Business lessons from nature #2 – Topic Introduction
In nature-inspired entrepreneurship, we draw an analogy between a natural system and a human organisation. This analogy is the basis for The Green Startup – Business Lessons From Nature article series. In this series nature serves as the inspiration for valuable lessons to build a (startup) business. We will continue with four important topics that will be shortly introduced in the article below: efficiency, diversity, resilience and sustainability. Each of these topics will be explained separately and more in-depth in articles to come. More importantly, we will also explain how to use them for the benefit of your (startup) business. You will get notified about further articles if you subscribe below.
Maximise organisational efficiency and business growth will follow.
Nature maximises efficiency to create as much life as possible
In all natural systems, from a whole ecosystem to a single cell, the emphasis lies on efficiency. The systems are designed in the most efficient way and to serve in the most efficient way. Efficiency is all about how much energy is put in and how much value is created from it. In nature the energy is (in)directly derived from the sun and the output is life. The goal of all life on earth is creating more life from the available energy. To produce as much life as possible within ecosystem boundaries, nature maximises efficiency. The species that excel in efficiency can be found on this planet the longest. Maximal efficiency can only be achieved without spilling anything. Thus, plants’ leaves are designed to catch as much sunlight as possible without this costing too much energy. The hexagon shape used by bees to build honeycombs, is the most efficient shape in terms of the least surface needed to form the biggest storage space. Cactuses’ leaves evolved into thorns so that water transpiration was reduced and efficiency increased. These are just a few examples on how nature maximises efficiency.
Nature focuses on efficiency because organisms can only uptake a limited amount of the energy available. Moreover, using energy costs energy, and a limited amount of energy can be stored simultaneously. Another reason why efficiency is important is that energy is not always at hand, due to unpredictable changes in the environment. That is why in nature (and our bodies), available energy is not all used at once and different types of buffers are used.
Pursuing efficiency means aiming to find a balance between inputs and outputs. Since efficiency in nature means that organisms only take what is needed, efficiency also contributes to the factors diversity, resilience and sustainability which will be addressed later.
Efficiency in organisations
Businesses overlook efficiency as an important business objective, because focusing on efficiency is not choosing for the easy way. Putting in more investments and or hiring more people might seem like the way to go in order to grow as a company. But why put in more energy if you might be able to create more outputs without more inputs? Growth is not always beneficial if the business is not efficient, since using energy also costs energy. Pumping in more money and people too fast might increase revenues faster, but investing in efficiency will build a stronger business in the long run.
See increasing efficiency as a longterm investment that will ensure that consumers will keep choosing you because you will be able to supply the best service / product for the best price. Focusing too much on growth instead of efficiency might cause consumers to choose for a competitor. That competitor can offer a better product for a better price because they do excel in efficiency, did not put in too much energy too fast, and are adding inputs more gradually to last longer.
Improving efficiency also decreases environmental impacts and therefore enables businesses to offer an environmentally sustainable product / service. Increasing governmental regulations around sustainability and increasing environmentally awareness among consumers are creating a demand for businesses that care about environmental sustainability. It is for certain that this demand will keep growing and that unsustainable businesses are about to face increasing difficulties to maintain their business as usual.
If you want to create a sustainable business that brings real value to people, don’t focus on growth. Focus on efficiency and growth will follow organically. Subscribe below to get notified about further articles in The Green Startup – Business Lessons From Nature series. In the following articles we will take a deeper dive into the science of efficiency within and organisations and will elaborate on how to make your business more efficient.
Maximise organisational efficiency and business growth will follow. See diversity as complementary rather than contradictory, this will increase creativity and effective problem-solving within your organisation.
A natural system becomes stronger as diversity increases
The bigger the species richness within a natural system, the stronger the life within it becomes. This is because the different entities within an ecosystem are dependent on the system and therefore on each other. This dependence is manifested in different ways. A certain species can need another species to serve as food and need a third species to become food itself. This food web avoids consequences like starvation due to overpopulation. Different species serve different roles within an ecosystem and therefore need each other. In other words, they form a liveable habitat together.
The most resilient ecosystems have the highest diversity and are therefore the most resistant to unexpected circumstances. In case an ecosystem gets struck by a disastrous drought, flood or plague, the least adapted species might get wiped out. The rest of the ecosystem will stay standing provided that there is sufficient diversity. Subsequently, the species that were harmed the most will also have a bigger change to come back if the rest of the ecosystem is still intact. You could say that diversity is a way in which nature spreads its risks.
Diversity also plays an important role within the same animal species. Diversity of personalities within a population is beneficial to the population as a whole. Reason for this is that also within each species there are different roles to fulfil. These roles can be carried out best by the personality that fits the role. A species can benefit from fast and aggressive members in some situations, while the slower and more attentive ones are essential at other moments. A population might need loners to take the lead, but also needs its social members to ensure group harmony and get offspring. In this way all the different personalities complement each other and can function as one.
Diversity in organisations
In human organisations we also see that we become stronger due to diversity. In humanity you can think of diversity in gender, ethnicity, culture, personalities and cognitive functioning. Science shows that you don’t only see the importance of this diversity in business organisations, but also in the market, politics, cities, neighbourhoods, relationships etc.
With concerns to diversity in the workplace, collaborating with people from different backgrounds is not always convenient. Within a diverse group, perspectives get challenged, people might have to explain themselves more, others will have to learn new things. However, this is exactly what enables creativity and effective problem-solving. Diversity is therefore crucial to thrive as a (beginning) business.
Another way in which diversity in nature and human organisations can be compared concerns how it contributes to resilience. Just like in nature, business resilience can be achieved by spreading risks. Think of, different investments, different products or services, different experiments, etc.
