Learning from Nature
“For over a decade, we've been living in a society bloated by its own success and excess, congratulating each other on how successful everything has been. Property prices were going to climb for ever, debt was treated as cash for free and technology was going to sort all of our problems. The problem is that we have been ignoring the costs that been paid for a shallow success that's only been measured in financial and material terms. Never has the opportunity for change been as great as it is now as the political, financial, social and environmental needs for common sense outcomes converge towards a single point.”
And now this is where the Wise Mother Nature steps in. Let us take her caring hand and be inspired by her ways.
Engaging with Nature to unlock our creative potential
In times of rapid change we can look to nature for solutions and guidance. Nature has been adaptive and innovative for over 3.5bn years so it knows how to deal with rapid shifts and solve problems. How does nature do risk for example? Or how does nature do communication; Innovation; Leadership and governance? How does nature do marketing; Waste management; Resilience to change, or how nature would optimise outcomes with limited resources, and much more?
As it has so correctly been observed*, the world's ecological, social and economic crises are as much a crisis of spirit as a crisis of resources. Part of the crisis of spirit is because modern society and industry tends to perceive the Earth as a set of resources, and then values it as such. What scope is there for this paradigm to change in order to perceive the Earth as an animate, living system in which humans play a constructive, not destructive, part?
Thus, in order to live differently, to lead a better life, we must search for a better path and begin to think differently. This relates to the way that we see ourselves in the world.
Just as our need to transform business is now becoming apparent, so is our need to transform our engagement with, and response to, nature. Understanding our relationship with nature can help business to transform, and the patterns and principles of nature can provide insight into how best to future-proof companies for an unpredictable future.
All organisations operate within a community – an environment of interconnections – as do the people within organisations. The age-old adage "No man is an island" is the same for an organisation. In fact, just like an ecosystem in nature, the more diverse the relationships and resources an organisation makes use of, the more resilient it becomes.
In building a bridge between nature and business, we start to re-ignite our vital bond with nature.
What do organisations of the future look like?
Collaborative, innovative, networking, emergent, dynamic organisations more akin to living organisms. There are a plethora of nature's insights that can be applied to business – all that is lacking is the ability to convert these insights into a business frame. For example:
• Mycelium networks provide insight for a responsive and adaptive organisation.
• Nature (and business) is emergent and interconnected, not predictable and linear.
• Nature does not do waste; waste of one is food for another.
• Natural ecosystems develop niches where every aspect of the material throughput is used.
A business inspired by nature is one that is resilient, optimising, adaptive, systems-based, values-led, and life supporting – these are "nature's business principles".
These principles do not seek to reduce organisational behaviour to biology; rather, they suggest a set of behaviours and qualities that simply echo the law of the system – Earth – upon which our lives and our businesses depend. They recognise the complexity of human nature and nurture, and are neither a model nor a theory, but rather a philosophy that reminds us that, while humans are a special species on Earth, we are still part of nature and subject to its law. If we do not conduct our business within the constraints of the system, we will inevitably go out of business. The circular economy, industrial ecology, cradle-to-cradle, the learning organisation and bio-mimicry all share a common foundation: they take inspiration from nature.
What is desperately lacking in today's framing of sustainable business, and for that matter wider business transformation, is a language and engagement approach for business people to unlock nature's wisdom and, in so doing, re-enchant ourselves with nature – re-establishing our vital bond with our environment.
By framing experiences people have with nature and giving examples of business inspired by nature, we can reconnect business and nature. To do this, skills and expertise from multi-disciplines are needed: biology, eco-psychology and business change, for instance. This fusion of skillsets, with the right vision and mission, can help equip local, national and global business people with the wherewithal they need to adapt, innovate, embrace change and engage in meaningful business transformation towards a sustainable future.
OK. So far so good. But pertinent questions now surely must be: How should businesses look to nature for inspiration to ensure survival in today’s volatile times, to be sustainable, efficient and profitable? How can they journey toward strategic renewal by implementing ‘natural business strategies’ into their business models?
As it is been commented**, we must make no mistake: The transformation from a firm of the past to a firm of the future is challenging, especially while operating amid of a perfect storm of social, economic and environmental volatility. Successful transformation requires courage, not fear. The more we understand and explore our own business environments and wider business ecosystems (as well as our own inner motives and values) the more we find pathways for success – learning through doing, growth through experience, success through failure. Looking around us in nature and human nature, we find enablers to assist us; catalysts which aid and optimise the transformational journey. Four primary catalysts for transformation are: collaboration, innovation, education and inspiration. Let's explore each in turn:
There has been much written recently about collaboration and co-operation. In fact, this coming decade has been referred to as the decade of co-operation, a time when business executives recognise the power of collaboration and co-operation over competition. It is a myth that nature has evolved over millions of years of combat and competitive struggle; more its evolution is down to networking and partnerships.
Of course there has been, and always will be competition in life, yet evolution benefits far more from collaboration than it does from competition. So does our business environment. We are witnessing a shift in mentality and behaviour from the past approach of "dog eat dog" competition between businesses, business units, and employees to the future approach of collaboration across multi-functional teams, departments, organisations and business ecosystems: interconnectedness rather than separateness, collaboration rather than competition.
Collaboration encourages the transcending of traditional boundaries used to atomise and separate teams, departments, business units and organisations; it interconnects artificial separations in business, encouraging sharing, creativity, empowerment and innovation.
