In times of rapid change, or when the climate becomes harsher, species have to work hard to survive. Many don’t. We are currently experiencing the highest levels of species loss since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But some will survive, even flourish.

Businesses also go through hard times. What can they learn from the natural world about surviving when the going gets tough?

1. Speed of adaptation. Everyone can adapt, but in times of rapid change it’s the speed of adaptation that counts. How agile is your company? How long does it take to make a decision and implement it? A lot will depend on the levels of trust within the organisation and whether people feel empowered to act on new information.

2. Diversity. One of the reasons General Motors went under is that its board was made up mostly of middle-aged white men. Group-think and a lack of different perspectives meant that it wasn’t open to the radical changes that could have saved the company. Resilient companies embrace diverse cultures, personalities and perspectives.

3. It’s not about the individual. Successful species put the survival of the species ahead of the individual. In hard times, companies have to work as an integrated whole and can’t afford the luxury of stars who are not team players. Similarly, individual departments can’t be allowed to thrive if the overall result is harmful to the company.

4. Pay attention to the ecosystem. A species depends on many other species to live. If they go under, it goes under too. Similarly a successful company will help the other companies it depends on to survive as well. Negotiating harsh contracts with your suppliers and sub-contractors may be a short-term win. But if they go out of business where does that leave you? Beyond these immediate connections, what are you doing to help the community thrive, supporting schools, healthcare, infrastructure etc?

5. Emergence through experimentation. In a chaotic and unpredictable world it doesn’t work to create one bulletproof plan and then stick to it. Successful companies will shift away from failsafe design to safe-to-fail experimentation. Try lots of things on a small scale. Allow those that don’t work to die quickly and throw more resources behind things that do work. In this way a winning strategy will emerge.

6. Small is beautiful. Large creatures like blue whales or giant redwoods do well in times of stability. Economies of scale make them highly efficient. But those very qualities of fine-tuned efficiency make them slow to adapt and vulnerable to change. Similarly, change in large organisations is always going to take time. Meanwhile small ‘skunk groups’ and military-style crews assembled and dismantled at short notice can drive innovation within a large organisation.

7. Migration. If your niche is under pressure and its future is in doubt, then it’s time to look around for either a new niche, or the same niche in another part of the world that is opening up. The key is understanding at a deep enough level what your strengths are so that you can find a niche that plays to those strengths.

Above all, in tough times it the quality of your people and the relationships you have built that will determine whether you survive or go the way of the Dodo. Get the very best out of your people by implementing the Enhancing Their Gifts System™

Mike Lowe
Helping individuals and teams get into flow

Seven things companies can learn from evolution if they want to survive.
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