7 lessons from the natural world to help you create the company of tomorrow
Eco-anxiety versus eco-inspiration: Today we look on nature as an invaluable asset to be preserved at all costs if we want to avoid our own extinction. In short, the natural world has become a source of concern. But the issue wouldn’t even arise if nature were primarily a source of inspiration.
The earth is 4.5 billion years old, whereas the corporate world is barely more than 400 years old. So nature is 10 million times more experienced than our business organizations, and has the wisdom to pass on some best practices that have certainly stood the test of time.
“La stratégie du poulpe, 60 récits du vivant pour inspirer nos organisations : collaboration, innovation, résilience”, by Emmanuelle Joseph-Dailly, (Eyrolles, 2021).
#1 : Embrace your negative emotions like rats do
Happiness, peace of mind, altruism… Companies love positivity and have a tendency to deny negative emotions. This attitude may become unbearable to some people, who may feel compelled to put on a brave face in all circumstances (even when two years of pandemic have dialed up anxiety levels).
The ability to conceal your feelings is characteristic of humans, probably even more so than laughter is. After all, you’ll never see a startled horse or monkey trying to put on a calm front; everything about them says fear. And that’s useful, because other animals systematically adapt their behavior in line with the messages they receive. When there is a conflict, for instance, the signs of fear quickly lead to a de-escalation.
What’s more, uncomfortable emotions such as fear, anger or regret are potentially constructive since they can help us become aware of our needs and mistakes. It has been observed in rats that the public expression of regret after making a poor choice means that other rats are less inclined to make a mistake and that the frustrated individual can move on more quickly to something else. So the benefits are two-fold.
How about you: What attitude do you take when you experience a negative emotion? And how do you treat the fears and regrets of the people around you?
#2 Cooperate, compete and “coopete” like whales
Competition in nature within the same species is a relatively rare phenomenon that occurs mainly when survival is at stake. Animals compete for access to vital resources such as food, space and sexual partners — never with the sole aim of being the strongest.
Social species clearly prefer cooperation to competition. Whales practice a very effective form of collective fishing in a drill that requires highly coordinated movements. And the same goes for felines and wolves that hunt in groups with well-defined roles assigned to each animal. Even chimpanzees, which are particularly belligerent, know how to form a united front to achieve an objective or protect themselves from danger.
What about the theory of dominant behavior in dogs that is common currency — and which some self-proclaimed “alpha” individuals take great delight in? It has now been discredited in its entirety: Scientists have found that dogs do not have the hierarchical organization of wolves, which, by the way, is only observed in packs that are captive.
And how about interspecies relationships? Here again, there is little competition, but there are numerous types of coopetition — cooperation between competitors for access to resources — sometimes in the form of alliances of circumstances, long-lasting symbiotic partnerships or simple commensalism.
As for humans, in the past we were highly accustomed to this type of relationship. We can find traces of it as early as the Code of Hammurabi, 38 centuries ago; and corporations played an organizing role in the life of companies until the 18th century, far beyond that of today’s trade unions. But 250 years spent in the palm of the invisible hand of the market have made us lose sight of their core virtues, namely, the economy of resources, more significant gains and, ultimately, better chances of survival.
And what about you: Are you prepared to see your competitors as potential allies?
#3 Make your contribution in “stigmergy” mode, like termites
Stigmergy is a form of indirect coordination between agents. It is based on the idea that a trace left in the environment by one action stimulates the execution of the next action by a different agent. This is the case with termites or ants, for instance, which deposit their pheromones after each contribution to the collective work so that any of their fellow creatures can take over effectively. It is very different from a hierarchical model, in which an individual controls the group, but also from a cooperative model, in which the group controls the action.
