From vertical to horizontal: unleashing change through ecosystems

Deborah Rowland

In my Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change, I write of the changing context for change in today’s world: the collapse of the vertical – the crumbling faith in our institutions, the establishment, and their leaders; the power of the ground – an increased trust in devolved, lateral networks (compelled by digital technology and social media); and a distracted and divided attention – not just the frightening lowering of our present-moment attention spans that mobile devices bring, but also the countervailing (to joined up globalism) geopolitical force towards nationalism, self-identity, and a reassertion of local rights and independence.

Since I wrote Still Moving, these two polarizing forces – towards joining up and dividing up – have been played out vividly in bold national disruptions such as Brexit, and global anthropological crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In the latter, we witness the contrasting approaches from the world’s political leaders – reach out to others for a coordinated scientific and humanitarian response to the virus, or do one’s own thing, even projecting blame on to “the other.” How to know which is the more appropriate response, eco-system or ego-system?

Pioneering research with my colleagues over the past two decades into the nature of high magnitude change and its leadership, has thrown up a repeated finding: in contexts of high complexity, uncertainty and volatility, an ecosystem approach to change is the one most strongly correlated with success – and indeed can result in greater speed and agility. In this article, I will set out some key parameters for this change approach.

But first, the story of how I became an advocate.

The nature of leading change through ecosystems

I have spent my life fascinated by systems, especially human ones. While studying anthropology at university my emerging mind was influenced by the ecology of culture – how early human societies and their beliefs and traditions were shaped by their natural environment (the weather, geography, their interaction with the living world of plants and animals), and how those shifted over time through the growth of interconnected networks and increasingly complex “civilisation.”

In the late 1990s, now a change consultant advising a large multinational energy company, I was drawn to the “living systems” approach to organizational change championed by the likes of Peter Senge, Joseph Jaworski, and Meg Wheatley – an approach that invited us to see our human institutions less as programmable machines and more as complex adaptive systems, interacting in dynamic ways both within and without their environments. Peter Senge had the metaphor of a change leader as “gardener1,” someone who continually attends to the interaction between many (at times unpredictable) variables, humbly recognizing that their role is less to control the universe, but merely create the best conditions under which landscapes and organisms can flourish.

But it was when I read Steven Johnson’s Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software2, that I became hooked on how the principles of complex adaptive systems could be applied to institutional and societal change. A dizzying romp through fields as disparate as urban planning, neurology, and control theory, he wrote eloquently about how self-organising, mutually interacting, and bottom-up systems are changing the world. At the close of this book he had some concluding and intriguing what-if comments about the leadership of change: could our institutions’ leaders – be they corporate, governmental, scientific – adopt this more devolved, ecosystem approach to change, and what might they have to give up in their notions of top-down centrally governed change to do so?

I put down the book determined to find out if this could be done, as I had an inkling that change could be led in far more effortless ways if approached according to ecosystem principles. Here is my take on how to do so.

Find your energy source

Ecosystems turn their faces to the sun – a life-giving force in the habitats of the living world. The human solar equivalent is purpose – intentions radiate energy. In our research into ecosystem change, “Attractor” leadership is omnipresent. Coined from physics (“strange attractors” are forces such as gravity and black holes that exert incredible pulling power on all matter), leaders who create compelling intent galvanise the energy of their ecosystem.

They uncover this intention by closely tuning in to their organization, detecting any exerting tugs and pulls from its wider dynamic context, and from this create a compelling narrative about what is now being called for. This intense sense-making process is neither the ego trip of launching grand vision statements from on high, nor the fixation on precise controlled outcomes – its aim is to create a loosely held intention that can contain dynamic adaptive complexity.

One client, who happened to be in the energy sector, spent a whole year tuning in to the wider market, uncovering their consumers’ desire for greener, more locally controlled forms of energy, and discovering the technological advances for this kind of energy production. Based on this intense tuning into their ecosystem, they created a statement of intent: enabling the European energy transition (a far cry from “being the best energy company in the world”).

Furthermore, just as the sun rises each day to radiate our planet, those who master Attractor leadership continually permeate their ecosystems with purpose. Be that business performance reviews, customer conversations, daily team meetings, investment decision processes, even workplace layouts – all are infused by stories of the system’s guiding intention. One of our clients, a government benefits department, invited each member of staff across all locations to post up photos of real-life pensioners they served on every desk and office wall. As staff arrived each day, they turned their faces towards purpose.

Create definitive boundaries

Ecosystems have defined habitats. Plants and creatures learn to coexist within a territorial boundary, the over-stepping of which can be dangerous. Of course, each smaller habitat is nested within an ever-widening, joined up and interacting meta-habitat, but nonetheless, life and creativity is supported by the presence of boundary conditions.

Alongside the radiating power of intention, we have found that successful leadership of emergent, ecosystem change requires the establishment of a “few hard rules.” These rules enable adaptive self-organization and lift the shackles of top-down centralized control. Complexity theorists have modeled the hard rules of how flocks of birds can fly in creative swirling formation without the need for a feathered CEO (fly in the same direction as your neighbour, fly at the same speed as your neighbour, and don’t bump into anything). Wise change leaders know their task is not to call all the shots but instead build the capability of their whole ecosystem to adapt and innovate, independent of central control. By creating a set of hard rules to govern the micro-level behaviour of the system, especially rules that are culture-changing, devolved innovation becomes possible.

