If Mother Nature was your CEO

As published on Switch & Shift on March 25, 2015. Nature is the world’s most effective designer, according to Frank Stephenson, Design Director at McLaren Automotive. Looking at what nature has created over millions of years of evolution to get to the perfect shape, the designers at McLaren Automotive get their inspiration from animal anatomy, tree branches, blood vessels and river deltas to create some of the most sophisticated and efficient design solutions. If McLaren Automotive manages to create better designs by stealing from nature, surely nature must contain lessons that apply to business and leadership as well.

Evolve or die

Charles Darwin became famous for his revolutionary idea on natural selection. Some species own specific and unique characteristics which increase their chances of survival and therefore their opportunities to pass along the same heritable benefits to their offspring, hence driving evolutionary change. But dramatic unexpected events also determine the fate of different kinds of species. When a massive meteorite hit earth, dinosaurs became extinct as a consequence of the dramatically increased air temperature and collapse of the entire ecosystem. Only creatures small enough to escape underground or under water were able to survive, with rat-like mammals gradually evolving into humans over the subsequent 65 million years.

Facing exponential population growth and cultural shifts, human evolutionary change has been 100 times faster over the past 5,000 years than in any other period of human evolution. But unlike nature, businesses cannot take thousands of years to adapt to their changing environments. The emergence of digital technology is similar to the meteorite hitting earth, suddenly and radically changing the conditions for organizational survival. While organizations could thrive for a long time on a command and control management model, they now need to shift their management model to one where empowerment, autonomy and radical openness rule. Evolving companies create a culture where people are okay with the idea of constant change around them, making significant time for innovation, creativity and collaboration. They apply Picasso’s philosophy “Good artists copy; great artists steal” and successfully remix existing ingredients into new recipes, which matches with new needs and changed contexts. For example, while Apple is typically admired for its groundbreaking innovations, it is no big secret that Apple’s iconic designs are heavily inspired by the work of Braun designer Dieter Rams.

Eat or be eaten

If you have seen the movie The Lion King, you know what the circle of life means. It is nature’s way of taking and giving back life to earth. When something dies, it gives new life to something else, which is why Steve Jobs referred to death as very likely the single best invention of life. In order for animals to get to their prey or avoid being eaten, each animal is unique in its kind, owning a combination of specific traits. While a cheetah holds the record of being the fastest animal on earth with a maximum speed of 75 mph, it can only keep that up for a few hundred yards. It requires cheetahs to get really close to their prey before beginning the chase, applying best-in-class camouflage and hunter techniques.

In a similar vein, organizations need to develop a set of strong and unique strengths enabling them to compete and survive. In today’s hypercompetitive context in particular, not choosing means losing. Successful leaders understand they need to focus obsessively on just a few elements that enable them to stand out from the crowd and bring unique value to the table. Yet, the days are over that every industry applied just one business model shared among a stable and well-known set of competitors. Competition is now coming from so many different and unexpected corners that businesses need to explore various business models at the same time while staying true to their overall reason of existence. For example, next to selling and servicing cars, BMW taps into the promises of the sharing economy through its car-sharing scheme DriveNow. DriveNow gives users access to a fleet of BMWs and Minis for a registration fee and already counts 360,000 customers globally at various locations such as Berlin, Munich and San Francisco.

Split to grow

In nature, reproduction, growth and maintenance of life are the results of cell splitting and collaboration. Every single one of us is composed of no less than 10 trillion cells, working together harmoniously to compose a single unique human being. While some cells such as skin cells undergo continuous replacement, other cells remain capable of division to allow growth or regeneration after injury.
Organizations of the future will apply similar cell-splitting principles, redistributing power and authority from one person at the top to a larger set of persons intrinsically motivated and contextually suited to take responsibility. Ricardo Semler, CEO at Semco, is a great example. Ricardo practices a radical form of corporate democracy, relying on the wisdom of individuals to make the right calls instead of controlling people through rules, checks and controls. It enables him to run his company (almost) without any rules.

A different example of a company applying nature’s law of cell splitting is Cronos Group, a global e-business integrator. Since its start in 1991, the company has continuously split itself, currently resulting in no less than 165 different companies, acting as true start-ups on their own. You might even say the start-up (and embrace failure) culture that is so typical for Silicon Valley is inspired by cell splitting. With more than 90% of start-ups burning money of venture capitalists, the big gains VCs make on rare success stories largely compensate for built-up losses and allow for re-investing in new start-ups, exactly like cells are continuously being replaced by others.

Act in herds

A group of animals fleeing from a predator shows the nature of herd behavior. Each individual group member reduces the danger for itself by moving as close as possible to the center of the fleeing group. Thus the herd appears as a unit while moving together, but its function emerges from the uncoordinated behavior of self-serving individuals.

The challenge for any organization is to have its members flee towards the center, creating momentum around a joint purpose that connects all the members. A strong and compelling purpose helps employees work towards a common goal in an uncoordinated way, tapping into the unique talents and visions of individual members while at the same time funneling energy towards the center. Here are a couple of great purpose statements that were turned into true BHAGs or Big Hairy Audacious Goals:

  • No one driving a new Volvo should be killed or seriously injured by 2020 (Volvo)
  • A computer on every desk and in every home (Microsoft)
  • Enable human exploration and settlement of Mars (Space X)
  • Make the world’s information universally accessible and useful (Google).

For every single team member working at any of these companies, it is crystal clear where the center is located.
Analogy is a very powerful technique to enhance creativity. Take a walk in nature and closely observe what is happening around you. What other nature lessons do you detect which could inspire the future of business and leadership?

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