Key Findings from Schumacher College Course on Business Inspired by Nature

In an age of volatility and constant transformation, the organizations that thrive are not the ones that can predict and prepare themselves for every single risk and for every change (because we simply can’t), but the ones who are resilient enough. Resilience refers to nature’s way of adapting to change and indicates the degree to which organizations can recover after (unforeseen) disturbances. Or, the way Rocky would put it: “What counts is how hard you can get hit and still go on.” Resilient organizations are characterized by abundance, divergence, interconnectedness, adaptiveness and optimization. Companies like Atos Origin and Akzo Nobel have already well evolved in this direction. Can others accomplish this too? Yes… and: let’s investigate some of the levers that your companies (or your clients) can use in order to become more resilient.

Abundance: spread out competences and assets so that, when one part of the organization gets hit by a disturbance, other parts can still react. Does your organization benefit experience sharing and re-use of work deliverables? To what degree is peer-to-peer coaching ‘natural’ in your organization? To what degree is there decentralized decision making?
Do you inhibit critical knowledge to be held in one department or in one head? Do your revenues depend heavily on one group of clients or products/services? Do you rely on a chosen few to react to crisis? When people in your organization turn sick or have an accident, can their colleagues easily fill in for them? Are you able to level the work across departments?

Divergence: different reactions to disturbances. Do you as a manager make sure there is lateral thinking – looking for more than one solution, also those not invented here? Can you adapt your competitive battle order in a way your competitors don’t expect it – e.g. fast product launches, focus change from one segment to another? Are you able to reach your clients and stakeholders through different channels?

Interrelated value chains and intense collaborations: like underground funghi networks that use one organism’s output to feed another one. Do you have a value chain or Lean management approach on process efficiency? Do you limit (all sorts of) waste? Is your value chain (partly) integrated with suppliers’ or other partners’ value chains (and does your ‘waste’ serve as ‘food’ for others)? Do you co-create products or collaborate with customers? Does your organization reward collaboration across departments? Does collaboration between different profiles amplify their individual skills? Do you manage your projects while thinking about interdependencies (impact of your projects on others and vice versa)?

Adaptiveness: fast learning and tuning thanks to short feedback loops. Do you know what are the preconditions to successful change in your organization. Do you have quality checks built into your processes? Are your collaborators aware of which signals of the environment they need to capture and give feedback on? Do you create a safe space to learn from past mistakes?

When you run a change program, is it a one-size-fits-all approach? Or do people understand what is their specific contribution to the bigger purpose? Does your communication appeal to their sense of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness or fairness (‘SCARF’)? Do they have the appropriate local information to act upon – i.e. do you translate your communication at the receiving end? Do you know which conversations you want to hear about the desired change? Are you making it “impossible to be misunderstood” – to quote Quintillius

Optimization: reactions to disturbances are of the right ‘ampleur’.How have you made sure to understand the root causes of the problems you face before you act? How can you guarantee there is no overshooting in your solutions? Do you know what you have to do to keep the promises you make to clients, taking into account your capacity, processes and systems?

Can a whole organization change in one big bang? Probably not. Even if a company has made its mind and its heart up to what it reallywants to become in terms of resilience, regardless of budget and other current restrictions, there is always a transition process. Starting with those parts of the organization that are today the most adaptive to become (more) resilient, e.g. project organized departments that can rather swiftly adapt to disruptions. They are already used to re-form according to their function or their mission. This layer also protects collaborators less flexible to disruptions and more organized by routine. It is a first step in a gradual evolution towards resilience – at a pace both possible and necessary for the organization.