AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Natural Work (Part 1)

Copyright 1999 AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc.


What Nature Can Teach Us about Managing Organizations

by Darcy Hitchcock

Hand holding bulb tree

Courtesy kangshutters,

For quite some time, I have been wondering what “natural work”would look like. How would our organizations act if our society lived withinthe limits of nature instead of depleting it? What if our organizationalpractices were better aligned with human nature instead of taxing it? Whatif work became a natural expression of each person’s gifts instead of somethingendured to fund “a life” outside? While we still are all to varyingdegrees stuck in the mechanistic view of the world, we are part of nature.So, it would seem that we could learn a lot about how to improve our organizationsby studying insights from science. In this century we have mostly appliedlessons from psychology–with decidedly mixed results! But what about biology,anthropology, and physics? In fact, what we know about nature and ecosystemscan be applied to organizations. This article explores what nature has toteach us about designing organizations. The next issue of the AXIS Advisorywill apply findings from evolutionary psychology to improve how we managepeople.

A number of months ago, I read Biomimicry, a fascinating book on howto use nature as the inspiration for our own innovations. For example, thefilament spiders weave into their webs is stronger than Kevlar, the strongestfilament humans know how to make (used in bullet proof vests) and at thesame time, more flexible. Spiders make this at room temperature, withoutcreating hazardous waste, and the raw materials are insect guts!

Nature has had a lot more time to experiment with different strategiesthan we. According to scientists, if you compressed the entire lifetimeof earth (4.5 billion years) into one day, the entire reign of Homo sapiens– from stone tools and cave paintings to Y2K — would occupy the last twoseconds before midnight and the industrial revolution only the last seventhousandths of a second. But life has existed for about 4 billion years,most of that cosmic day. Over that time, the strategies that worked wererepeated; those that did not were eliminated. Since nature builds on successfulstrategies (e.g., humans preserved the reptilian brain stem), perhaps ourorganizations can benefit from examining how nature works. We invent newstrategies at our own risk. So, what do we know about nature’s methods?

Nature’s Time-tested Strategies

Nature, through its long evolution of experimentation, has developedsustainable strategies. According to Biomimicry, nature…

  • Runs on sunlight  (so why don’t all our roofs face south so that we can attach solar panels when the technology becomes competitive?)
  • Uses only the energy it needs  (so why do we use energy to purify water, put that water into our toilets, flush and then purify the water again?)
  • Fits form to function  (so why do we have a rigid organization chart, regardless of the task we are completing at the moment?)
  • Recycles everything (so why do we have landfills?)
  • Rewards cooperation  (so why are we so fixated on competition?)
  • Banks on diversity  (so why do we exhort organizations to “stick to your knitting”?)
  • Demands local expertise  (so why do we have parent companies trying to direct distant operations?)
  • Curbs excesses from within  (so why do we think that economic growth will go on forever?)
  • Taps the power of limits  (so why don’t we live within the limits of nature?)

Let’s look at how these principles might weave together to leadus to make different choices about how we do business. Where would we siteour businesses? How would our work processes be different? What would wedo with our waste? And how might the different parts of our organizationsbest operate?

Businesses as Ecosystems

How do natural ecosystems operate? First, they are tied to the land:altitude, the presence of water, climate, etc. (demanding local expertise).They operate within a symbiotic, complex network of mutually beneficialrelationships (rewarding cooperation). The waste products of one organismbecomes food for another (recycling everything). The organisms co-evolve,adapting to the changes of others (fitting form to function). It includesa wide variety of plants and animals (banking on diversity). In order tomake maximum use of the habitat, each organism finds a niche so that thesame tree can be home to multiple bird species, mammals and plants (usingonly what it needs).

Contrast this with our organizational “monocultures” wherezoning separates industry in one area, commercial in another and residencesin a third. Urban sprawl, the direct result of this practice, has gottena lot of attention lately (Al Gore, Time Magazine, etc.) In nature, thefew species that do migrate only do so only twice a year. So why shouldwe line up like wildebeests on our freeways every day? This suburban (oras one wag coined it, “sub-urban”) land-use pattern stems froma day when most of industry was dirty, smelly and hazardous, but as oureconomy increasingly is driven by knowledge work, we can more easily createmixed-use neighborhoods, more like plant communities where the variety ofplants benefit one another.

