No more problem solving! (pt. 1)

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We have a hundred ways of encouraging individual development, but we are semiliterate when it comes to the question of communal development

Peter Block, 2012, p. 3

This series shines a light on two essential concepts in our work as ecosystem builders and creators of an alternative future: Community and Leadership.

The concept of community has been around for as long as humans have roamed the planet. Today, communities exist not only locally but virtually; and they play a key role in our work as ecosystem builders. As you will learn from Brad Feld, you can’t have an entrepreneurial ecosystem if you don’t have a community at its center. In part 1, we explore the meaning of “community” in entrepreneurial ecosystem building.

At least as much has been written about the importance of great leadership in organizations and systems. What I discovered, however, is that the notion of leadership is a completely different one in entrepreneurial ecosystem building. What’s more, we are not required to invest in leadership training, we already have what it takes to build, heal and nurture entrepreneurial ecosystems for social change, IF we approach our work with humility and a “willingness to care for the whole” – an expression you will become more familiar with in part 2. In fact, when it comes to building ecosystems for social change, I’m making an even more audacious demand: Stop with the problem solving already! I know, I know, most of our careers are built on the very notion of solving the world’s toughest challenges. But hear me out: We are here to build, nurture and grow communities from a context of generosity and gifts instead of defining them through their deficiencies, challenges and troubled pasts.

In this series, we’re diving deep into the role of community in entrepreneurial ecosystems (part 1), outline what effective community leadership means in our field before taking the conversation from a local level (part 2) to the systemic level of leading social and environmental change (part 3). As always, this series is not the end-all be-all of community leadership in entrepreneurial ecosystem building. I hope it serves as a solid foundation to further anyone’s understanding and I invite every reader to share her/his thoughts, additional reading and personal experiences with effective leadership in entrepreneurial ecosystems!

The role of community in entrepreneurial ecosystems

I have explored different schools of thought on entrepreneurial ecosystems (read more here).

The main definitions and concepts I rely on include the Rainforest analogy by Victor Hwang & Greg Horowitt, the Kauffman Foundation, Brad Feld and his field-defining work around startup communities as well as Peter Block’s foundational work around community building.

Hwang and Horwitt equate ecosystems thinking with a Rainforest:

A Rainforest is a human ecosystem in which human creativity, business acumen, scientific discovery, investment capital, and other elements come together in a special recipe that nurtures budding ideas so they can grow into flourishing and sustainable enterprises.

Hwang & Horowitt, 2012, p. 28

In their words, what is most important in an innovation ecosystem are not the ingredients – such as labor, land, and capital – but the recipe – how the ingredients are combined together. “The secret recipe of Rainforests, therefore, is about people and how they interact with one another.” (Ibid, p. 64). 

Closely aligned, the Kauffman Foundation defines an entrepreneurial ecosystem as follows:

The essence of an entrepreneurial ecosystem is its people and the culture of trust and collaboration that allows them to interact successfully. The ecosystem allows for the fast flow of talent, information, and resources so that entrepreneurs can quickly find what they need at each stage of growth.

Kauffman Foundation, 2019

In his most recent work, Brad Feld and his co-author Ian Hathaway define an entrepreneurial ecosystem as “a generalized structure that wraps around and depends on a startup community to give it life.” wherein the startup community is understood as

the beating heart of entrepreneurship in a city [which] sits at the core of an entrepreneurial ecosystem. The startup community has a collective identity, a shared sense of purpose, a common set of values and a deep belief in putting founders first. 

Feld & Hathaway, 2020, p. 76

All three of these approaches place the people and their relationships among each other at the very core of a functioning entrepreneurial ecosystem. For an entrepreneurial ecosystem to thrive, you need

a) the right actors and

b) the right conditions to create a culture of trust and collaboration (belonging).

With the community concept at the heart of entrepreneurial ecosystem building, I turned to Peter Block and his book “Community. The structure of belonging.” in which he emphasizes the central role of thriving communities to create an alternative future:

Each piece [of society] is working hard on its own purpose, but parallel effort added together does not make a community.

Block, 2012, p. 2

“Our communities are separated into silos; they are a collection of institutions and programs operating near one another but not overlapping or touching. This is important to understand because it is this dividedness that makes it so difficult to create a more positive or alternative future – especially in a culture that is much more interested in individuality and independence than interdependence.” (Block, 2018, p. 2-3). 

Communities: A collection of gifts and talents

Hwang and Horowitt point out early that “we are designed to trust people closer to us and distrust those further from us. Ironically, the greatest economic value is created in transactions between people who are the most different from one another.” (Hwang & Horwitt, 2012, p. 10) Social behaviors that enhance the “free flow of talent, ideas, and capital in a human network […] require that individuals rise above short-term selfishness and focus on long-term mutual gain.” (Ibid., p. 10)

Peter Block paints a picture of the stuck community defined by “scarcity, competition and individualism” (p. 29).

The dominant context we now hold is one of deficiencies, interests and entitlement. Out of this context grows the belief that the suffering of communities is a set of problems to be solved.

Block, 2012, p. 32

If you have ever been at a startup event where all people wanted to talk about were the shortcomings and elements of their city that aren’t as advanced as in other cities (“We want to be the next Boulder!”. Yawn…), you probably felt a tightening in your chest. I know I did. It’s not that they are untrue. But we must remember that they are not the full picture. We choose what story we want to tell about our community and it inevitably informs how we identify. So instead of a sobfest about what’s wrong and missing, choose a narrative that is forward-looking and positive.

In that vein, Block makes the case for shifting our conversations from retribution (marketing of fear and deficiencies) to restoration of communities. This is what this shift mindset shift should look like:

  • “We are a community of possibilities, not a community of problems.
  • Community exists for the sake of belonging, and it takes identity from the gifts, generosity and accountability of its citizens. It is not defined by its fears, its isolation or its penchant for retribution.
  • We currently have all the capacity, expertise, programs, leaders, regulations and wealth required to end unnecessary suffering and create an alternative future.” (Block, 2012, p. 30)

As ecosystem builders, if we want to build and nurture healthy communities at the core of our ecosystems, it is imperative that we figure out what makes a healthy community in which members feel that they belong – the foundation for trusting each other and collaborating with an eye toward the greater good.

What’s more, we have to let go of our obsession with problem solving. Engage in a constructive conversation about a community’s challenges, but then move on to imagining a future based on your community’s unique gifts and characteristics. 

Tell that positive story loud and often! As Peter Block says

“I have to hear it to believe it.”

Block, 2012, p. 69

Ready to dive deeper? Grab our resource guide on Community Leadership!


Image credit: Photo by Daniel Funes Fuentes on Unsplash