Mother Nature’s Strategy
by Jerry W. Thomas
Planet Earth’s life in its many forms has survived and thrived over a period of at least three billion years. During this time, living organisms have survived the most incredible extremes, from worldwide warmth to bitterly cold ice ages, from heavy rainfall to extreme drought, from cosmic rays' bombardment to protective atmospheric conditions, from collisions with asteroids and comets to periods of tranquility, from earthquakes and volcanoes to changing sea levels and rising and falling mountain ranges. Somehow, through all of these monumental changes and life-threatening events, life in all its glory and beauty has flourished. Might life (or nature, or the natural world) have some lessons to teach us about strategy?
We can think of the history of life on earth as a vast, long-term experiment in pure competition. Every living organism is competing with all other living organisms for resources (nutrients, sunlight, water, territory, etc.). Nature, or the natural world, is a laboratory of unfettered competition. It’s a dog-eat-dog, no-holds-barred, day-in and day-out struggle. There are no governmental regulators to protect the weak or favor the strong. All organisms are given a chance, but not necessarily an equal chance. As the climate and the environment change (and change they do), some organisms are favored over others at times, but these advantages are fleeting. What nature gives, nature can take away.
What are some of the principles, some truths, that we might take away from this laboratory of pure competition to help businesses increase their chances of long-term success?
Massive Investments in the Future. Virtually all living organisms invest incredible energy and effort toward reproduction (i.e., the future). For example, think about how many acorns a large oak tree yields each year (thousands). A female house fly lays hundreds of eggs in her less-than-30-day lifespan. Nature invests heavily in the future. Short-term profits do not drive behavior in the natural world. It’s all about long-term investment—massive investments. This is a lesson that would serve corporate America well.
Constant Experimentation. As organisms reproduce, random variation is built into the offspring. We can see this pattern in our own households. If you have multiple children, you will see differences in their physical appearance and in their personality tendencies. This is nature’s experimentation at work. It’s true across virtually all living organisms. Random variation is built into the reproductive system so that each offspring has a slightly different genetic makeup. These little differences mean that some offspring will do better than the others, and the genetics favored by the existing environment will be more likely to carry over to the next generation. Every business should constantly run controlled experiments to improve operations and marketing.
Unrelenting Competition. Every organism is competing with every other organism, directly and indirectly. This brutal competition weeds out the inferior and the ill-adapted organisms. Those that survive are better and more efficient in some way(s) than the organisms that perish. Though painful and difficult, business leaders must constantly prune their organizations to improve productivity.
Rapid Adaptation. Earth’s environment is constantly changing. Geological history reveals that our planet’s environment has been one of extreme and rapid changes. Without the ability to adapt rapidly, few species would survive long-term. Sexual species evolved because the selection of mates allows a species to adapt more rapidly. Death serves the same purpose—to clear the way for new organisms and accelerate the rate of adaptation. The message is clear; stay in tune with your customers and your markets and rapidly adapt to their needs.
Diversification. For a whole planet or whole ecosystem, nature pursues a strategy of diversification. For example thousands of trees, shrubs, vines, bacteria, fungi, etc., all compete with each other in a forest. If a tree falls, other organisms quickly take its place. Diversification is the strategy that the United States should pursue to achieve the strongest and most reliable economic growth.
Specialization. For an individual organism, however, nature’s strategy tends to be specialization. Each organism is best adapted, or specialized, so that it can exploit a niche in the ecosystem. This same specialization is evident in the corporate world. Businesses should strive to achieve competitive advantage by specializing in a limited number of products, categories, technologies, business models, and/or geographies.
Autonomy. Each animal, plant, vine, insect, bacterium, and fungus stands alone and fends for itself. If an individual organism fails, the whole ecosystem does not collapse. Other organisms rush into the void. Social behavior among some species is a kind of collective intelligence, but each individual still retains autonomy. Micro-management doesn't work very well.
Intelligence. Each autonomous entity has the capacity to make “decisions” that might improve its chances of survival. Trees react to insects, temperature variations, rainfall and drought. Even the simplest bacteria have some decision-making capability. Everyone in an organization should be empowered to bring about positive change.
These are some of the lessons that nature shares with us about long-term survival. If businesses and organizations follow some of nature’s principles, they too can improve their chances of long-term success.
About the Author
Jerry W. Thomas (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President/CEO of Decision Analyst. He may be reached at 1-800-262-5974 or 1-817-640-6166.
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