Organizational Change
Climax Ecosystems:
Looking to Nature to Optimize Your Company Culture

A resilient organization must operate in a way that ensures all associated entities survive and thrive.

In a healthy ecosystem, everyone has a niche and a role; feedback loops are short and constant, ensuring accountable and creative decision-making is happening at all levels. Functioning in this way not only strengthens internal functionality, but allows organizations to better nurture crucial outside partnerships.

So, what if an organization functioned like a climax ecosystem? Sharp feedback mechanisms, efficient supply chains, and self-organized teams create organizations that are always ready for the next big opportunity.

The concept of organizations as ecosystems is more than just a trendy topic. Nature’s models offer a set of best practices that reveal instant opportunities.

This innovative concept of applying nature’s intelligence to transform the way we do business is beginning to take root around the world thanks to biomimicry for social innovation, which uses innovation inspired by nature to help develop practices that foster both organizational and societal change.

Biomimicry is a results-driven approach that’s been used by organizations of all kinds — from corporations to nonprofits to government entities — to solve some of their toughest challenges. The government of Alameda County, California, for example, employed biomimicry's core lessons in a peer-to-peer pilot program focused on teaching more sustainable behaviors. And America Learns, a data management company, opted to forgo its year-end sales push, and instead entered a self-imposed period of "hibernation" to slow down, turn inward and reconfigure its operations. The following year, the company's sales increased 20 percent.

The Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) tested this approach in March during an Innovation Lab I led as a part of my work at Roy Group, a leadership development consultancy based on Vancouver Island.

Roy Group has worked with EEDC for the past 18 months to help the organization maximize its partnerships in the community by boosting leadership internally. EECD has been tasked with creating a system within the City of Edmonton in which everyone has a niche and a web of relationships. The ability to network, spread feedback and adapt to changing conditions is very important.

Central to this nonprofit's many responsibilities is the mandate to provide leadership through economic growth strategies within the region.

Ellen Hollinger, EEDC’s VP for human resources, stressed to me the importance of innovation: “We are building innovation into our leadership mindset and practices to be seen as an innovative organization to work alongside,” she said.

It's a tall order, and one that I saw as a perfect opportunity to apply biomimicry for social innovation.

When we gathered the EEDC team of 30 for the Innovation Lab, biomimicry was the central focus. Teams began work designing initiative-based solutions for five vital areas of impact they had identified prior to meeting.

Seated at tables full of natural artifacts, each team’s work was guided by Life’s Principles, i.e., design lessons from nature (see figure below). Life’s Principles recognize that life has evolved a set of strategies that have sustained life on Earth for over 3.8 billion years. These strategies represent the overarching patterns found among the species surviving and thriving on Earth.

The teams used Life’s Principles as a checklist and a prompt for evaluation and innovation. Each initiative idea was vetted by how well it could accomplish things like adapting to changing conditions, and how well it integrated development with growth.

By utilizing Life’s Principles for guidance, after several rounds of quick prototyping followed by honest and specific feedback, the strategic process mimicked evolution. The ideas got better and better as team members re-designed and adjusted them in response to the tough feedback.

By the end of one day’s work, the five initiatives designed by the EEDC teams were three-quarters completed, and the organization now has five dormant seed ready to sprout when the conditions become right. While reluctant to share too much detail, the EEDC team said the initiatives will guide strategic planning efforts, and focus on developing leadership internally with the intent of improving the functionality of networks and information flows. Ultimately, the aim is to create and maintain stronger partnerships externally.

Team members all felt incredibly satisfied because they’d accomplished so much. Part of the magic was in watching participants overcome their fears about not getting it right the first time, and instead letting the feedback and the principles guide the innovation process.

As a result of the work they have done both on the innovation front and, in developing stronger feedback mechanisms, I see a resiliency in the culture at EEDC, one that fosters co-creation and quick adjustments; one where leadership is amplified at all levels. Like a Type 3 ecosystem, nothing is wasted and there’s no gap in the organizational chart.

Overall, it points to the potential of biomimicry for social innovation as a broad application. It comes down to one comforting realization I often reflect in my work and in my life: Nature has solved every problem there is.

Learn how you can leverage cooperative relationships to foster productive, results-driven innovation that creates thriving company cultures during the live webinar, Why Nature Fosters Cooperation, presented by Synapse by Biomimicry 3.8.

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