Do you ever feel like a mouse in a maze looking for the ever-elusive cheese? For the social sector, the cheese is money or influence and, with that money and influence, comes enhanced relevancy to our community and increased impact to our various stakeholders. Recently, we have seen the sector shift toward collaboration – which was our key nonprofit trend for 2018. This shift changed the dynamics of the social sector. To explain this shift in trainings, we use the graphic below, which our audiences love. It helps illustrate these different mindsets. In collaboration, instead of each mouse looking for the cheese individually, the mice are working together to figure out the maze or, even more importantly, talking with each other to change the maze altogether to make it better.

To help our collaboration clients embrace this behavior, we often ask our them to take off their “organization (or individual) hat” and put on their “community hat.” It is a simple ask, but it really works. Just like the mice, the conversation changes from what we call “EGO-thinking” to “ECO-thinking.” We have written about this concept many times in our coverage of “coopetition,” collaboration commandments and movement buildingHowever, in our experience, as a sector we still focus too much on how our own organizations can make a difference (i.e., ego-thinking) rather than on the role we can play to best move an issue or community forward by working together (i.e., eco-thinking). For the past several years, our team has been working hard with some forward-thinking clients and community builders across many sectors (e.g., healthcare, seniors, workforce development) to develop a new tool – ecosystem mapping – to address the gap between “ego-thinking” and “eco-thinking.” We presented it for the first time at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in August 2014, and we continue to find it a valuable tool for all social issues. While it is as much of an art as it is a science, we wanted to share our thoughts on how to do this in your community to break down silos and start implementing the practice of eco-thinking.

Why ecosystem mapping?

Ecosystem mapping takes system change to a practical level. It helps you uncover aspirations for the system as well as the ability to identify strengths, gaps and opportunities for collaboration. When completed, it can help with planning, sequencing and prioritization. It allows you to understand the interactions within the system and supports alignment of activities. It can also help funders allocate resources and support joint decision-making.

What is an ecosystem map? How do I start?

Like all the best tools, ecosystem mapping is a relatively simple process, but requires discipline to execute. One of the best parts of an ecosystem map is that it is a visual representation of the system, which provides a fresh perspective. To start, it is always best to design the ideal system for a community using best practice research. This step is the difference between asset mapping and ecosystem mapping. Asset mapping typically inventories the existing system. Ecosystem mapping charts both the ideal system and the existing system, allowing for comparison and identification of gaps and opportunities for improvement. Once this is complete, use an inventory to add in organizations providing the services. Finally, analyze the system: what is working? What could work better? Do you have the quality and quantity of services needed? What sequence works best for customers?

Why does ecosystem mapping work?

In our experience, ecosystem mapping allows those in the social sector to focus less on individual organizations and more on how organizations can engage in eco-thinking – that is, collaborate to create a stronger system. Most importantly, it allows us to comprehensively evaluate the effectiveness of the system for our customers.

This leads us to the last layer of the shift – system change. In this illustration, the mice are cooperating – they are standing on each other’s shoulders and the one on top is taking notes while looking down at the maze. You can imagine the next scene – the top mouse gets down and shares information about the maze. Now, the mice have all the data they need and can question the nature and purpose of the system, in this case, the maze: does it work? Could we make the maze easier? Why is there a maze at all? What can we do individually and collectively to better support one another? As I say to my clients, this is where the magic happens. Once all data is shared, you can begin working as a collective to build a better community.

We would love to hear how you have changed your community’s mindset to focus on system change. We are all here to learn from one another.

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