Thinking outside the box is nature’s oldest trick in the book. For millions of years, nature has come up with brilliant solutions to complex problems. Nature has figured out how to give birds the ability to fly, how to dispose of billions of tons of biomass on an annual basis, and how to create a microscopic organism that can live through radiation and beyond freezing temperatures down to -328 degrees Fahrenheit. (Tardigrades, also called water bears, are simply amazing.)
When we try to come up with our own innovative solutions and ideas, we should look to nature first. This, of course, is not a new concept. The field of biomimicry approaches all challenges through the lens of nature. As defined by The Biomimicry Institute, “Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.”
The field of biomimicry has led to the design of energy-efficient buildings that resemble the structure of a bee’s honeycomb. We have velcro because a Swiss engineer looked at the burrs matting his dog’s fur under a microscope and mimicked their hooks. The technology used to reduce drag on boats was inspired by the denticles on a shark’s skin.
So, how can we apply this fascinating field to running a business?
Applying Biomimicry to Business Strategy
Nature is made up of various systems that all work together to create functioning ecosystems and invaluable resources like water, air, and food. Nature recognizes that everything, each system and living creature, interacts and operates together, not as separate processes in a bubble. We rarely view our world from this lens of interwoven relationships. As Gregory Bateson articulates in the film An Ecology of Mind, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.”
“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” ~ Gregory Bateson
As a leader, you need to think in terms of interacting systems and look at how each seemingly isolated piece of your company affects the other. Think of your company as an ecosystem where everything interacts and each process is either helped or hindered by how efficient or inefficient another process functions. This lens will lead you to ask questions like,
“How can I save the company money and resources? How can my team be more productive? How can I make this existing process more efficient?”
Cradle to Cradle
When we take our leadership tips from nature, it also pushes us to look at how we can cut down on waste. Think about the resources your company uses on a yearly, monthly, or even a daily basis. How can you cut back on those resources? Where can you reuse it? Is there another company that could make use of your byproduct?
This waste-free approach to business is called cradle to cradle or regenerative design. A cradle-to-cradle system functions at both maximum efficiencies and with as close to zero waste as possible. If all leaders ran their companies using this type of system, it would create healthier societies and work towards solving a lot of the world’s problems, including climate change.
A Nature-Inspired Approach to Beer and Coffee
Although a true cradle-to-cradle system applies to all aspects of a business, it often emerges slowly, with companies taking small steps towards sustainability. The New Belgium Brewery, for example, takes their spent hops and delivers them to a local farm to feed their pigs. Starbucks gives away its used coffee grounds to gardeners who would like to enrich their vegetable beds with this nutrient-rich compost. There are plenty of companies that let natural systems inspire new ways of running things. Not enough leaders, however, apply nature’s wisdom to all facets of their organization.
Differentiate Yourself as an Innovative Leader
No matter where you are in your leadership journey you can start implementing this concept. CEOs can’t think of everything, and companies too often get stuck in archaic systems simply because that’s how it’s always been done. If you think in terms of natural systems and long-term sustainability you will immediately differentiate yourself from the crowd.
What’s one suggestion you could make that would improve the efficiency of your workplace? Overcome your fear and speak up at your next company meeting or offer your advice the next time you have your supervisor’s ear. Not enough leaders think in terms of natural systems and long-term sustainability. You can differentiate yourself and improve the world around you by letting nature inspire your approach to leadership.
I’d love to hear from you …
Have you ever noticed examples of biomimicry in your workplace? Can you think of one way that applying the cradle-to-cradle concept to your company could improve efficiency and ROI? Let me know in the comments your thoughts on using nature as an inspiration for leadership.