Another Business Lesson from Mother Nature . . .


It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.  ~Charles Darwin

In 1975 I left behind my Ph.D. degree in marine biology and ventured, unsuspectingly and very naively, into the world of commerce and business, first for a training company and then as co-founder of an international management consulting firm.  Building a business from nothing is all-consuming and for the next 25 years I rarely thought about biology, nature and evolution, except for those rare holidays taken in Africa, the Caribbean or fishing in Alaska.  Work was my full-time focus (maybe too much so) at the time and we grew our consulting firm rapidly.

When I semi-retired in 2000 I had the luxury to slow down, stop running for airplanes and taxis, and reflect on a few of the many lessons learned over the past 25 years. It was instructive and insightful and even though I am back in the world of consulting working with CEOs and senior leadership teams on strategy execution and culture change, I have taken many of the insights gained from my past education as a biologist into the world of business and organisation effectiveness, as well as lessons in leadership.

One of these lessons has to do with economic stability, complexity and the growth of a business.

There is great benefit from building and running a business in a stable and somewhat predictable period of economic prosperity, such as the world experienced between theeconomy end of WWII and the most recent global financial meltdown in 2008.  A few small recessionary cycles along the way notwithstanding, this was a period of tremendous growth in the global economy.  Rates of growth were positive and predictable in most industries and many businesses thrived and grew large in size (and also highly complex) and very profitable during these times. The globalisation of the financial services industry and the telecoms industry is just one example, with large global players emerging and employing large numbers of people doing all sorts of jobs, many in management.

native-orchidsIn nature we find an analogous situation in the tropics, where the stability of the environment (temperature, humidity, rainfall, daylight) have given rise to an enormous number and diversity of species and highly complex ecological adaptations.  Take Orchids for example.  The number of orchid species equals more than twice the number of bird species, and about four times the number of mammal species. The Orchid family also encompasses about 10% of all seed plants. And the complexity of their life cycles is staggering, especially their interaction with specific bees, butterflies, other insects and even certain mammals.

In numerous species of orchids, the life cycle is so complex that they are only pollinated bee_orchid_jun_04_400aby one single species of insect. For example, the “bee orchids” have evolved not only a shape and coloration to mimic a female bee, but they also produce an odor exactly similar to that of a female bee; all to attract the male bee to climb inside the orchid, where a special part of the flower loaded with pollen springs loose and attaches itself to the back of the male bee.  When the male bee then goes to another flower and crawls inside, he deposits the pollen to fertilize the orchid flower.

templAll this took millions of years to evolve and was only accomplished in a stable environment.  Large fluctuations in temperature, rainfall, etc. would have never allowed such a complex biological interaction to have developed.  We don’t find nearly the complexity or diversity of plant and animal species in the more variable ecological environments, like the temperate zones.

So, back to business. Businesses also can also grow large and complex during times of economic prosperity.  For example, during the build up of coalition forces in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, military and defense contractors experienced a bonanza in sales and orders, especially for military vehicles that could withstand the hard and rugged desert environments, as well as protect soldiers from roadside bombs and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

Sales were booming and the factories were full.  No need to market or hunt for sales, the order book was full of long-term contracts. And during boom times, most companiesdccdorgchart1.gif slowly add layers of management and staff.  Large profits allow for investment is all sorts of projects that in lean times couldn’t be funded. Complex and cumbersome management organisations evolved, such as Matrix management and other organisation design schemes, to manage the many complex programs and initiatives going on.  Overhead rates began to climb, but since profit margins were high, no one seemed too worried about these excess costs.  The result, complex systems with lots of human beings required to manage them. It was a time of managers managing managers, in abundance.

But the global economy is not stable.  When the economy “went south” in 2008, many firms with complex structures and thick layers of management could not adapt fast enough.  Complexity requires stability and predictability.  Variable environments and a changing global economy require rapid adaptability.  If the tropics suddenly encounter large variations in temperature, rainfall or humidity, many of the highly evolved and complex species would not be able to adapt fast enough and would perish.  The same is true of overly complex organisations with large management structures.  Many go out of business or become acquisition or turnaround candidates.

So, the lesson in all this?  The global economy is not stable.  It is not the tropical rain forest.  To continue to thrive and survive, companies must become lean and adaptive at all times.  The boom times don’t last so don’t be fooled into adding layers of management and reducing discipline and risk assessments, which was the downfall of the large banks (article by Demetrie Comnas).

The most effective business organisations are those that develop a culture of rapid adaptability and quick response to external changes. When the good times are around, profits soar.  When the economy is troubled, they are able to shift and change accordingly.

Two things can help develop a culture of rapid adaptability in an organisation: transparency of information across functional boundaries, and employee engagement.  Want to explore this subject further?  Take a look at FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution.

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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2 Responses to Another Business Lesson from Mother Nature . . .

  1. Decentralization, chaos theory, spontaneous order, complexity theory, Hayek’s insight that the prices are a tool for remedying the problem of imperfect knowledge, Nissam Taleb on ‘fragility’, Popper on the ‘Open Society’. These are all related insights which touch on the subject of your post – what is needed to survive in an unstable environment. Those who continue to think that more top down order is required will learn a painful lesson in the years to come.


  2. Raunak says:

    Great post John. Gained a good insight from a colleague of mine a few days back. He said that it is in good times that companies must introduce lean practices into their culture. Employees embrace changes more readily in good times than they do in times of strain.


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