Where does your organization start and end?

Pip Coburn is a big believer in the power of the “mental models” we carry around, the approximations we make of reality to simplify the world.  The idea is that we can’t interact with reality in all of its complexities, we can only interact with our mental models of reality – and Pip’s point as I understand it is that since our mental models define our reality, walking around with the wrong model can cripple our ability to understand things and act appropriately.

Since being introduced to this phrase I’m increasingly checking in both on the conclusions I’m drawing from my mental models and on the mental models themselves to either affirm them or throw them away.

Here’s one mental model I’ve been playing with a lot lately: where does “our organization” start and end?  And where do our stakeholders (read: supporters, community members, shareholders, grantees, whatever…) sit?

For the past three years the mental model I was carrying around was the one on the left, and I’m beginning to wonder if the model I prefer is the one on the right.

If your mental model is the one on the left, as mine was, even if you care a lot about having high-quality engagement with your stakeholders, you’re inevitably carrying around a sense of divide between “us” and “them.”  “Sure we want them to be engaged and happy,” we think, “but (we say to ourselves silently) they’re not us.”

But why is this the case?  Because we’re on the payroll and they’re not?  Because we spend more hours per day doing this than they do?  There’s no magic door that we walked through that they didn’t walk through, and there’s certainly no guarantee that we are bringing more value to the table and doing more to further our mission than they are.

If they’re part of us, then our mission is a collective mission AND at the same time the standards to which we hold ourselves are equally high across the board (e.g. no coddling stakeholders just because they write big checks or shout the loudest – everyone has to bring their full selves to every conversation).

Especially as the definition of work  and jobs transform, as the social contract between employer and employee erodes, as people can work anywhere in any way to do most any thing, the idea of a firm boundary around the organization is, like the boundary itself, going to fade away.

I riffed a little on this idea in the video below, before getting to hear some of the wonderful member of the Acumen Fund community tell their own story (watch until the end to see the most incredible 9th grader you’ve come across in a long while).

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