Just as nature has keystone species upon which the entire ecosystemsdepend(often the most unassuming organisms like plankton), so to are oureconomic communities more dependent on certain organizations or industries.We would be wise to better attend to the diversity in our organizationalecosystems. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, we used to be highlydependent upon the wood products industry, until we hit the limits of natureand had to stop cutting, devastating entire communities. Now we have a “siliconforest,” where we are now dependent upon high-tech. In nature, if aspecies disappears, another quickly fills its niche. When the chip businesswanes, what industry is in the wings, waiting to take over its habitat tofeed us?
Certainly we need to get away from our take-make-waste industrial processes.We take from the environment, make stuff, and then everything ends up asgarbage. According to a study of US manufacturing, only about 6% of thematerials used to create a product actually ends up in the product! Whileindustry has gotten better about improving its efficiencies and findingmarkets for its waste streams, we clearly have far to go.

Take-back legislation may soon force us to close the loop and recycle.Originating in Germany, take-back legislation requires that manufacturerstake back their products when they have reached the end of their usefullife: cars, batteries, vcr’s, even packaging. This legislation is spreadingthrough Europe and parts of Asia and South America. So if you want to dobusiness in those countries or do business with someone who does, the responsibilityto dispose of your own product may be yours. This quickly leads companiesto redesign their products so that at the end of their lifetime, they area resource, not waste, by making them easy to disassemble and reuse, codingall plastics, reducing packaging, etc.

The most famous example of industrial ecology is the town of Kalundborg,near Copenhagen. Here’s how the companies recycle almost everything betweena power plant, oil refinery, plasterboard factory, pharmaceutical plant,sulfuric acid manufacturer, and local farmers:

  • The electrical plant supplies steam to the oil refinery and pharmaceutical plant; it uses its surplus warm water to raise fish.
  • The oil refinery removes sulfur from the oil (to make it cleaner burning) and sells it to the sulfuric acid plant.
  • The plasterboard factory buys surplus gas from the refinery and gets calcium sulfate from the electrical plant.
  • Nearby farmers use the fish sludge from the power plant and by-products from the pharmaceutical plant as fertilizers on their fields.

This symbiosis is facilitated by their proximity. They do not transporttheir waste products over long distances; (remember, nature uses only theenergy it needs.) What if you could cajole most of your suppliers to sitetheir facilities down the street? Just in time manufacturing would be asnap. And what if you also gathered close organizations that would pay foryour waste products. Instead of emptying waste into tankers or dumping processedwater into the stream, you could build a pipe line to another facility.Think of the money you could save through reduced transportation costs andlegal liabilities, not to mention the money you could make selling yourwaste to someone else who needs it.

And what says your vendors have to buy their own place? Cooperate. Letthem do their work on your site. Why not share space, equipment, even people!When the wolf marks its territory, it just wants to keep out competitors,not also its suppliers and customers. But humans mark lines on a plat mapand say, this is MINE. We don’t find our niche in the habitat; we monopolizeit.
If we created organizational ecosystems, we would end up with overlappingindustrial “neighborhoods” around a supply chain. And just likewith natural ecosystems, we would have “transition zones” whichusually are thriving centers of life. Perhaps that is where people wouldlive, in dynamic cultural centers.

Organizations as Organisms

So far we have been discussing the relationships between businesses.Now let’s apply these natural strategies to individual organizations.

Let’s use the human body as a metaphor. We have numerous organs operatingindependently, each with its own success factors, fitting form to function.(Hydrochloric acid is great for the stomach but not so great for the eye.)We even have entirely separate organisms in and on our body which help usdigest food and clean our eyelashes (rewarding cooperation). What alignsmost of these independent units, getting them to cooperate, are neurotransmitters,channels of information. We have cognitive processes but we also have immediatereactions, like when you pull back from a hot burner, requiring local knowledge.For the human body, growth is good only to a point, until we reach an optimalweight and height (curbing excesses from within).

Departments as organs:Again, we tend to ignore nature’s lessons, creating our own rules.In our organizations, we try to align the whole organization and treat everyonethe same way: compensation systems, performance appraisals, planning systems,etc. It’s as if we treat everyone like they are the stomach. Here, havesome hydrochloric acid. No wonder we have caustic conflicts across departments.At one of our clients, the IT department is frustrated because it can’tattract enough programmers because the company’s vacation policy is builtaround blue-collar union workers. We have confused sameness with fairness.

