Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Biomimicry and Business: What Nature Can Teach Us about How to Organize Work

Natural Work-Part 1This was originally published by AXIS Performance Advisors in 1999.

For quite some time, I have been wondering what "natural work" would look like. How would our organizations act if our society lived within the limits of nature instead of depleting it? What if our organizational practices were better aligned with human nature instead of taxing it? What if work became a natural expression of each person's gifts instead of something endured to fund "a life" outside? While we still are all to varying degrees stuck in the mechanistic view of the world, we are part of nature.

So, it would seem that we could learn a lot about how to improve our organizations by studying insights from science. In this century we have mostly applied lessons from psychology--with decidedly mixed results! But what about biology,anthropology, and physics? In fact, what we know about nature and ecosystems can be applied to organizations. This article explores what nature has to teach us about designing organizations. Natural Work—Part 2 will apply findings from evolutionary psychology to improve how we manage people.

A number of months ago, I read Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, a fascinating book on how to use nature as the inspiration for our own innovations. For example, the filament spiders weave into their webs is stronger than Kevlar, the strongest filament humans know how to make (used in bullet proof vests) and at the same time, more flexible. Spiders make this at room temperature, without creating hazardous waste, and the raw materials are insect guts!

Nature has had a lot more time to experiment with different strategies than we. According to scientists, if you compressed the entire lifetime of earth (4.5 billion years) into one day, the entire reign of Homo sapiens-- from stone tools and cave paintings to Y2K -- would occupy the last two seconds before midnight and the industrial revolution only the last seven thousandths of a second. But life has existed for about 4 billion years,most of that cosmic day. Over that time, the strategies that worked were repeated; those that did not were eliminated. Since nature builds on successful strategies (e.g., humans preserved the reptilian brain stem), perhaps our organizations can benefit from examining how nature works. We invent new strategies at our own risk. So, what do we know about nature's methods?

Nature's Time-tested Strategies

Nature, through its long evolution of experimentation, has developed sustainable strategies. According to Biomimicry, nature...
  • Runs on sunlight  (so why don't all our roofs face south so that we can attach solar panels when the technology becomes competitive?)
  • Uses only the energy it needs  (so why do we use energy to purify water, put that water into our toilets, flush and then purify the water again?)
  • Fits form to function  (so why do we have a rigid organization chart, regardless of the task we are completing at the moment?)
  • Recycles everything (so why do we have landfills?)
  • Rewards cooperation  (so why are we so fixated on competition?)
  • Banks on diversity  (so why do we exhort organizations to "stick to your knitting"?)
  • Demands local expertise  (so why do we have parent companies trying to direct distant operations?)
  • Curbs excesses from within  (so why do we think that economic growth will go on forever?)
  • Taps the power of limits  (so why don't we live within the limits of nature?)
  Let's look at how these principles might weave together to lead us to make different choices about how we do business. Where would we site our businesses? How would our work processes be different? What would we do with our waste? And how might the different parts of our organizations best operate?

