When people ask me for my favorite examples from nature, I usually suggest that they look in their own back yards, but sometimes the best place to look is in the mirror! Humans– including you — are fantastically resilient.
I recently moved back to the US with my family after living in the UK for 3 years. Both the move to the UK and the move back to the US were fraught with seemingly endless challenges, changes, and disruptions, yet we were able to continually regroup and go on driving towards positive outcomes with great hope that they would be achieved—we were resilient. I know our family is not unique in our resilience. If you reflect on your own life and the lives of those around you, you will be amazed (and perhaps proud of) how often and how well you and your fellow humans bounce back from disruption and the craziness (good and bad) that life continually throws at us. Can you think of an example of when you have been resilient?
My other favorite example of resilience is in your own back yard –in fact it IS our own back yard! Grass is a great example of resilience. Imagine designing something that can happily come back and dutifully perform its many functions after being cut, stomped on, dried out, flooded, and frozen for extended periods of time.
What can businesses learn from nature about resilience? Most businesses focus on trying to predict potentially disruptive events and then protecting themselves against them. Given the rapid rate of change, volatility, and unpredictability that characterizes most aspects our world – technologies, the economy, politics, even our climate—the old predict-and-protect model is no longer viable. Resilience is about the ability to recover after a disturbance, even when we don’t know what hit us. We can build resilience into our businesses by:
- continuously creating mutations then rigorously testing them, eliminating those that don’t work and fostering those that just might be the key to surviving the next disruption — or even creating it.
- providing redundancy for functions that are crucial to survival. This means having two or more distinctly different ways of accomplishing the same thing. Photosynthesis is the very basis of life on earth, so you can find leaves (and other green things) of every shape and size in every nook and cranny in every ecosystem on earth.
- fostering a diversity of people and thinking and approaches and practices throughout the organization. There is an unbelievable diversity of ‘bugs’ in the soil. Only a fraction is active at any time, but the diversity means that the soil can recover and do its many jobs under almost any circumstances.
- maintaining dynamic flexible optimization across your systems – both internal and external — rather than striving to maximize or minimize individual components. Mycelium in the soil interconnect the roots of plants and trees in the forest, distributing information and resources throughout the ecosystem to ensure that a hit to one part of the system doesn’t take down the whole.
One lesson in resilience that I have learned from nature recently that is so subtle yet so profound, is to stop focusing on problem-solving and instead relentlessly drive toward positive outcomes. That’s tough for those of us trained to analyze, but it is the key both resilience and to radical innovation! When there is a drought, a plant doesn’t analyze how much water is left or when the next rain might come, it just keeps searching for more water and reducing its water consumption –by calling into play its mutations, redundancies, diversity, and re-optimizing its systems. In humans, it is expressed as the will to live. You know all about resilience because you are human and part of nature. If you want to explore examples of resilience, look in the mirror!