Worse yet, many of those systems encourage competition instead of cooperation.Think of all the ways we create losers in our organizations, pitting peopleagainst one another: merit pay systems built on a bell curve, allocationsfor capital expenditures, measurements by shift.

Corporate nervous systems:Instead of trying to control and be consistent, we might be betteroff building an effective nervous system (for both immediate reactions andwell-thought out, coordinated responses), and letting the organs/departments/teamsdo what they think best. Radical empowerment. Radical shared accountability.Help teams understand their mission; let them know what’s going on in therest of the system; and let them meet their own special needs in their ownway.

Multiple senses: If nature demandslocal expertise, then why are business plans most often written by uppermanagement? We need all our senses to make good decisions. The sales peopletouch the customer; the customer service reps hear their complaints; staffgroups have a nose for emerging innovations. We need to add those inputsto the vision of top management to develop a good plan. At one of our clients,we started the business planning process not at the top of the corporationbut instead at the front lines, generating a flood of ideas for improvingthe business.

Symbiosis in complex organisms:How should multinationals operate if natureuses only the energy it needs and demands local expertise? Certainly, weshould avoid shipping subassemblies and products around the globe in searchof the cheapest labor but at great expense to our non-renewable energy reserves.Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce, gave a wonderful examplein a speech: at the same time that a Canadian beer company is trucking itsbottles to the US, a US truckload of beer passes on the highway on its tripto Canada. He said, “Why don’t they just exchange recipes?” Wehave confused the need to use something with the desire to own it.
Size and structure: The body metaphor also calls into question the “growthis good” cancer-cell mentality. More production, more employees, moredivisions, more profits. Perhaps the “right sizings” of the early1990’s were a recognition that
for your purpose, there is an optimal size (curbing excesses from within).The larger you are, the more energy it takes to communicate, get thingsdone, transfer learning, etc. At some point, the so-called economies ofscale get overwhelmed by the demands of the bloated organization, in ourview, much earlier than most executives would think. (In the next issue,we’ll explore how human nature also puts limits on organization size.)

In the United States, we tend to view limitations as constraints, resentinghow they infringe upon our freedom. But nature taps the power of limitsand some organizations have discovered this as well. Limitations give ussomething to push off of, generating a surge of creativity. Organizationsthat have embraced sustainability as a corporate strategy are discoveringthat the limits of nature serve as powerful catalysts for innovation.

As you can see, there could be many bottom line benefits to aligningour organizations with laws of nature, even though I have only scratchedthe surface of this analysis. But hopefully, this has gotten you thinking.Look back over the nine natural principles and let us know what insightsyou generate as well. Remember, we are part of nature, not separate fromit, despite a long tradition of mechanistic thinking.

The next issue of the AXIS Advisory will explore what “natural work”might look like inside the organization, applying findings about human nature(based on evolutionary psychology) to the management of people.


Case Corner: What to do with waste?

Burley Design, a Eugene-based manufacturer of bicycle carriages, does morethan most to identify uses for their waste streams. In a recent plant tour,they showed us how they compost scraps from the lunch room, use the backsof all correspondence in printers and copiers, reuse packaging for sendingout their products, and recycle/refill printer cartridges. They also do”pre-cycling” by ordering their tubing in the exact lengths theyneed, eliminating waste. But because of intense corporate espionage, theyhad to shred many documents and the recycler didn’t want to take the fluffy
bags. Burley was thrilled when we suggested they contact worm growers in
their area as the shredded paper would make a great growing medium. We also
suggested contacting their local Humane Society which might use it as bedding.
We figured no corporate spy would want to dig through the stuff after that!
In the end, they got a security box for sensitive documents which the recycler
then picks up; this allows them not to shred the paper in the first place,
saving time and energy.

Got something you can’t figure out how to get rid of? Call us for a consultation.

Suggested Reading

A New Way to Grow: Building Communities for People published by CTrain,
PO Box 2529, Vancouver, WA 98668

Biomimicry by Janine Benyus
Industrial Ecology, by Braden Allenby
Journal of Industrial Ecology published by MIT Press
“Learning for a Change” (Alan Webber’s interview with Peter Senge),FastCompany May 1999
The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken
The End of Bureaucracy and the Rise of the Intelligent Organization by Giffordand Elizabeth Pinchot
The Living Company by Arie de Geus


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