We are living in interesting times, which shouldn’t surprise those of us who see the world as an interconnected, complex, dynamic and open system. COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, is one example of a unique (and distressing) event that can happen within these kinds of systems. At the very least, something “new” can emerge that we simply haven’t seen before. Suddenly it seems we’re required to first notice, then adapt to what is changing.

In nature this type of event is not only normal, it’s natural and assumed. Yet in human systems, we think these kinds of surprises should be kept to a minimum or even prevented from occurring at all. That’s because we think we have the ability to control the system. In our minds, unexpected event shouldn’t happen in the first place. The question at the top of my mind is this: What can nature teach us this worldwide event that is impacting our health, our social interactions, and our business practices? In other words, how can nature help us meet the challenges we face from the coronavirus? 

Lessons from Nature

Nature has several lessons that can provide some insight, or “clues” about the coronavirus outbreak and its spread:

  • Our ability to notice and really listen to disruptive events is essential to adaptation and resilience in the face of change. A major impact on the spread of the coronavirus has been the speed of governments and organizations to recognize the threat and its potential implications. The sooner an individual, organization, or government saw the problem, the faster the threat was contained. Those who weren’t listening or didn’t want to understand the information, or worse, had an agenda to diminish the impact of this threat, delayed their responses and heightened the impacts.
  • We need to see how all the moving parts are connected and create “balcony level” patterns that can help us develop better strategies. To understand how to adapt and build strategies, we need people in our organizations who look for patterns in the interconnection of multiple systems. In the coronavirus, we have health, travel, business supply lines and strategy, political will and response, adaptive capacity of our responses, emotional reactions to the threat, ability to learn, individual corporate and community responses, and a number of other things bumping into each other. If we try and analyze what is happening from only one perspective, we will continue to be blindsided as more implications unfold. Now is not the time to see things simply.
  • The more we look for lessons to learn from the event, the faster we will be able to redesign our current practices to something that is more viable in the long term. Our current business models are focused to optimize quarterly profits. As a result, we have made decisions that created a single supply chain for many goods and services. We have chosen to use China as the primary source of our supply because of cheap labor. However, nature is designed for resilience and regeneration. It creates food webs instead of single food chains. In a single food chain, if one species drops out, every species that feeds off dies as well. In a food web, if one species dies out, there is redundancy in the web and other species and plant life fill in the gap. There are lessons for our business on the risk of optimizing a part of the system over the long-term health of our business. We need to create supply line webs, like nature does.
  • To reset strategy, we need to focus on the resilience of the larger system over time. Nature is a short and long-term system. It always balances the needs in the short-term with the needs of the long-term. In nature, the focus is on evolving the whole system over time. It asks, will the design help the system regenerate and create conditions conducive to future life? What if our corporations and governments used this same criterion to make decisions? At a minimum it would drive us to redesign our supply chains.

Lessons are everywhere –  but are we listening?

There are different ways to respond to the coronavirus. The first is to focus on what needs to be done and what we need to know to develop a strategy to contain the outbreak. Next we need to examine how this virus is exposing fragility or a lack of resilience in our business, investments, and leadership practices. Lastly, we must look deeper for lessons that help us change our defaults and assumptions going forward and redesign for increased resilience in the short and long-term.