughts, they wouldn’t have stormed in and announced they were going to destroy all FTP clients. What’s important, is that they probably thought very deeply about the inputs of their idea that would lead to the correct boundary interactions they wanted to observe.

Inputs and Outputs are as important as the boundary interactions

In his book, Kilcullen outlines what I think may be the most important idea for organizations and projects which are trying to play the networked game. Today, the most successful organizations and concepts are those that take advantage of the inherent social graph of it’s users. Facebook, YouTube, Google, Twitter and many other organizations have done well at creating worlds where users and customers can spread the organizations values and messages easily. As that network grows, the value of it also grows – just as the first Fax Machine was useless, but incredibly useful once everyone had one.

Ecosystem of Counter Insurgency

The key here, is that insurgent and complex organizations are soley concerned with one thing: Existing. we may think that the core driving factor behind the devastation that Al Qaeda causes is to reap havock but it’s actually just concerned with existing. Many organizations are similarily focused, and that’s ok. It’s what is natural.

Keeping their network alive is what they specialize in. You can do this by monitoring and managing the inputs you introduce to the network. These inputs may be things Ike money, fear, power or weapons for an insurgent operation. inputs such as those just named might lead to boundary interactions between nodes such as violence, drug sales and purchases or power struggles. Managing the types of inputs that are introduced to a network is the best way to manage the boundary interactions that take place.

Once you ar aware of these inputs, then you can begin predicting how certain inputs will affect different nodes within the ecosystem you have and which ones you can leverage the most.

The future


To me, the future looks like managing these inputs better, to simply connect more nodes which are in close proximity to one an other. The smart organizations have always done it, but now it will become an art form. We’ll see smart organizations  moving easily and smoothly from one node to the next, always connecting and transcending their past activities. Apple is a great modern day example – they started with the humble iPod, then iTunes, then the iPhone and now the iPad. Rumors are, the next Mac Operating system will be another extension of this and include the suability to buy apps. In the process, they have played a hand in transforming the music, mobile and PC industries around the world. Powerful stuff.


All of those iterations are large and ‘big’ but each is always a success because they can build on their previous work to make the next work better still. They can also do it much easier than any competitor could. It’s an amazing competitive advantage.

With this ecosystems thinking and some of the thoughts from Kilcullen, it’s an exciting future and one we can look forward to playing in.

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