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Learning from nature to build the businesses of the future

The Oxford Group

12 May 2021

When everything seemed to close and change as Covid swept the planet, one element stayed constant; nature, the landscape - with her green and brown hues. And as indicated by this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week’s theme also being ‘nature’ - many of us took refuge amongst her trees and waterways.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere, of the nourishing effects of the natural world on our individual wellbeing when we’re all zoomed-out and socially distanced.

And there’s more too. Business leaders can learn from the environment to realign business practices to become more sustainable, more robust, and ultimately more profitable.

Biomimicry – learning from the natural world

“Imagine if your R&D department had been innovating for 3.8 billion years – what rich findings might you discover?”

Recent advancement of bacteria-resistant surfaces in hospitals are inspired by shark skin which prohibits the growth of bacteria in the natural world.

So why not also be inspired to explore the systems and processes that allow nature to flourish in her own VUCA world, so we can build businesses that navigate change with similar finesse?

Five principles of nature for leaders building businesses of the future

1 - Evolve to survive​

Adapting to change can allow not just for survival but lead to growth.

In a business context one adaptation might be augmenting the talent pool from which we bring new strengths, behaviours and skills into the organisation. It also includes reassessing our approach to neurodiversity, inclusion, and representation from minority communities of all backgrounds.

 

2 - Simple principles for complex outcomes​

In a VUCA world, businesses that insist on re-establishing complex process to navigate change are often unable to get ahead of the curve of that change.

An alternative approach is to establish simpler principles of business as often seen in nature. The murmuration of birds as they dance across the sky in waves and swoops is based on three simple rules: nearby birds move further apart, birds align their direction and speed, and more distant birds move closer.

This ‘simple principles’ approach allows for agility when discussing variable work-hours, home-work balance and response time expectations.

 

3 - Locally aligned and responsive​

Covid quickly showed the fragility of large, one-track supply chains. Nature doesn’t work like that. She’s aligned and highly responsive to the local reality and resources.

The good news is that in some quarters we’re seeing the value of adopting this approach in business as we navigated working from home with young children, make-shift office spaces, and weak WIFI.

 

4 - Resource efficiency and sustainable practice​

“In nature any organism that wins against its environment, destroys itself.”

And our mental wellbeing is a resource that is not designed to be depleted until burn-out. The symbiotic relationship, of one ensuring the growth of the other, is key to survival; invest not divest.

What that sustainable practice might look like is still being worked out. Interestingly a recent McKinsey report suggests that employees want more certainty about post-pandemic working arrangements—even if you don’t yet know what to tell them.

 

​5 - Collaboration ​

Species collaborate as communities, to achieve shared goals. If a termite worker carrying a grain of soil, for example, comes across a soil pile left by fellow workers, it will drop its grain on the pile. This stimulates other workers to do the same, and in time the small pile of soil grows into large pillars.

  • In a business context will collaboration mean flatter structures that help to empower? ​
  • What makes communication empowering and not overwhelming? ​
  • What shift should take place so that industries see ‘communities of companies’ and not just competition?

Nature - a profitable enterprise

Ultimately nature is nourishing for us as individuals, yet she might have more to offer leaders too.

“If we develop businesses based on the principles of nature, we will develop businesses with sustainable growth, zero waste and interconnected efficient networks of customers, partners and suppliers.” Wiebke Liu (Fortune 500 executive)