A Research Compass: Platform-Ecosystem Thinking in 2023

In this article, we recap on what’s been on our action-research radar in the last year or so. We hope that this recap provides you with a clearer idea about why following Boundaryless work is significant for you as a professional and as an organization.

Simone Cicero

Emanuele Quintarelli

Luca Ruggeri

Stina Heikkilä

June 29, 2023


Summer breaks are always good moments to reflect, take some time to breathe, and start afresh with new directions. It’s often more difficult to stop and zoom out during the winter break as projects are often in full swing and the festivities are generally dedicated to families and friends

At Boundaryless we took a moment to sit down and look back at what we published over the last 12 months, in terms of action-research essays and overlapping with the fourth season of the Boundaryless Conversations podcast. The podcast itself is now looking into restructuring its focus and structure over the next few months and a compassing exercise was due.

The analysis of our most recent work brings up five key elements of the compass:

  • AI and other technological enablers
  • A new product management framing
  • Building Ecosystemically
  • Software-powered Organizational Evolutions
  • A new Organizational Focus on Resilience

This compassing is a result of a year of work that has been clearly influenced by what we’ve been seeing happening in the market, from what some of our direct customers and adopters have signaled, and from the overall trends captured in our curation newsletter.

We’ve certainly spotted many drivers of change in the last 12 months but the two that – to our understanding – stood out the most are generally the emergence of AI and other related technosocial enablers as well as a powerful shift in organizational focus towards integrating resilience and antifragility. In this review we’ll look into the compass through a clockwise lens, we’ll start from the first point and we’ll land on the latter.

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AI: the lacking ingredient to definitively unlock the impact of composability

The first topic has been so clearly visible that it doesn’t even deserve much introductory description. It’s worth framing though which one of the aspects of the prepotent emergence of AI in the public discourse we believe affect the most the space of research that Boundaryless is more concerned about, that of product and organization design.

Despite the discussion around AI has been wide-ranging, two topics stood out the most in our eyes. First, the capability that AI has shown to – at least partially – automate key processes and amplify humans dealing with complex tasks such as writing code. The promise in this space is to massively increase the impact that good design and good architecture can have, widely impacting productivity. Furthermore, and probably even more importantly in terms of impacts on org and product design, AI is showing enormous potential with regard to supporting the integration of otherwise disconnected software pieces and data structures. ChatGPT plug-ins have pioneered the space demonstrating how LLMs can be used to interpret and use APIs and what you can achieve with self-configuration and no-code techniques is now astonishing.

Key questions that are emerging in this space are regarding understanding better how – the new enablers in AI – are going to allow designers and entrepreneurs to tap directly into the customer for her to directly express her needs to an AI-enabled interpreter, bypassing a large part of the software development process. The key question here is to understand if – across the board from consumer to business contexts – the idea of interacting conversationally with programming and customizing software solutions is going to be a viable option for the future.

The implication of such questions are huge, especially as this trend collides with two major trends that are already incumbent on the tech landscape: the progressive modularization of the market and the emergence of a plethora of so-called #NoCode tools with low-cognitive barriers, offering the possibility to users to bundle up and shape technology to serve their evolving personalized needs.

Go Deeper:

Key Research Questions Emerging:

  • How are the new enablers in AI allowing us to explore patterns of directly customer-driven software development? Is conversational programming really going to become a viable option?
  • How do you build products that deliberately target “joint customer needs” (across products)?
  • How do you evolve product thinking in a context where customers can achieve much more customer-driven customization? What’s the role of UX and Design Systems in this setting?

Framing of Platform-Product Design and Management

The growing potential of bundling products in a customer-driven way and connecting them through no-code tooling has already been captured by the industry. In a recent interview, we held with Hubspot’s Scott Brinker – followed by an essay that deeply dove into the implications from a product design and org development perspective – we already explained how product strategists that approach the market nowadays must always think about their products as “connected” to other ones.

In a few words, teams need to develop the capabilities to design for what Brinker calls “joint customer needs” i.e. seeing that their products are always targeting customers that don’t just use one product to cater to all their needs but rather use a combination of those that can be integrated at various depths: some could be extensions of a single product, others can be different products that connect through APIs and for others, the combination could happen through external tooling.

Along the lines of these insights, we’re capturing a mounting interest in seeing strategy and product development as deeply interactive and social processes. This is the point: markets push for more modular approaches to product development, more variety, and composability therefore organizations look increasingly into building portfolios of products. As an organization moves into portfolio development new needs emerge. More specifically: the need to create shared languages and map the domains of opportunity that the company is targeting, create shared market maps, and common practices to exchange and learn more easily. Even more importantly, having common portfolio representations, and enacting a certain taxonomy in products to facilitate product bundling and upselling, becomes a crucial task.

Go Deeper:

Key Research Questions Emerging:

  • How are contemporary organizations supposed to think about portfolio and product taxonomies?
  • How are products and organizations overlapping?
  • How does the practice of platform design evolve to fit into multi-product organizations where not everything can or should be a platform?