One leader we worked with transformed the performance of a business unit by creating the following behavioural hard rules: be pragmatic – focus on impact within your control; you are empowered to take action; create a sense of urgency – weeks not months; stop when it is good enough; be requiring of the center. In another example, concerning the COVID-19 pandemic “lockdown” requirement to stay at home, an enterprising Church of England Bishop issued the following hard rules: protect and support our neighbours; think about those suffering more than me; don’t give into panic and start hoarding food; live today to the full.

Innovation within ecosystems requires the containing power of structure – without definitive boundaries on how to act, energy dissipates and any anxiety created by uncertainty becomes destabilizing.

Pay attention to place

In living systems, every element has an essential place that gives strength to the whole. Soil produces nutrients for plants. Water carries and distributes nutrients. In biology, every cell has a function, and that function supports the whole body’s vitality. And each cell interacts with another – a mutation in one can quickly impact the whole system. Healthy ecosystems comprise multiple agents interacting in balance. Wise gardeners and foresters know the risks of removing vital insects, worms, or fallen trees.

Great change leaders recognize that their primary task is to create a flourishing organization where each part is seen to be vital, is in the right place, and can interact to sustain the health of the whole. Too often, we work in isolation and cannot see the bigger picture, imagining that what we are doing is perfectly OK (if a little suboptimal at times). One newly arrived change leader, a head of a customer services division that was in dire need of performance improvement, recognized the danger in this. He invited all his division’s units for the first time into one large room and asked them to stand up in a line, or chain, according to how close/distant they were from the customer, and according to the proximity of how they handed work over to each other. One by one, from their places in the system, they called out what work they did, and how their performance was rated. Each unit by and large had a performance score of 0.8, and of course, when you lined them up and multiplied each 0.8 by 0.8 by 0.8 … the poor customer at the end of the chain was not getting a great service.

This one simple intervention – of helping the parts see their places in the whole – transformed overnight the energy of this unit to serve the customer better.

Ecosystems also have levels: organism; species; community; the wider biosphere. Often, we see leaders in change wishing to overly collapse hierarchy, creating equal places for all. This is severely system-weakening, creating unnecessary ambiguity in decision-making and accountability. Even if this might feel squirmy, inviting leaders in a room to stand roughly in a line according to their hierarchy and level of system impact can enable greater leadership flow. In one organization, the hierarchy was flipped “right-side-up” and the customer was put at the top of the pyramid, with the frontline staff who served them at the next important level, and so on.

The key point here is not about command and control and status, but about helping each player in the ecosystem of your organization feel strong in their place and cognisant of how they relate to others in delivering the system’s purpose. Then, and only then, can whole systems collectively adapt.

The more the merrier

Biodiversity supports life – while each species in an ecosystem has a specific niche, a role to play, the number of different species in any given habitat predicts its ability to adapt. A larger number of plant species means a greater variety of crops. Greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability for all life forms. A key feature therefore of a complex adaptive ecosystem that can continually innovate is diversity.

Much effort is being placed today on ensuring diversity “in the boardroom” – especially with regards to gender and ethnicity. When leading change in increasingly complex and uncertain contexts, it is diversity of thinking and perception that counts. This does not necessarily mean sending executives on creative thinking courses, or hiring people from the outside with fresh perspectives. One organization we worked with sent their senior leaders out on “foraging expeditions” to external contexts – visiting places, companies, communities that were totally different to their own ecosystem but ones that contained elements of their emerging future – be that strategy, mindset, or technology. This cultivated external networks and contacts that were going to be pivotal for future new business alliances. Pulling off their purpose was going to require multilateral alliances, ever-expanding ecosystems.

So, while ecosystems require boundary conditions, it is often at the periphery of the system where most innovation occurs – not the center. Any change effort that is run through hierarchical layers, or vertical silos, will lose out. Instead, implement change via a “whole system approach.” This means gathering a representative sample of the whole ecosystem in your change effort. I once worked with four separate hospitals in the UK’s National Health Service who were being merged into one acute trust. The enlightened CEO realized that getting the same old same old change project team together was not going to pull this off. Instead, each last Friday of the month, she would open the space for anyone across the hospital system to come join her at a 2-hour gathering to plan and guide the merger. All kinds of people came out of the woodwork to input to what mattered deeply to them – so much so that she had to keep booking larger and larger meeting rooms!

And one of the most pivotal moments in the change process came when one of the hospital porters spoke up from the patient perspective. This individual knew far more about how to provide optimal patient care than anyone else present. It can be surprising where intelligence can come from when you fully engage with the rich diversity of an ecosystem.

Cultivate rabbit warrens

Ecosystems are joined-up places with rich lateral networks that can spread spores, vital intelligence, nutrients.

