Management

Can organizations be designed like the rain forest? What can we learn from Rain forests?

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These days, GREEN is the ‘in-thing’. Just like innovation; GO-GREEN, Eco-Friendly, etc are words that one would find in most organizational mission statements.  The irony is that just like innovation, organizations seems to be clueless on what this whole ‘GO-GREEN, Eco-Friendly’ thing really means — beyond the rhetoric.

I would say that the first step towards that could be to learn from the natural environment around us. These natural surroundings are like living universities and can teach lessons that one can’t study in all the IVY league business schools combined. We just have to observe these natural surroundings and be ready to absorb, learn and apply those principles in business.

Seemingly remote natural systems like the rainforests can be a great place for organizations to learn from.

So, what can organizations learn from rainforests?

Some 15 years ago,  Tachi Kiuchi (Member of the Board of Mitsubishi Electric Corporation), gave a keynote address to the World Future Society on July 19, 1997 around this topic that I regard as the best pieces of literature around learning from Rain Forests and what organizations can learn from rain forests.

Read it here:

http://www.isss.org/primer/asem30tk.html

Key Points that  Tachi Kiuchi makes are:

  • See & understand how a rainforest operates. How can organizations operate like the rainforests?

A rainforest is an example of a place that excels by learning to adapt to what it doesn’t have. A rainforest has almost no resources. The soil is thin. There are few nutrients. It has no productive assets. Yet rainforests are incredibly productive. They are home to millions of types of plants and animals, and more than two-thirds of all biodiversity in the world. Those plants and animals are so perfectly mixed that the system is more efficient, and more creative, than any business in the world.

  • It consumes almost nothing. Wastes are food. Design is capital.

Today’s fast-changing business environment requires that we be alert, and responsive. Agile, and creative. To do so, we must structure our company so we are a learning organization. Not top-down, but bottom-up. Not centralized, but decentralized. Not limited by rules, but motivated by objectives. Not structured like a machine– which cannot learn– but like a living system, which can.

  • Rainforests are a model of the perfect learning organization. 

 How can we begin? By operating less like a machine, and more like a living system. An Industrial Ecosystem.

  • The most important Natural capital is its design. Its relationships.

 In Japan, we have two terms to describe this: omote and uraOmote is the surface or front of an object, ura is its back or invisible side. Omote and ura . External reality and underlying reality.

When I visited the rainforest, I thought: As business people, we have been looking at the rainforest all wrong. What is valuable about the rainforest is not omote — the trees, which we can remove. What is valuable is ura — the design, the relationships, from which comes the real value of the forest. When we take trees from the forest, we ruin its design. But when we take lessons from the forest, we further its purpose. We can develop the human ecosystem into as intricate and creative a system as we find in the rainforest. We can do more with less. Grow without shrinking.

  • Differentiate. 

Be yourself, be unique. In the rainforest, conformity leads to extinction. If two organisms have the same niche, only one survives. The other either adapts, or dies. In today’s economy, the same happens. If two businesses have the same niche — make exactly the same product — only one survives. The other adapts, or dies.

So what are most companies today doing? They are trying to be the one that survives. Cutting costs. Downsizing radically. Desperately seeking the lowest cost. We think it is much smarter to differentiate. Create unique products, different from any others. Fill unique niches. Don’t kill our competitors, or be killed by them. Sidestep them instead.

Be yourself, Be. Only then — after we differentiate — is it time to reduce costs, and grow more efficient. We have learned this the hard way. We sell millions of televisions, stereos, and appliances. We cannot compete by being the lowest-cost operator. Instead, we must offer products that are different, distinctive. We must choose and fill our unique niche.

  • Be a Good Fit. 

We used to say, “Only the fittest survives”. There is only one winner. But in the rainforest, there are many winners. The same can be true in our economy. In the old, uniform, monoculture economy, only one form wins, only the most fit survives. At least until a new invader wipes him out.

In this new, diverse, rainforest economy, it is not a question of who is most fit. It is a question of where we best fit. If we fit — if we solve a social problem, fulfill a social need — we will survive and excel. If we only create problems, we will not.

That it is an eco-system and not silos. In organizations we see one department not taking t another.