There was a time when I was young, opinionated and stupid that I thought people who invested their time, energy, intellect, and taxpayers’ money studying ants, termites, fungi, and fossils were nuts. I’m now starting to understand that we can learn a lot from animals and organisms that have occupied our planet very successfully with practically no change in their basic nature for hundreds of millions of years. Here’s why.
As he approached his 94th birthday Sir David Attenborough said, “We need to reconnect with nature, for our own health – as well as the Earth’s.” At the time I read that comment I was reading Tamsin Woolley-Barker’s book Teeming: How superorganisms work to build infinite wealth in a finite world. I strongly agree with Sir David and I strongly recommend Tamsin’s book.
The essence of Tamsin’s book is that by carefully studying the principles that have enabled the success of the living world over millions of years we can develop a framework to solve our own ability to adapt to change simply because, as Darwin noted, “It’s not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
Tamsin has identified a dozen patterns that contribute to the way in which nature builds infinite wealth – and by that, I mean sustainable wealth creation – a word we’re now frequently hearing but which means many different things to different people. She call this avenue of inquiry, biomimicry. As you read through the 12 patterns, you’ll probably better understand how her work with nature is relevant to business (and society generally.)
Her 12 wealth drivers, which are observed directly from the behaviour of nature’s superorganisms, are listed below but first a quick definition – a superorganism is a colony of genetically distinct individuals of the same species that live and work together performing different tasks and no one survives alone. By that definition, humans are superorganisms. Effectively they act as one creature e.g. ants but when you read the book you start to realize humans are not as smart as ants.
If you look through the list of wealth drivers she talks about, you can’t help seeing the connection with today’s interconnected social and business landscape – I’ve illustrated this, non-exhaustively, in parentheses and the more I think about it the more it seems to make sense that we are evolving along this path.
Superorganisms cultivate Collective Intelligence
- By facilitating self-organized networks [The internet and specifically social media – interestingly, the most valuable companies, by market cap, are platform businesses that built on primarily self-organizing networks – e.g. the FAANG group of companies]
- By aggregating scattered scraps into something greater [E.G. Jobs’ & Bezos’ concept of connecting the dots to create giant organizations but at a product level see this being a key philosophy of Patagonia – see point 12 for reference.]
- By cultivating diversity and independence [Covey’s 7 Habits, specifically habits 1-3 and habit 6, diversity is the key to resilience.]
- By communicating open, two-way, always-on conversations [Social media]
- By triggering tipping-point decisions with simple rules and feedback loops [Trip Adviser, AirBnB, Amazon reviews etc]
Superorganisms rely on Distributed Leadership
- Align action around a compelling shared purpose – a better future [The power of WHY e.g. Simon Sinek]
- Zip specialised modular teams together as needed [Management 3.0, flat organization structures, and emerging ideas about the need have organizations as a Team of Teams (General Stanley McCrystal) to deal with unpredictable complex events, see also Hamel & Zanini’s book Humanocracy in which they advocate tapping into the human talent pool by removing the overhead burden of bureaucracy.
- Distribute leadership to integrate local information with a global vision [realization that diversity and proximity to customers is what drives evolutionary change – global consulting firms are built on this premise]
Superorganisms nurture Swarm Creativity
- Launch many parallel, low-investment experiments [Agile business model and product development movement that has become the innovation model of choice]
- Tune social networks to spread innovation or suppress it [Countless innovation labs e.g. Kraggle.com but also the impact social media has had on the dissemination of real/fake news that leads to swarm behaviour that is socially dysfunctional]Share the work and the wealth, and protect collective value from parasites [University College London – Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose and UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals. See also my Blog post for November 2019]
Superorganisms depend on Reciprocity and Sharing
- Share the work and wealth and protect collective value from parasites. We’re seeing this in job sharing, the evolution of the GIG economy, and an increasing sensitivity to the failure of capitalism to deal with the issue of wealth sharing.
Superorganisms compound Regenerative Value
- Build with infinite stuff and regenerate it for compounding wealth [A corporate example of this idea is Patagonia. Visit its website www.patagonia.com and take a look at its Mission and Values – “We’re in business to save our home planet”. It is a great example of how corporate profitability, founder wealth accumulation, and social wealth creation can be aligned. Also read founder Yvon Chouinard’s book Let My People Go Surfing and take note of the 8 philosophies the company subscribes to.]