Friday, December 6, 2013

Business Learning From Nature

 “Look to nature and you will understand everything better.”  Albert Einstein

A Conversation Between Darryl Hutson and David Carrithers

Over the past 25 years we would every so often drift down a conversation path talking about how we could learn for business from nature, in the patterns and actions of animals and the natural world. We find a level of comfort and guidance in learning what nature has applied to what we are trying to do in people behavior management and business results. This post is an attempt to capture some of the creative interaction. (As you can imagine our conversations can be fast, fluid and broad reaching!)

What is a simple example you see if nature that should be applied in business? 

Darryl: Whenever I think about how the Monarch butterflies’ annual migration to their ancestral home from all across the country I am amazed at their doggedness and determination. They know there mission and they are focused on reaching it regardless of the obstacles in front of them. To me it is a miracle that this tiny insect can fly to southern Mexico, their instinct survive is amazing.

Business implications include company goals may be reached even if they are lofty and seemingly impossible – no matter the size of the team nor the challenges. If you are tightly focused on reaching your goal and if you are totally committed to reaching them. The Monarch's story can be an inspiration to all business leaders in driving results for their enterprises.

David: For me the most obvious is when I see a formation of birds flying together. When birds fly in flocks, they often arrange themselves in specific shapes or formations - like the famous V-shape. Those formations take advantage of the changing wind patterns based on the number of birds in the flock and how each bird's wings create different currents and drafts. This allows flying birds to use the surrounding air in the most energy efficient way. It also takes into account a leader that is cutting the path and wind resistance, making it easier for each bird following in the formation. In addition the leader changes out when they become tired and another steps in and takes the lead - no stopping, no slowing down. A fluid change in leadership and always moving towards the goal.

For me I see the application in business at a few levels - ranging from the idea that the leader needs to lead the way, know the direction to take the flock/team to cutting the way - making it easier for those that are on the team. At the same time the idea of easily interchangeable leadership - as one tires and moves to the back another steps in. Business seems to miss this thinking, instead relying on a single leader until in some cases they are worn out and unable to lead, becoming a risk vs. value on the organization.

Have You Shared In Business A Nature Strategy?

Darryl: Yes, over the years I have shared with the team the thinking that many animals will group together when a predator (competitor) attempts to cause havoc to the group (herd). The strategy to herd together to protect the whole (business) when danger is around is key to survival and growth whether this is a herd of muskoxen, elephants or others. Even groups that normally do not have a herding pattern will when danger is around.

Business implication; As Porter tells us a Sustainable Competitive Advantage must include defensive measures when anything dangers the enterprise. Always be aware of what your Competitive threats are and implement a strategy to combat them. Being able to come together as a business no matter the area of responsibility, level and history when there is a competitive threat is a key attribute needed for a business to survive in challenging times.

David: Dolphins fishing together using mud circle to net fish and then feed them to each other - every time I watch this and I show it people are always amazed. It is simple, yet very sophisticated. It also goes against the whole idea that humans are the only ones making/ using tools. Even if the mud is only used in minutes it is still a tool to help capture fish, plus it is a group of dolphins working together vs. alone. In business there can be this drive to say "I did this on my own" or "not build here not good"  when in fact collaboration, looking at the broader world (including inside and outside different areas and players) are all key to success.

I usually show this at the start of a planning or strategy session, trying to get across two thoughts. 1. That we need to think differently to find new opportunities and 2. That working together we can eat more "fish" - find more success. The bridge between the common, the known and the unknown thinking is a hard one to break in humans - many walk thinking they have seen and know it all, know the outcomes. This act of nature shows that we can still be surprised.

The Big Idea To Transfer From Nature To Business?

