Nature Isn't Such a Good Model

mother Earth

CSRwire has always been a good source for information on what is happening in this domain. It has gone from a seemingly random reporting style to a well-designed and clearly displayed format. One added feature is the Talkback columns, presenting the ideas of a wide range of business, academic, and other interested parties. My comments today are directed to a recent article by Giles Hutchins, entitled, “Order Within Chaos: A New Business Paradigm Inspired by Nature.” His principles seemed reasonable, if not a bit generic, but I did not see their connections to nature as clearly as the article suggested.

The context for his work is what he deemed the chaotic state of the world as a more apt descriptor for the broad business environment than the historic machinelike models driving almost all strategic frameworks today. He proposes six principles to enable businesses to create “order within chaos.”

Paradoxically, inspiration for our pressing challenges is all around us in nature. Nature has been dealing with dynamic change for over 3.8 billion years; the more we explore nature’s ways the more we find inspiration for operating in a dynamically changing business environment… Our understanding of nature has evolved over the last few decades, from viewing it as a battleground of competition to one of dynamic non-equilibrium, where an order within chaos prevails due to unwritten natural patterns, feedback loops, behavioral qualities, interdependencies and collaboration within and throughout ecosystems. The more we grapple with the challenges our businesses now face, the more we realize that nature’s patterns and qualities inspire approaches and qualities for our own evolutionary success in business and beyond… Organizations inspired by nature are resilient, optimizing, adaptive, systems-based, values-based, and life-supporting.

Let me take these six items, in turn.

• Resilient-no argument here. In fact, this statement is more or less a bromide or a self evident truth. Resilience is the capability to withstand perturbations without disintegrating. One characteristic of long-lived robust living systems is always resiliency. There is a circularity here. If we observe such long-lived, relatively stable systems, we often define them as resilient, by virtue simply of the longevity. What makes them resilient is a more challenging question and has been the subject of debate among ecologists for a long time. Some argue, for example, for a high degree of internal diversity of the species that comprise the system. The analogy to a company is not helpful in informing us of what makes a firm resilient. Diversity in the market place, as Hutchins writes, has been a strategy that has helped firms survive in the face of changing customer preferences. Diversity may not, however, enable firms to survive shocks from major internal or external disruptions, say the sudden death of a founder or a new piece of legislation.

• Optimizing-Nature does not optimize. That process is entirely man-made. To optimize one has to first designate a set of values. There are no values in the natural world. Some species come and some go, but even Mother Earth does not predetermine the outcomes by applying some optimizing algorithm. Unless a firm includes the entire set of variables that shape its present and future performance, optimizing is always going to be iffy. This may be a useful strategic concept, but it is not derived from nature.

• Adaptive-Another good one coming from nature, and similar to resilient. Adaptive systems or organizations try out responses to changes in the inner or outer context until the new structure provides stability. Natural systems adapt without any intentionality ascribed to the changes. The process of change is simply evolutionary. The situation in human organizations is very different. Responses to perturbations are intentional. Leaving responses to some, more or less, random natural process is usually fatal. Adaptive management might be better called pragmatic and/or nimble.

• Systems-based-This principle reflects the reality of natural systems. They are systems of interconnected living nodes. Their behavior depends not only on the workings of the nodes, but also strongly on the way they are interconnected. “Systems-based” doesn’t tell us very much about the nature of the systems. Everything exists within some sort of systems context. This principle would be much stronger if the descriptor, complex, were added. Nature is complex and fundamentally unpredictable. Except for small isolated chunks, we cannot write down the rules that govern these systems. This means that the analytic, mechanistic models conventionally applied to design and manage business organizations will always fall short. Pragmatic, adaptive schemes must then be used in place of rule-based strategies. Responses to change must be considered contingent and retained only as long as they seem to work, that is, allow the enterprise to continue on the path it set out for itself. The firm must be prepared to change the strategy whenever the outcomes are not satisfactory. This is not an excuse for trying anything under the sun. Pragmatism requires prudent, wise managers, and inputs from the entire community with an interest in the outcomes. Participatory management and design flow from this fact about the nature of the systems firms are embedded within.

• Values-based-Nature has no values so this is entirely a man-made idea. Firms being constituted by human beings always have values, so to itemize this notion is oxymoronic. What matters, however, are the particular values that underlie its activities. Hutchins writes

As the need to continuously change, let go of old ways, seek out opportunities and embrace the new increases, values become the core in which consistent good business behavior is rooted. Hierarchies of management and control slow down organizations’ ability to adapt… Rather than controlling the workforce, a firm of the future empowers the stakeholder community to take decisions locally, based on core business behaviors set down by the values and culture of the organization. Hence, values-based leadership becomes a differentiator for these organizations.

I would and do argue for values based on caring. For firms, this means providing the means for all individuals that comprise a society to take responsibility for the well-being of themselves, other humans, and the entire non-human world. In a word to care. More follows below.

• Life-supporting-This sounds like something nature-related, but here too I would call this another self-evident principle. For natural systems, this could be simply another way of defining resilient. For managers, it means much more than maintaining autopoiesis because human life is more than eating, respiring and excreting. Cultural life is full of activities besides these basic life processes. I think this is a good principle, but what kind of human life is to be supported must be clearly defined

I would add a few principles to this list, after subtracting the ones that appear self-evident. My vision of businesses has them contributing to a flourishing world, one in which nature and human beings live together and flourish. The image of flourishing presumes a world that is autopoietic (self-creating), that is, maintains the structure that supports life while adapting to changes. My favorite biologist, Humberto Maturana defines stable, living systems by this term. Certainly adaptive and resilient are essential characteristics, but are outcome of other processes. Systems thinking, not merely systems-based, is critical, as it is generally impossible to be resilient or adaptive unless you are aware of the whole system in which you operate. It is patently obvious that no one can take in the whole world, but the consciousness that now drives all human activities must expand far beyond the bounds of the models managers use today. Whatever system is identified must be recognized as complex, requiring as I noted above, a pragmatic mindset.

The second principle is that firms have to take responsibility for the system they live inside of. Together this means that business as an institution must be responsible for the whole Planet. They are certainly not the only institution with such responsibility, but must care for the world that they affect, a very large part of it. The market as a place where needs are matched by exchange transactions is fundamentally amoral. A different way of doing business is essential, as without it, the changes that Hutchins sees coming will likely toll a death knell for business firms, along with the ancillary damages their collapse would create.

(Image: “Mother Earth”, the nourisher of all things, from the alchemistic work “Atalanta fugiens” (1618) by Michael Maier. Thanks to Scientific American blogs.)