Businesses as Ecosystems

How do natural ecosystems operate? First, they are tied to the land:altitude, the presence of water, climate, etc. (demanding local expertise). They operate within a symbiotic, complex network of mutually beneficial relationships (rewarding cooperation). The waste products of one organism becomes food for another (recycling everything). The organisms co-evolve,adapting to the changes of others (fitting form to function). It includes a wide variety of plants and animals (banking on diversity). In order to make maximum use of the habitat, each organism finds a niche so that the same tree can be home to multiple bird species, mammals and plants (using only what it needs).
Contrast this with our organizational "monocultures" where zoning separates industry in one area, commercial in another and residences in a third. Urban sprawl, the direct result of this practice, has gotten a lot of attention lately (Al Gore, Time Magazine, etc.) In nature, the few species that do migrate only do so only twice a year. So why should we line up like wildebeests on our freeways every day? This suburban (or as one wag coined it, "sub-urban") land-use pattern stems from a day when most of industry was dirty, smelly and hazardous, but as our economy increasingly is driven by knowledge work, we can more easily create mixed-use neighborhoods, more like plant communities where the variety of plants benefit one another.
Just as nature has keystone species upon which the entire ecosystems depend(often the most unassuming organisms like plankton), so to are our economic communities more dependent on certain organizations or industries. We would be wise to better attend to the diversity in our organizational ecosystems. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, we used to be highly dependent upon the wood products industry, until we hit the limits of nature and had to stop cutting, devastating entire communities. Now we have a "silicon forest," where we are now dependent upon high-tech. In nature, if a species disappears, another quickly fills its niche. When the chip business wanes, what industry is in the wings, waiting to take over its habitat to feed us?
Certainly we need to get away from our take-make-waste industrial processes.We take from the environment, make stuff, and then everything ends up as garbage. According to a study of US manufacturing, only about 6% of the materials used to create a product actually ends up in the product! While industry has gotten better about improving its efficiencies and finding markets for its waste streams, we clearly have far to go.
Take-back legislation may soon force us to close the loop and recycle.Originating in Germany, take-back legislation requires that manufacturers take back their products when they have reached the end of their useful life: cars, batteries, vcr's, even packaging. This legislation is spreading through Europe and parts of Asia and South America. So if you want to do business in those countries or do business with someone who does, the responsibility to dispose of your own product may be yours. This quickly leads companies to redesign their products so that at the end of their lifetime, they area resource, not waste, by making them easy to disassemble and reuse, coding all plastics, reducing packaging, etc.
The most famous example of industrial ecology is the town of Kalundborg,near Copenhagen. Here's how the companies recycle almost everything between a power plant, oil refinery, plasterboard factory, pharmaceutical plant,sulfuric acid manufacturer, and local farmers:
  • The electrical plant supplies steam to the oil refinery and pharmaceutical plant; it uses its surplus warm water to raise fish.

  • The oil refinery removes sulfur from the oil (to make it cleaner burning) and sells it to the sulfuric acid plant.

  • The plasterboard factory buys surplus gas from the refinery and gets calcium sulfate from the electrical plant.

  • Nearby farmers use the fish sludge from the power plant and by-products from the pharmaceutical plant as fertilizers on their fields.

This symbiosis is facilitated by their proximity. They do not transport their waste products over long distances; (remember, nature uses only the energy it needs.) What if you could cajole most of your suppliers to site their facilities down the street? Just in time manufacturing would be a snap. And what if you also gathered close organizations that would pay for your waste products. Instead of emptying waste into tankers or dumping processed water into the stream, you could build a pipe line to another facility.Think of the money you could save through reduced transportation costs and legal liabilities, not to mention the money you could make selling your waste to someone else who needs it.
And what says your vendors have to buy their own place? Cooperate. Let them do their work on your site. Why not share space, equipment, even people!When the wolf marks its territory, it just wants to keep out competitors,not also its suppliers and customers. But humans mark lines on a plat map and say, this is MINE. We don't find our niche in the habitat; we monopolize it.
If we created organizational ecosystems, we would end up with overlapping industrial "neighborhoods" around a supply chain. And just like with natural ecosystems, we would have "transition zones" which usually are thriving centers of life. Perhaps that is where people would live, in dynamic cultural centers.

Organizations as Organisms

So far we have been discussing the relationships between businesses. Now let's apply these natural strategies to individual organizations.
Let's use the human body as a metaphor. We have numerous organs operating independently, each with its own success factors, fitting form to function.(Hydrochloric acid is great for the stomach but not so great for the eye.)We even have entirely separate organisms in and on our body which help us digest food and clean our eyelashes (rewarding cooperation). What aligns most of these independent units, getting them to cooperate, are neurotransmitters,channels of information. We have cognitive processes but we also have immediate reactions, like when you pull back from a hot burner, requiring local knowledge.For the human body, growth is good only to a point, until we reach an optimal weight and height (curbing excesses from within).
Departments as organs:

