What Businesses Can Learn from Nature

You might think that the natural ecosystems of the world – the rainforests, deserts, oceans, and rivers – are about as far removed from the boardroom as you can get.

However, mechanically speaking, nature and business are more similar than it might at first appear.  Both are complex dynamic systems, made up of discrete individual entities which interact with each other in a battle to survive.  In one case we call them organisms, and in the other case, companies.

The only true profound difference between the two, is that business is controlled by us, whereas nature controls itself.  Therefore, given that nature’s been organizing complex systems like this for rather longer than we have, it’s worth looking to its example to see if there’s anything we can learn from it to apply to our own work.  What are the characteristics of a “healthy ecosystem” we could apply in order to create a “healthy market”?

Here are three ideas:

Don’t Lead Your Business; Follow It

In evolution, species don’t develop in a certain direction because they chose too, or because they had a prior idea about what they wanted to become.  Instead, they are gradually sculpted by the environment around them, and in essence, become whatever the ecosystem wants them to become; fitting into the space all other organisms leave behind – like a piece in a big, fluid, jigsaw puzzle.

In business, this would equate to allowing your business to become what the market wants it to become – rather than focusing on your own ambitions, or preconceived ideas for it.  That means entering the market, sitting back, and watching what happens; watching the path the business takes of its own accord, like water finding the fastest way downhill.

A master of this art is Mark Zuckerberg.  He never envisioned what Facebook has become – he didn’t design it, or create it – he simply allowed it to happen.  Bear in mind the original Facebook was a “hot or not” platform for rating the relative attractiveness of Harvard students.  There was nothing of the social network about it.  However, gradually, the market began to sculpt it in unpredictable ways.  It took on a life of its own.  Zuck saw this, and rather than digging his heels in and insisting on his “vision” of a hot or not site, decided to follow the business, and see where it ended up.  This was a highly organic, emergent leadership approach which mimicked evolutionary development – the polar opposite of the “visionary leader” model adopted by most entrepreneurs.

Know Your Role And Don’t Deviate From It

Every organism has a role in the ecosystem – a “job” that it was designed to do via the emergent process outlined in point one.  Whatever that role is, the organism was perfectly designed to perform it – and horribly designed to do anything else.  If it attempts the role of another organism, the result will be a disaster – both for the organism, and the system around it.

For instance, imagine if a bee decided to start doing the job of an ant.  The bee is totally ill-equipped for this role, and failure would be inevitable.

Applying this logic to businesses, what this means is being sure of what your particular role in the market is, and not allowing yourself to be seduced into trying to perform that of another species (i.e. company).

Nokia learned this lesson the hard way.  Originally, they were manufacturers of tough, simple, “everyman” phones like the 3310.  This was, if you like, in their “nature” – and by following their nature they achieved over 50% market share; a number which no other phone manufacturer has ever come close too.  But then, when the iPhone came along, they became jealous and tried to copy it, so they could prove that they too could make sleek, elegant, luxury phones. Unfortunately, this behavior wasn’t in their nature – they were the bee trying to be an ant – and their business crumbled.  If they had recognized their role in the system and doubled down on it, they’d probably be thriving to this very day.

Don’t Compete With Your Competitors; Collaborate

There is a misunderstanding of Darwinism which believes that it paints a picture of nature as a highly competitive dog-eat-dog system.  “Survival of the fittest” is taken to mean survival of the strongest, most aggressive, most competitive.  But that’s not what that term means.  Survival of the fittest, quite literally, means survival of that which “fits” best – which fits into the system around it, symbiotically.  In other words, survival of that which collaborates with other organisms, not that which competes.

All species seek, above all else, balance with the other species around them – relationships built on mutual reliance, where they need each other to survive in a healthy manner.

In the world of business, this idea equally applies.  The most successful businesses don’t seek to destroy their competitors – they seek to balance with them: being bad at the things they’re good at, and good at the things they’re bad at.

When Southwest Airlines revolutionized the airline industry, they didn’t do it by attacking the other carriers in the market and seeking to beat them at their own game.  They did it instead by deciding to “give” one part of the market (business travelers) over to them, so they could create a new, complementary, sector of the market in the form of the low-cost airlines category.  In essence, they played the yin to their competitors’ yang – and rather than competing with them sought a state of balance that resulted in a much healthier market.

This idea of winning in your market by refusing to compete is extremely powerful, and is explored in more depth in this TED talk:


In conclusion, we have always found throughout history that nature has far more wisdom than we do, and this idea may well apply even in contexts like a business where we feel we know better.  By experimenting with the above techniques, you can ensure the survival of your own business – and hopefully, let it thrive for long into the future like the most resilient of natural species.

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What Businesses Can Learn from Nature

by Alex Smith