The companies of the future should look to the natural world to learn how to adapt and thrive, argues the author of The Nature of Business
In times of pressing challenges such as the current perfect storm of social, economic and environmental volatility, great courage is required to break rank from a paradigm that is ingrained in our business mindset.
Companies of the past are rooted in the mechanistic and reductionist approaches to business that are prevalent in mainstream business thinking, management courses and training. The company of the past is independent, stable, efficient, risk-aware, controlled, self-focused, competitive, driven and quantifiable.
But these attributes are no longer good enough on their own for a company operating in a business environment that is increasingly volatile, impossible to predict or control, complex, open and interconnected.
These are the times within which we now operate, and the level of volatility is only set to increase for the foreseeable future. The company of the past, with all its strengths, is no longer fit for purpose.
Dawn Vance, global head of logistics for Nike puts it succinctly when she says: “Organisations have three options: hit the wall; optimise and delay hitting the wall; or, redesign for resilience.”
Due to a number of business drivers, companies need to make big changes – “redesign for resilience” – if they are to succeed in these volatile times, transforming to become more emergent, inter-connected, values-led, organic and inspired by nature.
For billions of years, nature has survived and flourished through times of radical change and disruption by dynamically networking and collaborating among species and throughout ecosystems.
Competition and constraints help shape nature, yet it is collaboration and synergy – not competition – that are responsible for nature’s sustained success. The species most able to survive and evolve are those most able to sense and respond, adapt and align, and work in partnership with and within their ecosystems.
Diversity, flexibility and collaboration are core to the interwoven evolutionary journey of life – the driving forces that provide resilience within species and ecosystems.
The more we explore nature, the more we find insight for the transformation business requires.
Industrial ecology, for example, challenges the over-exploitative nature of the current “take–make–waste” industrial paradigm. It uses inspiration from nature in exploring how systems can be more interconnected and less linear – where waste of one part of the ecosystem is input for another, and hence there is no need for wasteful emissions of any kind (whether gas, liquid or solid waste), as long as the right interconnections are in place.
And it is not just the processes within business that can be inspired by nature; business leadership is undergoing transformation which again can take inspiration from nature.
Ensuring successful adaptation against a backdrop of increasing uncertainty and complexity means leadership becomes less about directive structured approaches seeking predictable outcomes and more about emergence through empowering others to make effective and timely decisions.
Emergence is the nature of nature; it’s how life thrives in unpredictability. Hence, the “new norm” of dynamic non-equilibrium in business requires a shift in conventional management thinking from over-reliance on top-down, hierarchical, risk-based approaches to managing within complexity.
Managing within complexity juggles and combines varying styles and techniques. It encourages bottom-up emergence to flourish; establishing an all-pervasive values-led work ethic whilst guiding and coaching.
As our understanding of our interrelated nature becomes more apparent to us, we recognise that our values as individuals, organisations and communities are fundamentally what drive our ability to behave more sustainably and so embrace the transformational journey.
Companies that “get it” are the ones that appreciate how business is less about unethical short cuts in the name of profit, and more about value-creation through good business sense.
Companies and individuals – leaders and employees – that properly engage with sustainability, by believing in the holistic values and mission of the business, will be those that embrace this next stage of sustainability maturity. It is a step beyond seeing sustainability as a business opportunity which can create value to realising it is the only appropriate way to do good business, and so becoming intrinsic to business behaviour.
In the words of Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever: “Too many people think in terms of trade-offs that if you do something which is good for you, then it must be bad for someone else. That’s not right and it comes from old thinking about the way the world works and what business is for: Milton Friedman’s optimisation of short-term profits. We have to snap out of that old thinking and move to a new model.”
As the company (and business ecosystem) becomes more values-led and vibrant the working environment becomes more emotionally and mentally healthy, where business goals are met without sacrificing personal values and integrity. In fact, it can be quite the contrary: the work acts to reinforce personal integrity by providing a rich emergent experience for individual and collective learning hand-in-hand with ethical growth.
The more our working environments become values-led and life-enhancing the more alive the companies and the more aligned we become to the true nature within us and around us. This helps unlock the creative potential within us, individually and collectively re-connecting with our authentic selves and so perceiving business challenges as opportunities for life enhancement. The challenging business environment becomes a sea of opportunities.
As Richard Branson correctly points out: “Those businesses that do well whilst doing good are the ones that will thrive in the coming decades. Those that continue with ‘business as usual’, focused solely on profit maximisation, shall not be around for long (and don’t deserve to be).”
This is about encouraging business activity which creates conditions conducive to life and no longer tolerating activity which is knowingly toxic to life. Unified visions, strong culture, corporate transparency and stakeholder dialogues ensure values-based sustainable business becomes everyday business.
This requires a transformation in business mentality, in business models and organisational culture. This is the future of business and it is inspired by nature, a business that is resilient, adaptive, optimising, systems-based, values-led and life supporting.