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).


Yesterday’s post got me thinking about the question of permeability and the virtual organization.  A few years ago Niko Canner shared with me and my Acumen buddies the idea of a “virtual organization.” In Niko’s words, loosely paraphrased (and potentially butchered in the process) there are many concentric circles of people surrounding any organization who do all sorts of valuable work (Board, advisors, donors, friends, mentors, etc. for nonprofits; but also suppliers and lawyers and bankers for just about everyone).  The virtual organization is this collection of people, and it is, especially for nonprofits, potentially more far-reaching, powerful, and impactful than the people who are actually on the payroll.

This brings up the question of permeability.  When we, who represent the organization, talk to people outside the organization about bringing their financial resources to bear to help us do our work, how permeable are we?  How bright are the lines we draw between “us” (the organization) and “them” (the donors, the advisors, the helpers, the friends)?  And how much, ideally, is the act of creating permeability something that we, external standard bearers of the organization, do in an ad hoc fashion, and how much should it be built in to the fabric of the organization?

Permeability only works where there is trust.  And while you can build trust with shared time, conversation, and exploration, what kicks things into high gear is shared action.  As we take action, we experiment – how do you and I act together, how do we treat each other, is this an us/them situation or can we leave that baggage behind?

So how are things, typically, different inside and outside the organization? When I problem-solve with someone on my team, I would never dream of leading with apologies or caveats; nor would I ever write an email asking for help that starts or end with “if you’re not too busy.”  By definition my teammates and I have signed up to the same goals so we dream together and riff together; we shoot ideas down and build them up and kick them around until they have enough fortitude to stand on their own.

We can’t act any differently when we move outside, to the virtual organization.  Yet because of the imagined, created (constructed?) impermeability between the organization and the virtual organization we convince ourselves that we have to ask for permission every time we “bother” someone who has said that they’re in and they’re signed up to help – which just serves to reinforce that we’re not all in this together.

And often I think that we – those of us inside the organization – are the main culprits here.  And if that’s right it’s good news because it means that we are in a position to make a change.

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