NATURAL LAWS AND LONGEVITY
Why is it that with all our technical advances, with our unparalleled capacity to learn and store knowledge, with the coming of reengineering, balanced scorecards and Quality management—why is it with all this going for us we are unable to build organizations that can hold up over time? One wonders if any system can survive more than a few decades…
Interestingly enough, the most enduring systems are found in nature. The oldest life forms on this planet are California’s redwood trees. Ecosystems of mountains, forests, streams, meadows, insects, and animals are amazingly resilient. These systems can survive physical calamities, destructive weather patterns and other major environmental shifts and endure for centuries unless humans intervene and attempt to “civilize” them. What these natural systems have in common with your organization is that they are both living systems, meaning some of their key elements are living, breathing entities. A review of the natural laws that govern the survival of living systems offers profound wisdom for understanding organizational longevity.
Let me take a moment to elaborate on the concept of natural law. A natural law expresses a universal truth that governs the makeup of something or some dynamic process. An example from the world of physics is the natural law of gravity. Jump off a cliff and you will fall to the ground below. Natural laws are not subject to our desires or beliefs; we are always subject to their rules. In other words, natural laws govern our interactions whether or not we are aware of them, agree with them, or follow them. We must align ourselves with these laws to arrive—and remain—in a desirable place.
But how do you know if something is truly a natural law, or merely someone’s value or preference? A practical way to determine the difference is to look at the universality and timelessness of the value. If the value leads to success in a wide variety of circumstances, in diverse cultures, in all ages, then it qualifies as a natural law. Values, on the other hand, may serve us well in specific situations, but won’t be successful in others.
A review of the characteristics and attributes of living systems can help us identify natural laws that also apply to organizations. Because the following seven characteristics are always present in living systems that survive over time, I believe they also qualify as natural laws:
1. Ecological order—each element of the ecosystem must fit into the order of things. Living systems are all part of a larger network of elements. They either fit into this ecosystem in a way that maintains balance of the greater whole, or they perish.
2. Purpose—everything else is subordinated to the highest purpose—survival for self, group and species. Natural instincts lead to self-preservation, the law of the pack, and preservation of the species. Failure to be concerned with anything beyond self ultimately leads to ecological imbalance and death.
3. Steady state—survival is maintained via steady processes that follow a proven, functional routine. The steady state is a pattern of habits that assures daily survival and stores energy for meeting critical challenges. Without a steady state, the system uses more energy than it can obtain from the environment.
4. Mobilization—threats to survival and the steady state are sensed and met. The dynamic of mobilization is a two-edged sword. It certainly protects the steady state. On the other hand, it can actually attack a force that would cause constructive change to occur.
5. Complexity—systems develop more complex, specialized functions. We humans often misunderstand this law. In nature, greater complexity generally leads to expanding skills or functions and a greater ability to adapt to the environment. In human organizations, greater complexity usually translates into creating steeper hierarchies and narrower spans of control.
6. Synergy—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; synergy comes from new relationships. When static elements come together in different ways, synergy is produced. Synergy is the creative force that shapes the beauty of nature and the survival of a species.
7. Adaptation—processes change as necessary when environmental changes threaten survival. Effective living systems subordinate processes to purpose. They are able to grow and adapt in remarkable ways when new environmental conditions require them to do so.
THE SURVIVAL CODE FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
These seven natural laws govern all living systems—from sagebrush, to mud swallows, to bison to human organizations. They identify for us the characteristics an organization must possess if it would endure for more than a few decades. Following nature’s script:
- ¡ An organization would always plan what it does in the context of the most important needs and expectations of its major stakeholders.
- ¡ It would develop a sense of purpose so that each member would instinctively act to fulfill it and to protect the organization from anything that might threaten it.
- ¡ It would develop high quality work processes that consistently deliver high quality outputs.
- ¡ Daily problems would be solved competently by those closest to their source.
- ¡ It would grow over time in its skills and flexibility so that environmental changes could be handled without major trauma.
- ¡ The teamwork and use of resources would be so synergistic that it would enjoy competitive advantages over others in terms of quality, unit costs, cycle time, innovation and problem solving.
- ¡ Whenever the environment introduced new complexities, the organization would be able to draw on all of the other attributes to re-strategize and redeploy its resources to remain in an advantaged position.
The following table spells out the Survival Code for the 21st Century:
1. Ecological order—each element of the ecosystem must fit into the order of things.
2. Purpose—everything else is subordinated to the highest purpose—survival for self, group and species.
3. Steady state—survival is maintained via steady processes that follow a proven, functional routine.
4. Mobilization—threats to survival and the steady state are sensed and met.
5. Complexity—systems develop more complex, specialized functions.
6. Synergy—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; synergy comes from new relationships.
7. Adaptation—processes change as necessary when environmental changes threaten survival.
|ORGANIZATIONAL SURVIVAL CODE
1. Strategize in the context of your major stakeholders’ most important needs.
2. Develop a sense of purpose so that each member instinctively acts to fulfill it.
3. Develop processes and systems to consistently deliver high quality outputs.
4. Solve problems at their source.
5. Grow in skills and flexibility so you can handle whatever changes the environment serves up.
6. Develop true partnerships with all stakeholders to enjoy competitive advantages in quality, unit costs, cycle time, innovation, and problem solving.
7. Re-strategize and redeploy your resources as circumstances require to maintain a competitive advantage. (Doing this requires all of the other processes.)