Networks also serve to protect, they provide spaces to meet and greet and reproduce in safety. Likewise, in organizational ecosystems, we have found change spreads most rapidly through devolved, horizontal networks – it’s debilitating, humiliating, and time-consuming to go up and down long vertical chains of command.

One organization we worked with, whose entity was facing massive market disruption, realized that they had to uproot their traditional vertical stovepipes culture if they were to survive and thrive. Their change required a rapid, joined-up, systemic approach. They tried many top-down (expensive) change programmes and initiatives within separate divisions, but the one they say had the most power to deliver rapid change was the simple setting up of “peer groups” across their organization. First, they took their 360-strong senior leadership population and divided them up into ten waves of 36 leaders – each a cross-section of department, geography, and level. These waves experienced an enriching and intense collective leadership experience. The waves were then further split into small groups of 6-7 leaders, again representing a fractal of the whole organization – that periodically met to sustain their learning and application from the leadership programme. These peer groups became little life rafts for the organization in the choppy seas of high magnitude change.

The enriching human contact that these lateral waves and peer groups created across the enterprise built trust, open-mindedness, collective (less wasteful) solutions, and empowered decision-making. I wouldn’t hesitate, if options were limited, to design an entire change process solely based on the establishment and cultivation of lateral organizational networks – it shifted the discourse, and produced cultural change that enabled their organization to launch the fastest-ever IPO in their nation’s history.

Life is tough

Ecosystems can be harsh. They contain seemingly random yet certainly uncontrollable events. Predators lurk. Weather conditions produce extreme events that can devastate life on earth. There will be natural cycles of birth, growth, death, and decay. Yet such natural cycles result in regeneration and new life forms. Our ancestors might have tried to beat ecological fate by offering sacrifices to the Gods, but I speculate that they were more able to face – if not agree to – difficulty as a part of the natural rhythm of life.

Successful change leaders today understand that all big change comes with an accompanying cost – there is always a price, not just a prize, in change. Very often, activities need to be discarded, old loyalties to certain behaviours broken. We define change as “the disturbance of repeating patterns” and this means people being able to be comfortable with discomfort. We have found that the leadership practice most associated with successful change is what we call “Edge and Tension” – the capacity to openly and cleanly talk about (difficult) reality. While we are neurologically wired to repeat past coping patterns and be wary of change, not going towards discomfort can be far less safe. Change flows when tough truths are named.

One organization we worked with, going through significant change, created a “scare-o-meter” device. At the start of every leadership meeting they would invite people to write up on a post-it note what was most concerning them right now, and which felt very difficult to voice. In silence, they each individually posted up their notes onto one large board. We then invited the leaders to rank them according to the level of “scariness” of the topic. Once that was done, and they stood back and fully took in what most needed to be faced in their change process, all the anxiety associated with the difficulty of the topics lost its hold on people.

Great change leaders don’t give out false hopes; they calmly face the truth of a situation. And at times, this might mean hardship, getting smaller/poorer, and even facing the eventual shut-down of activities that no longer serve.

Waste not, want not

In thriving ecosystems, nothing goes to waste. While producers such as plants convert energy from the sun into nutrients, which consumers such as the animal kingdom and ourselves gratefully receive, eventually we decay and die. In then come the decomposers such as earthworms and fungi that break down dead plants and animals, returning vital nutrients to the soil.

Successful change leaders too are mulchers. We have found another stand-out skill to be what we call, “Acknowledge the Whole.” This is the capacity to give everything that happens – and especially difficult experiences – a place and a purpose. I still vividly recall working with the head of a bank and his leadership team who requested a “cathartic” session to get out all the niggles and difficult emotions that were seeping through their company (they were the target for an acquisition). On one large wall, we created a systems map of the difficult events they had recently experienced and what lay beneath these events in terms of patterns, structures, and mental models. They thought they were done when this had been completed. There was more to come. I labelled this large map “trash” – items they wished to get rid of, and then on the wall next to it, wrote up a new label, “compost.” I invited them to spend the next hour deeply honouring what had been put into the trash, and to answer the question, “in what way has all of this been helpful?”. This led to a deeply respectful acknowledgement of the value of the difficulty – they had become more resilient, it had taught them what really matters, it had brought them closer, it had revealed the organizational assumptions that needed addressing.

From that moment on, they led their organization from a wiser, more compassionate place, calming down the corporate amygdala so that people became less anxious, and more curious, about what the future might hold.

Our mission at Still Moving is to engender the more responsible leadership of change. If leaders could lead their systems from an ecosystem perspective, change might become more effortless, humane, and in tune with the natural order of the world.

Deborah Rowland ( has led change in major global organizations including Shell, Gucci Group, BBC Worldwide, and PepsiCo. She also founded and grew a consulting firm that pioneered research in the field, and acts as a coach to the executive boards of major corporations. She is coauthor of Sustaining Change: Leadership That Works (Wiley, 2008) and author of Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change (Wiley, 2017). She is a member of the Archbishop’s Review Group into leadership development in the Church of England.


1 Peter Senge et al, The Dance of Change, Currency, 1999.

2 Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Penguin, 2002