Resilient business can take inspiration from nature
In a volatile business climate, companies can gain advantage by learning from natural rules
Since the industrial revolution, we have achieved great feats of economic, social and technological advancement for which we can be proud. However, these are volatile times and new challenges now face our businesses, economies and societies, relating to resource scarcity, environmental destruction, social inequality, economic volatility and ever-increasing population pressures.
Our current business paradigm has exacerbated the imbalances, tensions and volatility we face today. Albert Einstein observed: “We cannot solve the problems in the world with the same level of thinking that brought them about in the first place.” To operate in the world we now live in we need fresh approaches to businesses that are fit for the present and future. The re-evaluation and transformation of our business paradigm is fundamental to the successful evolution not only of business, but of our species as a whole.
Today’s rapidly changing business environment calls for businesses that thrive in rapidly changing environments: businesses more akin to living systems. These ‘firms of the future’ can learn and adapt; they are not centralised, hierarchic and siloed, which stifles learning and agility. These organisations are distributed, decentralised, interdependent, multifunctional, emergent, self-organising ecosystems of diverse stakeholders. Put simply, the business models and management approaches that served us well in the past are no longer fit for purpose.
New horizons are created through new ways of thinking, perceiving and attending to ourselves, each other and wider life – it is up to the individuals within these organisations to co-create a new logic. This shift in logic is what the business strategist Peter Senge calls The Necessary Revolution which is the biggest challenge facing organisational management and leadership today. Without this radical shift in thinking, Senge says, we will be unable to transform successfully towards a sustainable future; in other words, we will utterly fail in our evolution.
The years to 2020 will see organisations that ‘get it’ adapting and evolving, and those that do not perishing or being acquired. Bold firms of the future do not try to tightly manage change, they empower a culture of collaboration to unlock the creative potential of their people, their partners and the communities they serve, initiating virtuous cycles of collaboration, innovation and value creation for all stakeholders. The result: more value-creation and higher well-being.
Dawn Vance, director of global logistics at Nike, says: “Organisations have three options: hit the wall; optimise and delay hitting the wall; or, redesign for resilience – simultaneously optimising existing networks whilst creating disruptive innovations and working collaboratively with partners.”
It is this ‘redesigning for resilience’ that drives the transformation to a firm of the future. The firm of the future is one that:
· Drives transformation through values-based leadership and stakeholder empowerment using the catalysts of education, innovation, inspiration and collaboration.
· Encourages synergies across its business ecosystem, engaging with multiple stakeholders in an open, transparent way; where common values create connections enabling mutualism.
· Harnesses the power of social networks and the ‘pull’ media; uses crowd sourcing, co-creation, open source collaboration platforms and transparent branding for differentiation.
· Evolves ecological thinking for innovating new ways of operating and generating value for every stakeholder within the community it serves; where waste equals food and nature inspires people, processes, products and places.
Biomimicry for Creative Innovation, a collaboration of specialists applying ecological thinking for business transformation, has developed a set of business principles for the firm of the future, developed from the ‘life principles’ created by the Biomimicry Institute. These business principles are inspired by nature.
Build resilience: It’s more effective to build resilience than to correct poor risk-based decisions that were made with partial information. A business inspired by nature builds resilience by:
- Using change and disturbance as opportunities rather than fearing them as threats.
- Decentralising, distributing and diversifying knowledge, resources, decision making and actions.
- Fostering diversity in people, relationships, ideas and approaches.
Optimise: Optimising delivers better results than maximising or minimising. A business inspired by nature does this by:
· Creating forms that fit functions, not the other way around.
· Embedding multiplicity into both functions and responses.
· Creating complexity and diversity using simple components and patterns.
Adapt: Being adaptive pays back better than staying on a fixed course. A business inspired by nature adapts by:
· Creating feedback loops to sense and respond at all levels of the system.
· Anticipating and integrating cyclic processes.
· Being resourceful and opportunistic when resource availability changes.
Integrate systems: With limited resources and a changing environment, it’s better to be systems-based rather than independent. A business inspired by nature works with whole systems by:
· Fostering synergies within communities.
· Fostering synergies within energy, information and communication networks.
· Creating extended systems to continuously recycle wastes into resources.
Navigate by values: In uncertain times, it’s better to be based on a compass of values than a fixed destination point or set of predefined metrics. A business inspired by nature reflects values by:
· Knowing what’s really important to the communities it operates in, interacts with, and impacts on.