Increasing unpredictability calls for radical unbundling

The need to increase an organization’s product optionality is also coming from the increasing unpredictability of markets: organizations need to be seen more organically, designed and operated with intentional, built-in capability to resist market shocks and be able to rebound stronger as the market cancels and presents new opportunities.

As a result, we end up with portfolio-based, product-centric organizations. Such organizations tend to be organized in a “fractal” way: product divisions often manage their own profit and loss and are independent and self-managed. At a higher level, a strategic capital allocation function keeps seeding new units to improve optionality and helps them to evolve from the onset towards finding product-market fit. Ancillary organizational elements such as shared capabilities, shared practices, playbooks, and portfolio maps help ensure a certain level of coherence.

But how to organize it? What artifacts to use? To respond to this question we’re seeing a flourishing experimentation. As we’ve identified before organizations face a trilemma: despite the we want to optimize adaptability (to an ever-changing market), autonomy (to leverage increasingly capable small teams and individuals powered by technology), and brand and organizational coherence, we’re learning that this is no small feat and tradeoffs operate between these strategic objectives.

Some organizations are adopting Scaled Agile Frameworks – such as SAFe, LESS, Flight Levels, and others to try to enact a certain level of consistency across value streams and products. Others are more aggressive at pursuing a unit-first organizational structure that doesn’t care much about coherence, in favor of adaptability.

Generally, the latter run investment and strategy/portfolio capabilities centrally (as anticipated above) and leave product units to develop their own best organizational structure. Such structure often ends up replicating the product shape in a “reverse Conway Maneuver” where the product units structure mimics either the nature of the business model (for example a marketplace unit ends up organizing according to the two sides that want to attract) or of some strategic outcomes (as it is often with growth teams).

Click on the image below to join the conversation about Simone’s comments on SAFe

Go Deeper:

Key Research Questions Emerging:

  • Is a certain idea of Team-based organizing (Team OS) with Teams that collaborate between orgs really viable? And what’s the enabling software layer to make this possible?
  • What are the core techniques and key processes of organizational unbundling
  • How are the worlds of Scaled Agile / Large Scale Agile, DevOps, and other state-of-the-art practices connected with the Organizational Unbundling and entrepreneurial organizing patterns present in the 3EO?
  • How can organizations work at portfolio and taxonomy levels to achieve a certain level of unbundling for optionality while at the same time keeping an acceptable level of coherence and predictability in developing the portfolio?

Scaling up and outside

Along the lines of organizations evolving to become more like “swarms” of independent product units that achieve coherence at the portfolio level, we’re seeing a natural evolution to think about what should happen at the “border” of the organization.

Increasingly, we’re faced with strategic objectives related to developing a coherent approach to partnering and nurturing ecosystems of collaboration beyond a single organization. For organizations to think about positioning their standards and products at the center of the ecosystem and achieving broader interoperability around them is a strategic driver that is coming from at least three directions.

First, building on the lesson of extensions, templates, and application ecosystems and marketplaces organizations have understood that creating open interfaces, and open systems can potentially position them in the center of massive ecosystemic opportunities. Even if the strategic playbook is challenging and not 100% clear yet – the success stories are too big to not be seen as inspirations: think of how Google’s Android or WordPress succeeded to build entire industries around them, now powering around the majority of their reference markets.

Furthermore, policymakers are starting to enact policies that enforce the adoption of common operating layers to make common grounds to increase competition and reduce lock-ins. India is paving the way for this work with initiatives such as India Stack or ONDC that have been widely discussed and are making impressive progress in ensuring the Indian market for digital services is kept open to innovations, price accessible and that can’t be captured by monopolizing players.

Third, pioneers are increasingly understanding how to use patterns emerging from the so-called web3 space where new ideas are emerging around approaches to financing, building, and governing shared infrastructures, creating protocol-based ecosystems that provide a level playing field for different players to build concurrent and – at the same time – inter-operating instances of a product.

Go Deeper:

Key Research Questions Emerging:

  • Do protocols and hyperstructures afford new ways to potentially reduce unnecessary competition in markets and society? How do we integrate them into the org strategy?
  • Can Web3 enable new design capabilities through new design patterns? What are the benefits of moving “on-chain”?
  • How can on-chain enablers be made available as design elements and reconnected to developing orgs and products?
  • Can we see Web3 and protocols as extensions of the concept of developer ecosystems and extension platforms? How do we design ecosystem strategies beyond the single organizations, across organizations build on shared foundations?
  • What is the role of open registries such as ONDC, that policymakers can impose or organizations can adopt to improve their influence in the industry?
  • How should designers think about the transition between inside and outside the organization when designing taxonomies, product types, and extensions?

