Staying fluid is one of the biggest challenges of growing organisations, whatever their size. Yet being networked, collaborative, open, radically innovative and adaptive – the top characteristics of organisational fluidity – is the only way to thrive today. I believe that companies have a lot to learn from nature if they want to preserve their fluidity. That’s because nature is filled with large organisms and ecosystems. Whenever they grow, they retain their elasticity. Whenever their environment changes, they evolve. Nature’s operating mode is a treasure trove for corporate environments. That’s why I want to share 6 of the key behavioural principles of natural systems that can inspire companies in retaining their organic fluidity.
1. Evolve to survive
Every living organism is programmed for survival. That basic instinct is one of the most powerful driving forces that exist, yet a lot of companies have lost touch with it. Sure, they know that they must evolve and – that most magical word of them all – innovate. But a lot of them just evolve to evolve. They innovate ‘because others do it as well and it sounds so cool, especially if you add the adjective disruptive to it’. They lack purpose and that purpose is survival. This is a very different mind-set. Evolution, innovation and any type of change: they should always be about survival.
2. Adapt to changing conditions
Natural organisms act as part of an ecosystem: everything is connected and every change influences others. Just like that, every company, every employee, customer, partner and industry is part of an interconnected entity: transform one aspect and it will impact everyone. Yet too many organisations focus on their own processes, KPIs and customers. If they do look outside their own four walls, it’s mostly at their direct competitors. But they have to look beyond their own direct habitat and integrate ecosystem thinking. They should keep an eye on how their broader environment is changing: the consumer, not just their own customers, and other industries too, even those who seem to have nothing in common with theirs (like Google, which had nothing to do with transportation a few years ago and look what happened). And when conditions change, they have to adapt.
3. Use your own resources
Nature is one of the most economical systems out there. It only uses existing resources. I’ve worked with so many companies during my career who simply ignore their own reserve – human resources in particular – in favour of external expertise. Yet the talent is there, just like the desire and the ability: it just needs to be detected, nurtured and wielded. Try to invest as little as possible in external resources. Not just for reasons of efficiency, but because the change that external parties recommend, will never be as sustainable as when your own employees would have ideated, experimented and implemented them themselves. So, whenever possible (true, it isn’t always), stick to internal resources.
4. Use people-friendly ‘chemistry’
Chemistry is sometimes called the central science because it bridges other natural sciences, including physics, geology and biology. It helps us understand the composition, structure, properties and change of matter. One of its most fascinating aspects is how existing elements are combined into something bigger. In organisations, the chemistry between the employees is just as fascinating, complex and essential. How your people stick together, interact and combine into something that is bigger than just the sum of its separate parts – a company, a brand and its culture are typical examples of such an emergence – is what can make or break your future. As companies are made up of people, their chemistry has to be people-oriented. Obvious though this might seem, a lot of organisations are still doing the exact opposite: they focus on rigid, efficiency-driven KPIs, processes and procedures instead of empathy, human creativity or warm relationships, which are just as important. So make sure your KPIs are user-friendly. Innovation, for instance, should be fun. It should not be polluted by rigid structures, procedures, top-down interference or revenue pressure. It has to be exciting and appealing: all about experimenting, trying, sometimes even failing but carrying on, having learned from mistakes. Focus on people. Always.
5. Be resource-efficient
Biological systems tend to self-correct when the costs rise. They always choose the easy way or the short cut and will never invest time and energy in something that is out of scope or even ‘just’ hard to do. I always advise companies to use their resources sparsely and carefully. If a project – even though the ultimate result is what was intended – took up too much budget, time and energy, then its impact will never be sustainable. An innovation that munched away too much time and money is doomed to disappear, because the energy it needs cannot keep being generated. So make sure to make any creative experiment resource-efficient.
6. Integrate development with growth
Whatever you do, always focus your development on growth. Nature will never generate something that cannot cope with growth. Just to give a fine example: when a snail grows to twice its original size, it does not need to tear down walls to expand its house, as most architects would; instead, it just keeps adding more shell in the same shape. It is prepared for growth, from the bottom up, from the moment it enters life. Nature is designed for growth. Which is, ironically, exactly the opposite of organisations, who have an extremely hard time adapting whenever growth sets in. I don’t mean revenue growth obviously, but the most challenging expansion of all: of the organisation, the people, the customers, the geography, etc. Make sure your organisation is elastic from the bottom-up. Never freeze it in rigid structures that need to be taken down the moment growth sets in.
Scaling and growth are natural phenomena. Our planet is filled with systems that become bigger, yet never lose their ability to connect, collaborate and adapt. So why on earth (pun intended) would we try to keep our growing organisations running with methods that are counter-intuitive with nature: with planning, fixed structures, hierarchies, models and hard KPIs? Now that the web and everything digital have enhanced the speed and scale of our world, it seems only natural to me that we should turn to THE biggest expert in growth.
This article was inspired by “Life’s Principles” as described by Biomimicry 3.8.