Again, we tend to ignore nature's lessons, creating our own rules.In our organizations, we try to align the whole organization and treat everyone the same way: compensation systems, performance appraisals, planning systems,etc. It's as if we treat everyone like they are the stomach. Here, have some hydrochloric acid. No wonder we have caustic conflicts across departments.At one of our clients, the IT department is frustrated because it can't attract enough programmers because the company's vacation policy is built around blue-collar union workers. We have confused sameness with fairness.
Worse yet, many of those systems encourage competition instead of cooperation.Think of all the ways we create losers in our organizations, pitting people against one another: merit pay systems built on a bell curve, allocations for capital expenditures, measurements by shift.
Corporate nervous systems:
Instead of trying to control and be consistent, we might be better off building an effective nervous system (for both immediate reactions and well-thought out, coordinated responses), and letting the organs/departments/teams do what they think best. Radical empowerment. Radical shared accountability.Help teams understand their mission; let them know what's going on in the rest of the system; and let them meet their own special needs in their own way.
Multiple senses:
If nature demands local expertise, then why are business plans most often written by upper management? We need all our senses to make good decisions. The sales people touch the customer; the customer service reps hear their complaints; staff groups have a nose for emerging innovations. We need to add those inputs to the vision of top management to develop a good plan. At one of our clients,we started the business planning process not at the top of the corporation but instead at the front lines, generating a flood of ideas for improving the business.
Symbiosis in complex organisms:
How should multinationals operate if nature uses only the energy it needs and demands local expertise? Certainly, we should avoid shipping subassemblies and products around the globe in search of the cheapest labor but at great expense to our non-renewable energy reserves. Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce, gave a wonderful example in a speech: at the same time that a Canadian beer company is trucking its bottles to the US, a US truckload of beer passes on the highway on its trip to Canada. He said, "Why don't they just exchange recipes?" We have confused the need to use something with the desire to own it.
Size and structure: The body metaphor also calls into question the "grow this good" cancer-cell mentality. More production, more employees, more divisions, more profits. Perhaps the "right sizings" of the early1990's were a recognition that
for your purpose, there is an optimal size (curbing excesses from within). The larger you are, the more energy it takes to communicate, get things done, transfer learning, etc. At some point, the so-called economies of scale get overwhelmed by the demands of the bloated organization, in our view, much earlier than most executives would think. (In the next issue,we'll explore how human nature also puts limits on organization size.)
In the United States, we tend to view limitations as constraints, resenting how they infringe upon our freedom. But nature taps the power of limits and some organizations have discovered this as well. Limitations give us something to push off of, generating a surge of creativity. Organizations that have embraced sustainability as a corporate strategy are discovering that the limits of nature serve as powerful catalysts for innovation.
As you can see, there could be many bottom line benefits to aligning our organizations with laws of nature, even though I have only scratched the surface of this analysis. But hopefully, this has gotten you thinking.Look back over the nine natural principles and let us know what insights you generate as well. Remember, we are part of nature, not separate from it, despite a long tradition of mechanistic thinking.
The next issue of the AXIS Advisory will explore what "natural work"might look like inside the organization, applying findings about human nature(based on evolutionary psychology) to the management of people.

Case Corner: What to do with waste?

Burley Design, a Eugene-based manufacturer of bicycle carriages, does more than most to identify uses for their waste streams. In a recent plant tour,they showed us how they compost scraps from the lunch room, use the backs of all correspondence in printers and copiers, reuse packaging for sending out their products, and recycle/refill printer cartridges. They also do"pre-cycling" by ordering their tubing in the exact lengths they need, eliminating waste. But because of intense corporate espionage, they had to shred many documents and the recycler didn't want to take the fluffy bags. Burley was thrilled when we suggested they contact worm growers in their area as the shredded paper would make a great growing medium. We also suggested contacting their local Humane Society which might use it as bedding.We figured no corporate spy would want to dig through the stuff after that!In the end, they got a security box for sensitive documents which the recycler then picks up; this allows them not to shred the paper in the first place,saving time and energy.

Suggested Reading

A New Way to Grow: Building Communities for People published by CTrain,PO Box 2529, Vancouver, WA 98668
Biomimicry by Janine Benyus
Industrial Ecology, by Braden Allenby
Journal of Industrial Ecology published by MIT Press
"Learning for a Change" (Alan Webber's interview with Peter Senge),FastCompany May 1999
The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken
The End of Bureaucracy and the Rise of the Intelligent Organization by Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot
The Living Company by Arie de Geus

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