Biological systems, societal security systems, and businesses share the same fundamental problem, which is that risk in the environment is inevitable and unpredictable. In business, in counter-terrorism, and in homeland security, we have expended massive resources trying to predict and plan for the uncertain threats of the future, but the next terrorist attack, the next stock market crash, and the next killer app inevitably take us by surprise, forcing us to react well after the damage has been done.
The biological world has a much better track record. Biological organisms have not only survived, but thrived, in a world of extreme and unpredictable risks for over 3.5 billion years. Not even IBM has that kind of longevity. They’ve also diversified into well over 10 million different species and covered the planet from the deepest to the highest to the wettest to the driest environments. Not even Google has that global reach. How they’ve pulled off this remarkable feat is quite simply that they are all adaptable. Strictly speaking, adaptability is the process of changing structures, behaviors and interactions in response to changes in the environment. In practice, adaptability means owning the middle ground between reacting to a past crisis (by which point it is too late to prevent it) and predicting the next one (which is never possible in a complex and dynamic world). Moreover, adaptability is the necessary underlying condition that must be present before any system can become resilient.
Of course, adaptability has become a buzzword in the business world, just as it had in the security field after 9/11 and Katrina. With each new market crash, regulatory change, and natural disaster wreaking havoc on supply chains, the cry comes up to become more adaptable. The problem with these idealistic calls to arms is that few institutions--whether in the government or in the free market--really know what adaptability is or how to make it happen.
Moving beyond the flippant use of adaptability as a corporate buzzword into a place where it becomes a transformative strategy requires consultation from the experts—the millions of living species on Earth. At the same time emerging sectors of our society, including innovative businesses, hardened military commanders shifting to the private sector, and young entrepreneurs are, knowingly or not, using biological adaptation to overcome the challenges they face on a daily basis.
Despite the mind boggling diversity of nature, all the parts of adaptable systems coalesce into just four simple approaches to how to survive, and thrive, in a risk filled and unpredictable world. These approaches—using decentralized organization, employing creative redundancy, developing symbiotic partnerships, and learning from success—are, like the general rules of adaptability, also non-intuitive and vastly underutilized in today’s business environment. Companies that master these skills can become as adaptable as, say, an octopus, which is all at once a vicious predator, a cunningly elusive prey, an escape artist, and a master of mating strategies.
Guidance from nature is almost completely unexplored because all of the expansive management literature has simply ignored the massive database of adaptable strategies that nature holds. To the extent that the business world has looked to nature, it is in misapplied competitive ideas about “survival of the fittest,” a concept that is both counterproductive and biologically inaccurate. Fortunately, just as biological solutions work in essentially the same way at every level of biology—from DNA to whole organisms to complex ecosystems—so too can these solutions work throughout a business’ operations. Accordingly, a workforce, a supply chain, a manufacturing process, even a marketing campaign, can be vastly improved to deal effectively with both the current challenges and the unknown challenges to come.