Organizations are focused on how to accomplish change – how to lead it and how to sustain it. In a recent blog, I wrote about the relationship between culture and change. I illustrated why we cannot think of our organizations as machines – especially when leading change. Mechanistic organizations are designed to function in a specific way and only engage in change when something is “broken.” If we think of our organizations as machines, they won’t naturally adapt to external change because machines don’t evolve.
Nature changes all the time, but its focus isn’t on change – it’s on evolution. Like Nature, living systems are changing and dynamic, a central aspect of an interdependent system. Nature doesn’t need to worry about leading change because change is normal. Similarly, Nature doesn’t need to worry about sustaining change because change isn’t the goal. Change is only a means to evolution. Evolution is the goal.
What does nature evolve toward?
Nature is designed to create conditions conducive to the life of future generations. It is one of its impact measures. There are patterns that show up as ecosystems evolve from Type I ecologies to Type III ecologies. For example, Type III ecologies are seen as being more generous. Because of their greater biodiversity, relationships form between species and plant life to provide mutualistic benefits to each other. Unlike previous ecologies, which need all or many nutrients from the soil they grow in, Type III ecologies gain their nutrients through relationships and give back nutrients to the soil. Nature is always evolving to become more biodiverse, more complex, more interdependent, and more resilient.
What direction do organizations evolve toward?
If biological evolution has a pattern to it, can living organizations have a pattern of evolution as well? If so, what would it look like? Here are some of my thoughts:
- We would have more diversity, just like the increased biodiversity in nature. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are often seen as a value, not as a critical need for an organization’s resilience. But Nature teaches us that resilience and diversity are directly linked. One of nature’s design principles is that it rewards cooperation and banks on diversity. It is the diversity that allows for better adaptation to shifts in an ecosystem. For example, a single food change (like a single supply chain) is a fragile system. The fragility comes from the ease with which it is disturbed. If you have a single supply chain, any disruption in the chain disrupts everything in the chain. Like a single food chain, if any species dies off, every species above that in the chain dies as well. An organization that evolves has the ability to be more diverse and resilient.
- Nature tells us that with evolution comes more complexity. Sometimes we confuse complicated with complexity, but they are not the same. Complicated systems often have more variables and are more mechanistic and bounded. Nature is an unbounded dynamic system, and it continually adds new variables because the boundary between the niche ecosystem and the larger ecosystem is open. Organizations naturally become more complex as they become open systems. Their interaction with their external environment keeps adding new variables into the mix and their strategy is built on the emergent patterns, not by drilling down to the detailed parts of the system. Evolution is seen through the lens of the whole, not its parts.
- Nature becomes more interdependent and relational. It becomes a network of relationships that share resources, information, and connection. The “survival of the fittest” mentality and the competitive (siloed) culture that results supplanted to “survival of the best fit” with its evolutionary focus on adaptability and the quality of life it creates for future generations.
Choosing evolution over change
If we learned from nature, we would lead our organizations so they would evolve instead of change. We would ask how the change we think is necessary helps the organization evolve in the future. We would be looking for key characteristics, like diversity, resilience, complexity, interdependence, and mutualistic relationships and cooperation as metrics, not a single criteria like profits above all else. And finally, we would be measuring our impact on the future generations of life, not just financial accountability at the end of the quarter this year.