“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin
I grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Not a week would go by that I would not hear Marlin Perkins, the silver-haired, khaki-clad naturalist-host whispering from a safe distance, “While my assistant Jim is being attacked by this carnivorous face eating leopard spider, I’ll hide behind this rock.” As with all television entertainers of his day, Perkins would find a way of using his place of safety as a segue to plug his sponsors. “And just like this rock is protecting me from the New Guinea head hunters who have just captured Jim, so Mutual of Omaha can protect you from the unexpected.”
Across a hundred Friday nights we would learn how natural systems in the wild kingdom presented us with cunning examples of social and biological collaboration. We were educated on examples of biomimicry – lessons learned through studying our physical universe and how species adapt and cope in a changing and interdependent ecosystem. There were myriad examples where the animal kingdom collaborates to endure – snakes writhing in nests by the thousands to conserve heat, fish that draft behind one another as they push against currents to spawn and the iconic Emperor penguins that congregate in huddled masses –taking turns insulating one another from inhospitable conditions and sub-zero winds.
Biologists now refer to the V-formation of flight that geese employ during protracted migratory flights as community based optimization. Geese demonstrate how a group relying on a perpetual rotation of roles can drive to a greater result than relying disproportionately on the strongest of its members. As each goose takes its turn to lead, other drop back to draft and regain strength. The formation and its shared leadership model have become a popular metaphor in corporate America for team building and shared responsibility. Yet where culture is driven by self-interest and ego, only the most enlightened cultures are able to truly grasp and inculcate nature’s messages into their own businesses. In some parts of corporate America, the senior geese – having spent years paying their dues flying at the head of the V — now feel it is their privilege to travel on the G5 jet and meet the rest of the flock in North Carolina.
While some of our most innovative technology and services providers are embracing biomimicry, it has been harder for analog US-based service businesses to fully embrace horizontal collaboration. Biomimicry and the theories of shared leadership reek of collectivism. Anyone who lives in the woods and wears short pants to work must be selling snake oil and may secretly be a card-carrying socialist. The natural allegories compelling us to study the “lessons learned from the snail dart” are quaint but useless touchstones. Life is indeed a jungle but as Hunter S Thompson once said, “business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
When I entered the workforce, I witnessed Wild Kingdom behavior as alpha personalities marked their territories, devious cuckoo birds laid eggs in other’s nests and weaker species became extinct due to their inability to change to Microsoft Office and Lotus Notes. I learned it was important to stay in the middle of the herd and not allow oneself to become separated from the group. It was on the fringes of life where the lions waited, feasting on those who broke ranks by listening to their own egos or by taking unnecessary risks. As leaders in waiting, we were taught that our highest priority was getting to the top of the food chain where one would reap the dividends of stature, authority and get the good seats at Dodger games.
We deified our senior management, often failing to notice that much of the real work was being performed by selfless teams below and around us, groups that learned to trust one another, collaborate and innovate to overcome barriers to success. As we matured and took our lumps as second lieutenant neophytes, we began to understand that the best run organizations were not led by all knowing oracles but by servant leader motivators and facilitators who fostered trust, culture and mutual respect – the true DNA of world class organizations. We learned the hard way that cooperation and collaboration were very different things.
As business stares into the new millennium’s hot and crowded competition, margins will come under intense pressure and shareholders will become impatient for transformative managers who can inspire their organizations to break from the status quo. In a time where might makes right, acquisitions now seem an easier evolutionary path for firms rather than tackling the steeper grade and complicated pitch of behavior and culture change. As the large get larger, conformity and marshal law are relied on as tools to ensure cooperation. Short-sighted managers eager to monetize their monolithic creations are worrying less about the unintended consequences of stop-gap thinking – leaving those concerns to succeeding leadership.
The seams and stitches in many hastily assembled organizations are beginning to show. From a distance these firms appear natural but upon closer scrutiny, they are mutations rather than functioning businesses. When one looks closely, it is impossible not to notice the scars, lack of coordination and tissue rejection from hasty grafts that have been poorly executed. Many firms that have grown through acquisition have failed to understand the power of bio-diversity and interdependent collaboration. They are now finding their own size is an impediment to realizing their total potential. As these executives search for the missing link in their own evolution, they need only turn to the natural world for lessons on collaborative excellence.
Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom has now been supplanted by the Animal Planet, Discovery and Nat Geo channels — entire networks dedicated to the natural world. Each week, viewers follow naturalists – many with a death wish – as they plunge into our physical world to decrypt its mysteries and its symbiotic secrets for survival. It seems that many are realizing after all that the answers to our self-inflicted problems can be found in prosaic places like a mist covered spider web or a meadow composed of interdependent ecosystems.
The concept of biomimicry is not a new notion to engineers and product design professionals. The study of how nature copes with drought, erosion, infection and efficient cooling and heating have yielded insights that have been plagiarized by commercial, residential and industrial design innovators. Aside from physical design, ecosystem collaboration is finding its way into boardrooms as scientists and biologists educate overwhelmed executives on how to translate the examples of bio-diversity and collaboration to produce a superior result. True Darwinism simply reinforces the notion that the species that adapts, survives.
Organizational academics and biologists are challenging firms to think of themselves as diverse ecosystems that must optimize and collaborate across disparate communities of people, resources and infrastructure. They cite myriad examples of how nature offers us valuable lessons as a design collaborator. The age-old business maxim of strategy, structure, people, process and performance is being supplanted by thinking of business as a natural web of interdependent communities that can be optimized by processes and enabled by rewards that foster collaboration across an entire organization.
Collaboration may mean becoming less tolerant of high performance employees who are disruptive or consume too many resources that could be better allocated across a broader base of the firm. It means realigning incentives to drive behavioral change. Nature has an advantage over business in that it has no ego and is agnostic to profits. It merely seeks to perfect its ability to achieve symbiotic harmony so it might ensure and perpetuate its own existence.
AskNature.org offers individuals a hub where naturalists and scientists have incorporated hundreds of natural examples of how the physical world has optimized its bio-diversity and in doing so, shows us how teams collaborate to avoid waste, optimize resources and achieve results well beyond the capability of any one high performance individual.
The research, “Understanding the Biomimicry Taxonomy, provides a novel way for designers and biologists to collaborate and approach the next design challenge in a life-conducive way. The key to using the taxonomy is forming the question. Instead of asking how to make less toxic pigments, the designer can “ask” a Morpho butterfly how it modifies its color. Instead of using high pressure and temperatures to manufacture tough, lightweight building materials, an engineer can “ask” a toucan how it manages impact with its strong and light beak.”
Nature offers us thousands of examples of collaboration between parasites and hosts and symbiosis among the largest and the smallest of organisms. The clown fish lives within the poisonous tentacles of the anemone achieving security against predators by secreting a hormone that helps the anemone stay clean of parasites. Respect, humility, and the recognition of mutual dependence are attributes that are innate in nature but rare in Corporate America. Leadership must understand how these cultural catalysts must be promoted and rewarded to allow cooperation to evolve into full-scale collaboration.
Productivity gains will become the life blood of service industries in the next millennium. Gold medalist companies will distance themselves from silver and bronze medalist contenders by creating business environments that foster diversity and accelerated collaboration. Business leaders hungry to find ways to spark their human capital to achieve results that extend beyond their individual abilities need only turn to the Animal Planet.
True collaboration for the sake of adaptation allows any firm to navigate perilous markets, create knowledge networks that optimize resource sharing, and multiply its senses to understand what is required to fuel growth and survive in a digital age.
The best leadership will spend less time reading books on management theory and dedicate more time to examining how the distribution of water and resources is allocated among a forest in a drought. Symbiotic collaboration and biodiversity teach us that successful adaptation is not just about survival of the fittest but also about selflessness and the subordination of the individual ego for the collective benefit of the species.
In the end, Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom were the best teachers. We learned time and again that those communities that support an ethos of common interest and the need to perpetually adapt do not just survive, they thrive.