Thus, diversity adds to business success while it also increases business resilience. Subscribe below to get notified about further articles in The Green Startup – Business Lessons From Nature series. In the following articles we will take a deeper dive into the science of diversity within organisations and we will elaborate on how to increase and manage diversity within your (startup) business.
Embrace the fact that setbacks are needed in order to grow.
Resilience is inherent to nature
Resilience is adapting to change and nature is wired to adapt to change. This applies for both sudden adaptions as well as incremental changes. Life on this planet is unpredictable and that is why each species is adapted to the unexpected to some extent. Nature is also able to quickly adapt to and restore from sudden natural disasters, as one whole that is made up of different species. That is why after a natural disaster, it usually does not take long before nature takes back the affected area. This type of resilience is based on the interconnectedness between different species. In nature, life makes place for new life. All life on earth is built up from the same elements. Because earth is a close system, the same elements have been passed on from one sort of life to the other. Through evolution, life as a whole becomes better adapted and more resilient with every new generation. That is the reason that nature needs setbacks in order to grow.
Nature evolves by learning from the environment and at the same time learning from other species. The interconnected evolution that takes places among different species is the reason why nature is so coherent. This coherence ensures that nature functions as a whole and that one species can benefit from characteristic traits of another. Biodiversity also ensures that an ecosystem is built up out of different entities, with different traits and different roles. Just like mentioned before, this is how nature ‘spreads its risks’. That is how diversity and resilience go hand in hand.
Resilience in organisations
The analogy between resilience in nature and resilience in businesses is quite obvious. In a business we can also define resilience as being prepared for the unexpected and the ability to recover and learn from altered circumstances. As an entrepreneur this means you have to be able to quickly adapt to disruptions and maintain continuous business operations while learning for the future. Organisational diversity leads to increased resilience as well. This applies to diversity in people, diversity in products / services, diversity in investments, etc. Again, spreading chances.
Business resilience is especially important today because the business environment is becoming increasingly dynamic and unpredictable. Due to factors like accelerated technology evolution, increasing globalisation, resource depletion, new regulations around climate change, etc. However, resilience asks for a long-term perspective and businesses (and shareholders) often focus on maximising short-term returns. They often focus on planning that does not take into account the unpredictability of changes or the unknown. However, just like in the natural world, unexpected changes are unavoidable in today’s business world. The question you need to ask yourself as an entrepreneur, is if you have what is needed to adapt to a setback. And when a setback – big or small- is at hand, do you learn from this to prepare for the future? By learning, setbacks lead to growth. Just like in nature. Thus, it is not about what goes wrong, but about what you do with it. In business, setbacks can increase problem-solving and creativity for the future. Small setbacks can open your eyes to ways to be prepared for potential bigger setbacks in the future.
The unexpected is unavoidable. That’s why you should be prepared to adapt to and learn from altered circumstances. Subscribe below to get notified about further articles in The Green Startup – Business Lessons From Nature series. In the following articles we will take a deeper dive into the science of resilience within organisations and elaborate on how to make your business more resilient.
Diversity + Efficiency + Resilience = Sustainability
Sustainability in nature
Nature’s sustainability means its ability to exist constantly. To ensure that nature as a whole will keep existent, nature uses the limited resources on our planet in ways that ensure sustainability. That means that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The previously described topics – diversity, efficiency, resilience – all add up to a natural world that pursues to exist forever. Nature’s focus on sustainability means that nature only takes what it needs and uses this in the most efficient ways. In that way, all that earth has to offer can be shared between different species and different generations. Because only together it can function as one successful, resilient whole.
Sustainability in organisations
In contrary to nature, humans have not been focusing on sustainability. Humans are inherently focused on individual short-term benefits, rather than long-term collective benefits. Even now that we know a lot more about the negative externalities of our actions, we still mainly choose our own short-term benefits while compromising the ability of other nations and generations to meet their needs. We have been using and using up this planet’s resources for too long. This has led to us pushing this planet over its boundaries and causing irreversible damage. This damage is increasingly bringing an end to the beautiful and inhabitable world as we know it.
Businesses are the manifestation of how we have been focusing on short-term profits at the cost of everything else. This is not strange because today’s business world is built within the current economy. The current economy is only successful when there is growth. The limits of our current economy are well described by the following quote by Kenneth Boulding:
“Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
There is no way back but there is still a way to change our current ways and mitigate the speed at which we are currently heading towards an uninhabitable world. To limit our influence we need to minimise the negative externalities as soon as possible. However, as a very complex species we have developed a very complex system that is resistant to change. Therefore, disruptive change on a large scale is necessary. We need a global socio-economic transition in which businesses can play a big role. Research has shown that consumption is by far the strongest determinant and the strongest accelerator of increases of global environmental and social impacts. Businesses have a huge impact on our consumption patterns and are able to greatly impact change in our consumption patterns.
We have the knowledge and technology to change the way we consume without influencing our life satisfaction. Now we need (new) businesses to use this knowledge and technology to build a sustainable world together. In a sustainable world, we will not have to give up on life satisfaction. We do have to distribute life satisfaction better, between nations and between generations. As a (future) business owner you can make an impact, even if it is small. Together we have the opportunity to build a sustainable world.
Subscribe below to get notified about further articles in The Green Startup – Business Lessons From Nature series. In other articles we will take a deeper dive into the science of sustainability within organisations and elaborate on how to make your business more sustainable.
Inspired by: “The 8 master lessons of nature: what nature Teaches us about living well in the world” by Gary Ferguson