A Software-powered Organizational Evolution

Web3 and the new possibilities afforded by moving into an “on-chain” development approach, with smart contracting platforms, open interfaces, and tradable assets provide new design capabilities that we’re still familiarizing with. We expect profound impacts of those enablers on both our approaches to product-platform design (learning how to use on-chain capabilities such as tokenization and smart-contract automation inside the product and go-to-market strategy) and on the organizational development layer.

In a few words: adopting blockchain technologies can enable new ways of designing products, enabling for example easier integration between two products, shared identities, and inter-platform asset trading but also different ways to think about operational models at the org level.

The ways smart contracts can extend automation beyond software development, provisioning, and testing – contexts traditionally related to the DevOps movement – into new realms such as contract negotiation with suppliers, revenue distribution to employees, equity sharing among investors, and more, makes it possible to envision a future where trustware (self-executing, blockchain-based contract code) can complement socialware – i.e. all the social agreements and collaboration practices that are needed to run a team.

As a consequence, we envision a future of organizations going beyond traditional org structures towards more team-based work, with primitives of organizing including contracting, revenue, and outcome sharing, equity distribution, salary distribution, decision making, etc… increasingly available as protocol-based, platform-based and productized in SaaS platforms that – hopefully – operate on top of shared protocols to enhance interoperability.

Experiments around this idea of a TeamOS are not just happening around the DAO and Web3 space (which is bubbling with them) but increasingly also in corporate space, where projects such as A-Team are making it possible for corporate organizations to hire and discharge a team on demand.

Go Deeper:

Key Research Questions Emerging:

  • Are Smart Contracts potential extensions of the concept of DevOps?
  • What’s the potential of the emergence of Trustware (complete, on-chain smart contracts) protocols and platforms both inside and in between orgs?

The Background is Shifting

Lastly, these deep transformations are all happening in a context where the overall systems are shifting in perplexing and hardly anticipatable ways. A few years ago Ideo’s Tim Brown – referring to the work of the designer – said that:

“The context used to be we were designing things within systems that were relatively stable. Now we’re designing things when the systems themselves need designing.”

This quote perfectly frames how much is difficult to see our work as strategists, entrepreneurs, and designers be enacted in the world today, as the world itself is facing a rising amount of paradoxes, and unpredictabilities. The impression we have had in the last year is that this work requires a deep questioning of the formal assumptions we have taken for decades – if not centuries to embrace what Bonnitta Roy called – on our podcast – a post-formal perspective.

Seems like an entire field – that of institutional renewal, through constant prototyping – is at the onset: we need a tremendous amount of institutional innovation – new organizations, new practices, new agreements, new media – and we’re barely scratching the surface yet.

In parallel with this perplexity, we see new concepts emerging to carry a vision of what this “post-formal” should be: beyond social and environmental sustainability, beyond circularity – ideas that have proven insufficient to frame humanity’s problematic relationship with markets externalities devastating our own livelihoods and societies – ideas of “regeneration” are emerging.

Still, for as much as the idea of regeneration is a hopeful tart it lacks a common ground and common understanding. The field of regeneration in particular is at risk of bastardization and capture while, we believe, should rather be a field where radical experimentation should be enacted.

At Boundaryless we envision experimentations to come around self-organization around production chains, especially around fundamental economies through the emergence of new, mutualistic organizational models.

On the other hand, we also think that existing organizational models, corporate, non-profit, and public, should and will integrate and operate in subsidiarity with new distributed models of production that are more localized and embedded in place, with the aim of reducing supply chain length and impacts. Overall production, we believe, will shift to reduce reliance on centralized, highly critical nodes that, if impacted by largely unpredictable environmental and social disruptions, can generate catastrophic impacts.

We believe that more experimentation on product and organizational models that involves commons infrastructures, open networks, and subsidiarity among the different levels can provide some answers to both: achieving more resilience and generating regenerative outcomes that can help construct more embedded and resilient wealth for the organizations and citizens of the 21 Century.

Go Deeper

Key Research Questions Emerging:

  • In the emerging context, what are the new epistemic approaches to developing organizations?
  • Are new organizational forms going to play a role in subsidiarity and interoperability with existing industrial models?
  • What does really mean to embrace a regenerative approach beyond greenwashing?
  • How can/should self-production and mutualism be used by citizens, designers, and organizations to create viable alternatives or in subsidiarity to industrial players and market-driven economies?

Conclusions and Following the Research

Click on the image above (or here) to get access to a Miro board where you can click through reads and podcast episodes.

In this post, we recapped what’s been on our action-research radar in the last year or so. We hope that this recap provides you with a clearer idea about why following Boundaryless work is significant for you as a professional. To follow our upcoming releases:

  • Check our PDT and 3EO training

Get in touch if your organization is interested in pioneering some of our key ideas in product and platform design and development and organizational transformation.

Join or pre-register for one of our upcoming training for the second half of the year

Buy your ticket for the upcoming 8th 3EO/Rendanheyi masterclass and the upcoming 12th Platform Design Bootcamp.

Simone Cicero

Emanuele Quintarelli

Luca Ruggeri

Stina Heikkilä

June 29, 2023

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