David: I have two big ideas that seem to always come forward when I sit and think and observe nature. First that nature evolves. Even the landscape changes - mountains erode, rivers change direction, animals evolve but for many in business all things are fixed, permeate. Change is seen as a thing to fight or hide from vs. learn and grow from. Change happens in both speed and in small steps - but it is always happening. Next time you doubt this and the impact small changes can have, listen to this TED talk on the "rewilding" of wolves at Yellowstone even putting aside your believe on this effort the impact makes you think, or for me it does, what small changes can we make it our business, our lives, our selves that will have this level of long term impact? From a few wolves to forgotten trees and flowers to changing the path of a river - amazing to think about.

Secondly, the act of diversity in not just how a person looks or their socio economic view, but diversity in thought, experience and style. I have found many times in business a whole forest of single thinking, like a forest of one type of tree, can form in a company or business unit. While there image of a forest of all one type of species may look uniform, even healthy and have vigorous growth in the environment yet, there is a huge blind spot. If disease, if fire, if any type of threat is presented the whole forest could be lost and lost quickly. Disease will run rampage or weather changes could impact every tree as far as the eye can see. While an old growth, multi species forest is stronger; it fights fire, illness/bugs and temperature changes better. A diverse species wise forest in more resilient and able to withstand unseen issues of the future. A few years back when I was starting a new company I had this thinking at the heart of putting the start up team together. Many in business strive for finding outward differences, like ethic, gender or nationality but in the end the hire a team of very similar thinking people with little difference in prospective and view. This is a big danger. Yes, harder to manage, harder to build collaboration - but is ease the goal?

Darryl: When I look at our dog Cleo and I think about past canines that have been apart of my life I find that their determination, their loyalty and their attitudes of affection and compassion are inspirations to me. The symbiotic relationship between the pet and its companion is special on so many levels. I find that when I am stressed or there are tough days our dogs have sensed this without a word spoken and have given me comfort, a head to pat or just come and been near me. I find my stress comes down just being around them. I think of that moment tens of thousands of years ago when the first canines came closer to the fire to be near the humans – forever bridging their species and ours.

In business we also have these friends, these allies that can be of aid, be of encouragement. As leaders in business we need to have these packs of supporters in our lives. We need to find these symbiotic relationships and allow them to naturally take place and grow.

Final Thought To Share:

Darryl:  In business it is key to learn from all areas of knowledge, including nature. Business books, industry conferences, partners and even competitors are great sources of learning. At the same time we need to look beyond these streams of knowledge towards things like nature, or art, or history. Go to a museum, to a Zoo and walk among the works of art or the animals– clear your brain of the efforts at work and explore the beauty, the challenges in the pictures you see. Read about the artists, the animal specs you are seeing. I have been lucky to live in a great city like Saint Louis with wonderful Art Museums, The Missouri Botanical Gardens and a world class Zoo. These have been my sanctuaries of thought, recharging my batteries and education beyond the world of business. I bet anyone reading this has close at had a location that if they spent one hour walking in they too would find new thinking, new answers, and new energy. For me 30 minutes in the Japanese Gardens at the Missouri Botanical Gardens is amazing to restore my focus and energy.

David: Almost ten years ago I was in the middle of a business storm. No make that a business typhoon. Multiple fronts, legal fronts, contract fronts, business funding fronts and a long-term business history issue. The most toxic business situation you could find yourself. I had a great team, resources to help and a spirit of "we can do this" - yet the challenges on some days were overwhelming. I found that if once a week I could get to nature, alone, just sit and be there, be in the moment and clear my head, clear my heart in nature I could find a whole new level of strength and power. I remember walking in Armstrong Woods in Northern CA or sitting at the top of the cliffs at Bodega Bay and look out at the waves and ocean I would find a new peace, a new energy. So the next time you find yourself needing to think or gain a new prospective find somewhere close at hand to walk, sit and take in nature. Need not be hours or days, I found 45 mins was more than enough to make a big impact.

Darryl Hutson is a business adventurer, always looking to improve business results and individuals performance.

David Carrithers is a change agent supporting businesses, teams, products and individuals improve performance.

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