Win, Lose or Draw?

What bracken can teach us about business relationships

Most often when we look at organisms in nature we think of competition. Indeed if one looks for competition one will find what appear to be competitive relationships.  Examples of such “win-lose” relationships can be described as follows:

  • Competition: both organisms adversely influenced by each other’s pursuit of growth
  • Amensalism: production of toxins favour the growth of one organism over another (e.g. allelopathy)
  • Parasitism: One organism derives its nutritional requirements at the expense of another
  • Predation: Consumption of one organism by another

But as with all things in nature, if we take a different perspective, and most important a broader perspective (physical or temporal), we might see something completely different and start to understand why what appears to be a win-lose relationship is actually a type of mutualism.

A good example is bracken fern.  Bracken is a large, coarse fern that is found on all continents except Antarctica and in all environments except deserts.  They are an evolutionary success story, having survived on earth for more than 55 million years. This is partially related to their rapid growth form, tolerance of a wide range of conditions, fire tolerance, extensive rhizominous growth, and putative allelopathic capacity.  Bracken fern is known to produce and release chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants.  Because of this aggressive growth form and the production of allelopathic and carcinogenic compounds, at one time the British government undertook the impossible task of eradicating bracken from the landscape, which has since been discontinued.

In the short term game of bracken v. undisturbed upland pasture or heather, bracken is the likely winner.  But is this win, lose, or draw?  While easily dominating other vegetation, bracken also provide home or host to myriad other organisms. Bracken is also an ecosystem engineer, improving the soil with enriched nutrients and improved drainage.

Although there are some conflicting studies, bracken appears to increase nitrogen availability and may increase phosphorus availability compared to heather or grasses.  Although improved drainage conditions are favourable to bracken, they would also be an enormous benefit to succeeding plants.  In long-term succession, it is highly likely that a decadent bracken stand will lose ground to forest stand development.  Once established, forest species overtopping bracken shade out this light demanding plant and benefit from the improved fertility conditions imparted by the bracken.  Similarly, disturbance due to humans (e.g. tillage) or grazing may open the site back up to grasses or crop plants that would benefit from the improved fertility and drainage conditions.  This is summed up by the Welsh adage: “Newyn dan y grug, arian dan y lithin, aur dan y rhedyn” (“Under heather famine, under gorse, silver, under bracken, gold”).   Importantly, gorse is a nitrogen-fixing plant, but in spite of that additional input, bracken is associated with the most fertile of conditions.  Whether bracken creates these conditions or colonizes areas that are generally more fertile is not completely clear, but given its ability to colonize so broadly, it former is a more likely correct answer.

So, what appears to be a win-lose in the short run may actually be a draw or a win-win in the big picture – it just depends on your perspective.

What does this mean for business?  It has long been assumed that competition is the primary relationship in the business world.  The focus has been on maximizing profits and minimizing costs, typically at the expense of suppliers and consumers and almost always at the expense of the environment.  It can be hard to imagine any other way – unless we learn from nature and take a bigger and/or longer perspective.  There is competition in nature, of course, but along with the competition – sometime concurrent with competition — comes myriad mutualistic relationships, all of which benefit the greater ecosystem in which the organisms live.  A business inspired by nature can seek gold under the bracken.

~ thanks to Professor Tom DeLuca for information on bracken!