How to use a business ecosystem map to save time, uncover complexity, and identify key stakeholders early in your design process
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Issue 012

Mapping business ecosystems: uncovering opportunities and revealing blind spots.

A few years ago, I worked with a Fintech team exploring an ambitious approach to user onboarding. Tasked with bringing the team's vision to life, I prototyped concepts we'd present to key stakeholders in the hope of unlocking further investment in the project.

We shared our work in progress, gathering feedback and gaining project advocates along the way.

But as the presentations stacked up, a worrying pattern emerged.

Each meeting would end with the same suggestion... that we present our work to another team or stakeholder.

In most cases, these teams were part of the business ecosystem we didn't realise would be impacted by our work.

These teams understood processes, relationships and technologies that had not been on our radar. The potential impact included unforeseen costs, technical complexity, and risk to jobs.

Contextual revelations came thick and fast at the sharp end of the project timeline:

  • Technology stacks that would be difficult to replace.
  • Compliance regulations we didn't know we had to satisfy.
  • Contracts with existing suppliers that would be too expensive to break.
  • Customer support jobs threatened by our new process.

Sunk costs clouded the team's decision-marking even when this new information demanded a rethink of the project's viability.

The business case for the team's vision was failing to stack up. As a result, morale suffered, and the project's momentum waned.

Uncovering the complete picture of the business ecosystem earlier in our design process would have been hugely valuable, and could have mitigated the pains we would experience later down the line.

What is a business ecosystem?

business ecosystem comprises the actors, processes, and value exchanges that keep a business operating.

Real people. Hardware and software. Suppliers and competitors. Processes and regulations. Networks of loose and robust ties that change and grow over time.

As designers, our work may focus on a specific part of the ecosystem. But zoom out, and our impact can be affected by elements of the system we didn't even know existed.

Opportunities to demonstrate the value of design might be a connection or two further away than we realised. Blockers to our latest project's success might be just out of view.
Unintended consequences could become more apparent if we took in a wider view of our world.

Visualising business ecosystems

Attempting to visualise this complexity can be challenging. But joining the dots where others may struggle is a superpower of our discipline.

Designers are great at uncovering complexity. We're curious. We prod and pry, asking probing questions that clarify our understanding of the domain. 

Using these skills to map your organisation's ecosystem could be hugely valuable way to start your next project.

Here are some useful resources that could help you approach ecosystem mapping with confidence.

The Case for Starting Your Project with an Ecosystem Map

UX Diary #4 — Ecosystem Map

Designing Digital Strategies, Part 1: Cartography

Design Sprint Shorts - Episode 2: Ecosystem Mapping

However you decide to map your business ecosystem, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Be deliberate

It can be tempting to dismiss business ecosystems as unnecessary detail. Your client or sponsor might agree - "those areas of the business are out of our scope; let's keep it simple".

It might feel comforting to stay in your lane. A design team's brief and timeline can be demanding enough. Do you really need to understand the vast array of people, organisations and influences that may appear far outside the neat edges of your project?

The ecosystem might reveal itself naturally as a project progresses anyway, right? 
Organically uncovering context and business complexity is a high-risk strategy. True clarity and confidence come from deliberate ecosystem mapping early in our process.

Don't jeopardise your team's focus

Uncovering the inevitable messiness of a business's ecosystem can reveal a treasure trove of new problems to solve. Newly discovered problems might look far more valuable (and interesting) than the task already at hand.

John Cutler perfectly summarises this dilemma in a recent Tweet; exposing mess can be overwhelming, but hiding it is rarely a recipe for success. Creating paths back to any mess we uncover is hard work, but usually the optimal response.

The best path for design teams to tackle more significant problems tomorrow could be by delivering today's brief effectively, particularly in organisations where design maturity has plenty of room to grow.

Unlocking the trust to tackle more substantial ecosystem challenges could happen by showing the design team's ability to remain focused on the business's current priorities even in light of new opportunities.

Flag opportunities that will inevitably present themselves through understanding the ecosystem, while harnessing your new knowledge to better deliver on your existing brief. This strategy is one way design teams can foster the trust to tackle more impactful opportunities identified in the business ecosystem.

Communicate business context to build credibility

Credibility grows when design teams reference how understanding the broader business context has shaped their approach. Use the knowledge you've gained through uncovering the business ecosystem to demonstrate this mature thinking.

Refer to the people you've consulted who might not have historically made it onto the design team's radar.

Demonstrate how you've considered project costs (or savings) accrued from parts of the ecosystem that may not have been in the original business case.

Over time, references to parts of the ecosystem that are consulted and impacted by design can shift preconceptions about where we can deploy our problem-solving skills.
Give it a try

There's never a bad time to get a clearer understanding of your organisation's ecosystem. I'd love to hear how you get on if you're trying this for the first time.

If you're already using ecosystem thinking in your design team, feel free drop me a line if you'd like to share your successes or failures with this approach.

See you next time.

Tom Prior
Curator of Designers in Business

[email protected]

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