In a relationship based on stigmergy, the sum of individual interactions is sufficient for collective performance. It’s an interesting idea, but is it easier said than done? That may well be true, but it’s always possible to create fertile ground to help fruitful indirect coordination emerge. There are three key conditions: Individuals must act freely in their commitments, their choice of projects and the methods of implementation; they must benefit from sufficient material and immaterial resources to carry them out (this is empowerment); and they must record and share their actions so that others can reproduce, improve and enrich them. Sound utopian? Wikipedia has been operating on this principle for 21 years. Nonetheless, this type of contributory organization is not a universal solution. For example, it’s not suitable for programs that pursue a specific objective under time constraints.
What traces do you leave so that others can take over? And are your employees sufficiently independent to make a full contribution?
#4 As in any ecosystem, cultivate diversity
It’s a beautiful word, diversity, and companies like to showcase it in their annual reports. In their day-to-day work, on the other hand, segregation — so reassuring — still largely prevails. Difference, on the other hand, introduces a risk of anxiety-provoking nonalignment. Yet, in a volatile, uncertain and indeterminate environment, maintaining uniform points of view is suicide.
So how do you cultivate diversity? Through the very act of cultivation, drawing inspiration from permaculture practices, which are themselves based on what nature does when humankind doesn’t interfere. By imitating the functioning and alliances of living organisms, permaculture eliminates hierarchical or ancestral links between plants; revives the interactions between each agent; and embraces the entire ecosystem, from soils to pollinating insects to weeds and pests. When deployed pragmatically with the necessary investment of time and energy, this approach produces excellent results with vegetable gardens that are as productive as they are resilient.
Have you mapped out the formal and subterranean relationships between the various “species” in your organization? Would you be willing to recruit “weeds” to expand your horizons?
#5 Prioritize living together as in nature
I sell, you buy; I sow, I reap.… Companies prefer binary rhythms and direct reciprocity. Nature, on the other hand, is less simplistic, favoring living together and making countless indirect reciprocities between species: I help you today, you’ll help me tomorrow, and maybe the help will eventually come from somewhere else and my contribution will also be useful to others.… All of which is more than enough to drown homo economicus in a sea of perplexity: How can you assign value to a service when you don’t really know when, how and whom it benefits? Some actors, laughing in the face of these difficulties, have ventured into the uncertain territory of indirect reciprocity. Such is the case with Korp (formerly France Barter), a platform to exchange services and goods between companies that modernizes bartering by using a virtual credit system.
Have you ever sown seeds that others will harvest? What tools or resources could you put at the service of the common good?
#6 Go for moderation in all things — as in nature
Since Lavoisier, humanity has known that nothing is lost and nothing is created in nature; everything is transformed. And humanity has known since Darwin that species that consume too much energy and too many resources end up disappearing. And yet, this same humanity today stubbornly insists on perfecting a linear model of society, for which the cycle of production, consumption and disposal reigns supreme — until the planet can take no more. And then, let’s not forget the men and women whose mental reserves are depleted by chasing performance.
Instead, it should be a matter of great urgency to change our methods of collective organization, adopting the principles of moderation and of a circular economy. In plain English, we should systematically challenge the scale of our needs, endeavor to satisfy them by restricting their impact on our material and human environment, encourage reuse upstream and downstream, think locally, favor frugal, long-term and easy-to-implement solutions. These are all key reflexes when it comes to managing an industrial company — but also on an individual level in daily practices.
Have you ever asked yourself what you really need in order to carry out your mission fully?
#7 Take care of others like gorillas do
Two years of the health crisis have led to profound shifts in human relationships at work. Rather than viewing these changes as a threat, why not see them as an opportunity? We can view them as a spur to revisit the ties we have with others and ratify the stances we’ve taken when faced with the unknown: concern, fraternity and shared emotions.
In this area too, nature shows us the way: Elephants mourn their dead, ducks feed the carp in their ponds, beluga whales are full of compassion for their injured fellows, and gorillas owe their social status not to their oversized muscles but to their gentleness and patience with the very young.
For years, corporate cultures have been evolving towards the gradual disappearance of dominant leaders. It’s time to awaken the gorilla within.
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