How an Ecosystem Mindset Can Help People and Organizations Succeed

By John Geraci. Originally posted May 12th 2016 on Harvard Business Review

Greg Gopman has had an interesting two and a half years. In December 2013 he was an up-and-coming young San Francisco entrepreneur and CEO of an incubator, when he posted an offhand comment on Facebook about homelessness in his city. In part, he wrote:

In other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it’s a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that’s okay.

Gopman’s post quickly went viral, was blogged about endlessly at media sites such as Gawker’s now-defunct Valleywag, and he became a poster child for everything wrong with the tech industry in the Bay Area. Overnight, his career came to a complete standstill.

But what Gopman did next was the interesting part: he threw himself at the task of actually trying to fix the homeless problem in San Francisco with the typical zeal of a startup entrepreneur.

Gopman’s journey is a great illustration of how to adopt what I call an ecosystem mindset: an understanding that the keys to new value and growth likely do not reside within one’s current boundaries but beyond them, and that success involves forging new connections to solve problems and create new value as a team. It’s a mindset that very few big companies and individuals have, but need.

Gopman’s first step was to conceive and create a product to solve the problem, a set of “I love SF” wristbands. The idea was that homeless people could sell them and help support themselves. Nobody called him for a resupply.

Next, he spent months researching current approaches, going out and talking to local organizations working with the homeless. His idea was to host a Town Hall to End Homelessness, bringing to bear his own expertise in organizing hackathons.

At the end of the event, Gopman met a man who had recently been made homeless after a stroke left him unable to work. The two started meeting regularly and trading notes, the man telling Gopman about what homeless camps actually needed. Gopman went to visit homeless encampments with his new colleague, and even spent a night sleeping in one.

The two launched a small business based on mutual observations of what people in these camps spend their time doing. The business fared much better than the wristband idea, but they eventually shut it down.

Finally, Gopman began hosting meetings for a group of activists, civic workers, and homeless people. They devised a plan for homeless encampments that would operate more like cooperatives, and would include case managers, vocational schools, showers, wifi, a dining hall, and wellness programming while operating at a profit. They named it A Better San Francisco.

While the internet continually paints Gopman as yet another shallow Silicon Valley tech bro looking to salvage his reputation, I believe Gopman’s story perfectly embodies the journey away from a closed Organism Mindset toward a more open Ecosystem Mindset.

The journey is one that everyone, individuals and organizations alike, can benefit from: start from a self-centric position, and meet, talk, and fail your way outwards. Along the way, partner with others, try small tests, and learn.

So how do you undertake this journey — either as an individual or as an organization? Let’s look at GE as an example.

Build new connections. Nobody can truly understand the ecosystem they operate in without getting out and wading in it. Take Beth Comstock, Vice Chair at GE. Comstock now oversees GE Ventures, so it is her job to grow GE’s ecosystem and to make money doing it, but long before she took on that role, she was always meeting people, traveling from city to city, and hosting events. She knows that getting out and building new connections is the way to build value for her company.

Establish channels between possible partners. These channels do not need to be — should not be — business deals per se. They should be created with the intent to understand how collaboration can happen. GE and GE Ventures, for example, actively seek and develop channels rather than simply looking for budding new companies to invest in. They’ve established Open Office Hours with senior-level experts at partner offices in Redwood City, panel discussions at like-minded accelerators in Boston, and similar initiatives in hotspots of new value creation around the country.

Partner with others. GE and their Ventures arm are also constantly on the lookout for new partners. The organization currently counts 61 startups in their portfolio in fields as diverse as energy, healthcare and manufacturing. They partner as well with mature organizations, such as Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, to find and accelerate new solutions and add value through training and mentoring.

Of course, sometimes these partnerships end badly, as with the much-celebrated partnership between GE and Quirky, a New York manufacturing startup. Last year, Quirky declared bankruptcy last year and GE claimed that Quirky hurt its reputation with customers. Occasional outcomes like these are table stakes in the game though, and should not deter one from pushing forward with new partnerships across the ecosystem — and GE Ventures has pushed on accordingly.

Foster sustained action. GE invests time, money, and resources to create sustained, active relationships with accelerator programs in an array of fields and locations, from Energy Excelerator in Honolulu to Robotics Hub in Pittsburgh. The result for GE and its partners is an ongoing, complex exchange of ideas, value, and initiatives, which often dovetail with each other since everyone involved sustain contact and pass information back and forth. The result, for each player in the ecosystem, is certainly no worse than if they were pursuing their goals on their own, and potentially much greater because of their interconnection.

As Greg Gopman’s story shows, you don’t need to have a separate venture arm like GE with a huge budget to make this all work. It’s really just about applying the principles of the Ecosystem Mindset with whatever means you have: reach out, set up channels, partner, bring people from different parts of the ecosystem together for your cause, and go forward. If you do this, you’ll find that your solutions will take on new life. They’ll be more complex, more distributed across the ecosystem, more resilient, and more suited to survival in the modern world of increasing complexity and change.