The more we recognise the interconnectedness of the business environment – viewing it as a web of interdependent relationships within interconnected business ecosystems – the more we realise that collaboration (not competition) is key to our resilience and survival in these volatile times. In nature, which has been dealing with dynamic change for over 3.8bn years, we find it is the species that collaborate and interconnect more with their respective ecosystems that are more resilient to changes in their environment; the ecosystem they live in becomes more resilient the more interconnected the stakeholders are within that ecosystem. Ditto for business.
"Cooperation is the architect of creativity throughout evolution, from cells to multi-cellular creatures to anthills to villages to cities. Without cooperation there can be neither construction nor complexity in evolution."
Increased market volatility brings with it the need to create, develop and adapt new products and services under time-pressured conditions. In short, innovation is a critical success factor for the future – organisations able to innovate effectively, time and again shall win out over organisations that struggle to adapt. Innovation is fundamental to evolution in all walks of life, not just in business, but for all living species. The good news is human nature is opportunistic and curious by nature; it is in our genes to seek out new and better ways of operating.
The firm of the future creates the conditions conducive for creativity by building a culture that facilitates, empowers, unlocks and supports people's creative potential; an organisation that encourages people to overcome fears and inhibitions, where the work dynamic is of constant evolution, where failure is not criticised but embraced for what it is – an opportunity to learn, adapt and evolve.
Of course, collaboration greatly helps innovation by sharing the burden across a wider group of stakeholders. In nature, organisms evolve best within diverse groups of interconnected specie and likewise, in business an organisation's ability to innovate improves with collaboration amongst a diverse stakeholder group. While economies of scale may bring the benefits of lower unit cost of production, economies of scope bring benefits of increased synergies through greater connections, hence improved innovation. Balancing the benefits of economies of scale with the benefits of economies of scope is crucial for the survival of the firm of the future.
Embracing new approaches to ways of operating is facilitated through an understanding and trust in what, why and how change affects the stakeholders and their respective communities. Ensuring all stakeholder communities are engaged, aware and educated in this transformational journey will greatly optimise the transformative process. A deeper understanding and a greater sense of belonging is needed, rather than just being aware of the upcoming changes we need to empathise with what it means, why it is happening and how it affects the ecosystem of stakeholders involved.
This deeper understanding not only helps the transformation within the department or wider organisation, but also across the interconnected network of stakeholders which the organisation is part of – its business ecosystem.
By educating individuals to a level where there is a true understanding of the values and direction of the transformational journey, these individuals become proponents for change. They are able to educate the other stakeholders they interact with as part of their daily business. The understanding of the transformation, the why and how of it, becomes viral if it is grounded in trust and truth. Hence, the values of the organisation need to deeply resonate with the stakeholders, to strike a chord of belief beyond the goal of short term profit maximisation.
Keeping stakeholders in the dark or only partially aware will only come back to haunt and in turn water down the effectiveness of the transformational journey. This does not mean to say that complete clarity of where the organisation shall be in one or two years time from now is needed, it is more that people truly understand the reasons for change, the drivers for transformation and the value-set of the organisation.
The transformation is more about the journey than the destination, with plots on the course helping to steer a path through choppy water, whilst remaining open and flexible to changes in wind, swells and tide. A firm of the future has a culture that is rooted in values, where leadership is values-based and where the awareness of right and wrong behaviour is second nature. Organisations that encourage the right mentality, by living and breathing their values, ensure that openness, awareness, acceptance and motivation for transformation follow.
We are entering uncharted waters. We are on the cusp of major transformative change, socially, economically and environmentally. Few business leaders have witnessed volatility of the likes we are now faced with. It is as if we are walking in a dark forest at night with only candle light to illuminate a path ahead of us. The candle light allows for vision which brings comfort that our steps ahead are not too perilous, keeping us moving forward even if we are weary and fearful.
Inspiration can come from any and all of us – whether it a visionary CEO committing to zero-emissions by 2020, a new sustainable product line exceeding revenue expectations, a neighbouring plant successfully implementing new sustainable technologies, or a colleague taking time out from a pressing schedule to brainstorm with another in a time of need.
We do not have to be inspired by visionaries or great leaders. In these transformational times, we need to inspire ourselves and the ones around us by simply walking-the-talk and being true to the values of the organisations and communities we serve. The more we look for examples of inspiration within our own business ecosystems, the more we find, and in turn the more we inspire ourselves to be the change we want to see.
The above excerpts are taken from the two original articles below:
And now a heart-felt plea to my academic colleagues and friends at business schools, departments of economics and MBA programmes all over the world:
Please let us not forget about the “Nature of Business- Transformational Change: Business inspired by nature”.
As noted throughout this Blog, a perfect storm of social, economic and environmental factors mean increased volatility for our working environments. In these transformational times our organisations are being challenged to ‘redesign for resilience’. As for example, Giles Hutchins in his book ‘The Nature of Business’ has so eloquently shown, organisations that seek out opportunities in these challenging times by redesigning for resilience are best able to survive and thrive the volatile times ahead. Firms of The Future are Businesses Inspired by Nature, applying ecological thinking for radical transformation at all levels of organisational design and behaviour.
Therefore, my friends, I invite you to design and offer modules on the relationship between a successful business and Mother Nature, the original entrepreneur, and the original guide to living wisely.
These modules should look at how nature is inspiring innovations that: increase energy and resource productivity; eliminate the concept of waste; catalyse the shift from product to service-oriented economies; build natural and social capital, and enhance business resilience. They should also provide an opportunity to think more philosophically about the natural world and our place within it, and to explore contested narratives about people and nature and how diverse perspectives are embedded in policies, institutions, leadership styles and business models.
Your friend in humility,