· Using values as the core driver towards positive outcomes.
· Measuring what is valued rather than valuing what is measured.
Support life: In the long run, it takes less effort and fewer resources to support life-building activities than to be damaging or toxic and pick up the cost later. A business inspired by nature supports life-building activity by:
· Leveraging information and innovation rather than energy and materials.
· Creating support for individual components that can support the whole ecosystem; supporting the ecosystem so that it can support the individual.
· Making products water-based, renewable, bio-based, and biodegradable.
These business principles build on a wide set of existing business theories and are not aimed at providing perfection in organisational design (if such would ever exist). They provide a framework to guide successful transformation towards a firm of the future – a business inspired by nature.
Visionary business leaders of today are already making bold steps on this transformational, emergent path for themselves and their businesses. And it is a journey rather than a destination. Transforming towards a firm of the future is not about designing the right business model and implementing it, it is about understanding the ethos, ethics and environment that will allow the organisation, individuals and wider stakeholder community to flourish, adapt and evolve.
While, on the surface, diverse, interconnected, open, emergent organisations may appear more chaotic and difficult to manage, they are vibrant places for people to become self-empowered and to inspire others – self-managing through mutual understanding of correct behaviours rooted in core values and clarity of purpose. It is this shared value set of core ethics that ensures self-empowered diversity naturally emerges towards delivering the value creation goals of the organisation, while maintaining flexibility, adaptability and sense of purpose.
Increasingly, as the organisation is required to become more emergent, so leadership is more about empowering, empathising and encouraging interconnections, innovation and an active network of feedback. As organisations and business ecosystems become more self-organising and self-empowering, the working environment and culture becomes more emotionally and mentally healthy, where business goals are met without sacrificing personal values and integrity. Quite the contrary, in fact: work acts to reinforce personal integrity in providing a rich emergent experience for individual and collective learning and ethical growth.
The role of leadership is to actively participate in enabling and facilitating local change, by encouraging effective communications through clarity of understanding of how to behave, act and interact. Each of us plays our part in leadership-of-the-future by helping others to co-create towards positive outcomes. Here, future outcomes are beyond pre-definition: it is the co-learning journey rather than the pre-defined destination that brings transformative value to the organisation and wider ecosystem of partners involved; real benefits beyond ‘doing less bad’. This approach to business walks-its-own-talk by embracing a living, regenerative, empowering, co-creative, ecological way of being and doing which is aligned with our authentic human nature and deeper Nature.
Only with this re-cognition will we ensure our solutions are both inspired by AND in harmony with Nature, which is the only viable pathway towards a truly sustainable future for life on Earth.
Fundamentally, how does the prevalent approach of business (and for that matter human society) break its devastating illusion of being a part from nature to realizing in reality that we are a part of nature, even with our specialities?
This question of the moment can be answered through 3 R's – Re-design, Re-connect, Re-kindle:
1) Re-designing - new ways of operating and innovating beyond 'less bad' into 'doing good' (shifting from the take/make/waste economic paradigm to a regenerative approach that heals society and the web of life rather that destroying life in the name of short-term gain). An example here is the Kingfisher Group aiming to be a ‘net positive’ force for good in the world.
2) Re-connecting - reconciling our human relationship with life/nature and our own authentic human nature (re-establishing our vital bond with ourselves, our neighbours and the web of life within which we are a part of through education, authentic leadership and eco-psychology). An example here is the co-founder of Natura, Pedro Passo, who instills a business culture that understands our interrelatedness with nature and community.
3) Re-kindling wisdom - working with the grain of nature and operating within the rules of life on Earth (enabling businesses and societies not merely to ‘sustain’ but to thrive in the years ahead by practicing wise approaches to life that draw on, for instance: symbiosis, ecological thinking, permaculture, systems-thinking and systems-being, business inspired by nature, presencing & indigenous wisdom). An example here would be Weleda with its bio-dynamic philosophy and its holistic approach to all aspects of its business.
Giles Hutchins applies twenty years business experience to the emergence of new business logic inspired and in harmony with nature, for a short video see here.
Author of The Nature of Business and recently release The Illusion of Separation Giles blogs at www.thenatureofbusiness.org, facebook community https://www.facebook.com/businessinspiredbynature and tweets @gileshutchins