15 years ago I made nature my boss: Here’s what she taught me about running companies

The way a company is run depends mainly on the goal. There’s lots of guidance like ‘9 types of organisational structure every company should consider’, but most company designs start out ad hoc. It’s not until something significant changes that people start to focus on what they’ve created, as this excellent article from MindTools explains.

Since people tend to feel safer with the clarity of command and control, it’s by far the most common strategy, but it has its pitfalls. Elevating responsibility concentrates risk, and those who shoulder that burden are likely to demand more, and to spend more as they seek to justify, protect or force their positions. The irony is that the feeling of control is often far greater than the reality. Nature does things differently.

In 2005, I played a key role in creating The Association of Sustainability Practitioners. Since the goal was to promote sustainable behaviour, I had a hunch the organisation ought to behave like nature. After all, we know nothing other than nature. Being made entirely of nature, we are surely contained entirely within it. If we could play by Nature’s ‘rules’, then surely we’d have the best chances of success…

The only way I could imagine learning about this, would be to make nature my boss. So that’s what we did.

Nature is evolutionary, and as this goes hand in hand with growing complexity, it was obvious we could very quickly run into trouble. Added to that, Nature doesn’t appear to have any bosses, and seems to run itself.

To mimic these self-organising and adaptive principles, we’d have to address how our company would run right up front. So our very first challenge was about the organisational design. Like others before us, we’d have to think about the freedom to evolve.

I found myself holding the questions below ….

When nature thrives, things are fantastically complex and diverse — so what is the simplicity at the heart of all that complexity? What are the most basic organising principles?

Last year, I attempted to capture the answers to these questions to date on a single sheet called ‘The Life Form’ of ASP. Having defined the purpose and intention to act, it went on to say how it works, and when it works well. Here it is in full:

Why it works: To promote flourishing lives on a thriving planet

What it does: Promotes learning that transforms behaviour from unsustainable to sustainable practices. Learning takes the form of :
– Challenge
– Support
– Connection

How it does it: observes nature and follows natural laws. Natural laws are governed by four principles:
– Energy always flows
– Feedback creates patterns
– Diversity is life-force
– Interdependence affects all life

When it works: ASP works when things are:
– As simple as they can be
– As low cost as they can be
– As high impact as they can be given the other two conditions

These ‘natural laws’, together with the observations about when they’re most effective, seem enough of a guide for any organising structure to me. Any more definition, and the freedom to exercise innate creativity gets curbed.

But there’s one further principle underlying all of these. You can grasp it from the image below without words. It is the Dao.

Image for post

The Dao challenges our idea of ‘polar opposites’ — the notion that there is an absolute truth in one place, and an absolute falsehood at another. The principle which applies is both/and. By joining up these opposing halves, the circle of life is completed. Neither one is possible without the other. It’s picture book quantum physics.

This seems to me to be the true simplicity at the heart of all complexity. The secret of Life, The Universe and Everything, is balance.

Over the past 15 years, I’d say I’ve learned several useful things from Nature, my boss. I think they can be usefully applied to any and every organisational challenge. Once you know why you’re there and what you’re for, the rest will help it take care of itself.

The first, is ‘remember what you are’. We are all of us, woven into webs of life. To act without caring for Nature is a self destructive. So seek out those who signal their awareness with flags like Bio-leadership, or Wellbeing Economics so you can learn to flourish together.

The second is to see learning as productive and value it as essential. Find your own Fifth Discipline, choose lines of appreciative inquiry, and make time for the process.

The third is to ‘hold things lightly’. Things are not always comfortable, and they will change.

The final lesson is to RELAX. You can’t know everything, nor can you be in complete control. If you never forget the first rule, and do your best with the second and third, then you should find the system will flex towards its full potential.

Let me know how it goes.