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Beyond Hierarchies – Inspired By Nature

September 21, 2013

The network has been recognised as the basic pattern of organisation in all living systems.

Ecosystems in nature are essentially networks of organisms.  As Fritjof Capra points out, organisms themselves are networks of cells, and cells networks of molecules. An ecosystem is a flexible, responsive, ever-fluctuating network. Its flexibility is a consequence of multiple dynamic sense-and-respond feedback loops that keep the system in a state of dynamic balance. No single variable is max­imised; all variables fluctuate in concert around a collective optimum.

Ecosystems in human nature are essentially networks of communication, social networks of relationships and business ecosystems of partnerships.

People are empowered by being connected to the network, where the success of the whole community depends on the success of each member and vice versa.  Empowerment of individuals empowers the network; likewise empowerment of the community empowers the individuals.

So often in today’s business and social paradigm, we perceive the world as parts, as mechanical, as inputs and outputs, linear chains and hierarchies; whereas life is actually about networks and interconnecting relationships.  Manuel Lima talks of a mental shift to network thinking where hierarchical thinking is no longer adequate for the inter-connected complexity of today’s world.  Alan Moore points to adapting in a non-linear world, where ‘companies become clubs or user groups of co-evolved customers’. In his book, No Straight Lines, Alan Moore explores the ‘law of the ecosystem’ where mutuality is what encourages a healthy, resilient ecosystem. He points to the Japanese mobile industry and its iMode ecosystem, Apple’s iTunes/iOS and Google’s Android platform as ecosystems that thrive based on principles of mutuality within content and service provision. He also explores how playfulness/experimentation and participatory/sharing cultures greatly help the emergence of healthy, thriving ecosystems; re-balancing our focus on metrics and output with more focus on experimenting and learning together.

Part of the transformation afoot is a paradigm shift in our thinking and perceiving:

Linear –> network

Dictate –> empower

Bureaucracy –> community

Predictability –> emergence

Mechanistic thinking –> ecological thinking

Neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist explores left-brain dominance in our Western culture. The left brain, according to McGilchrist’s findings, focuses on parts of the problem, decontextualising and abstracting the problem in a closed system. This, of course, helps us to analyse and find a solution to that problem. But this is a solution in its isolated closed system, not in a living, emergent, volatile business environment. The right brain is what interconnects, provides living world context, views things in an open system and develops a broad under­standing. It is both the knowledge of the parts (left brain) and wisdom of the whole (right brain) that we need for complete and proper problem understand­ing and correct solution creation. To quote Einstein, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant”. For McGilchrist, “we have created a society that honours the servant but has forgotten the gift”

Core to the power of networks is an understanding of the world we live in as emergent and ever-changing nested networks of systems within systems working through interconnected relationships. The relationships are just as (if not more) important than the inputs and outputs.

The rational mind struggles to cope with complexity, but the intuition can do this quite effortlessly. Re-connecting with our intuition by creating silence and space for our minds to re-balance both left and right hemispheres is fundamental to realising transformational change (in business and beyond).

Patrick Andrews points out, in a blog for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, that the governance processes in our businesses are not designed for systems-thinking and emergence, they have been designed for the Industrial Era, hence left-brain dominance prevails where the rational reductionist mind master’s over the intuitive, relational mind. To Patrick ‘It is time, to start experimenting with the corporate structure.’ As Margaret Wheatley put it, ‘Organisations of all kinds are cluttered with control mechanisms that paralyze employees and leaders alike… We never effectively control people with these systems, but we certainly stop a lot of good work from getting done.’

Part of the challenge we face is perceiving relationships in life in looking beyond the more obvious and tangible material component parts; this was examined in depth by Gregory Bateson, amongst others.  Bateson, upon exploring nature and human nature, begun to realise that nature can provide immense depth of inspiration for humanity in understanding itself as well as understanding how best to live on Earth.  A quote from one of his book’s Mind and Nature by way of example:

On the whole, it was not the most crudest, the simplest, the most animalistic and primitive aspects of the human species that were reflected in the natural phenomena. It was, rather, the more complex, the aesthetic, the intricate, and the elegant aspects of people that reflected nature. It was not my greed, my purposiveness, my so-called “animal,” so-called “instincts,” and so forth that I was recognizing on the other side of that mirror, over there in “nature.” Rather, I was seeing there the roots of human symmetry, beauty and ugliness, aesthetics, the human being’s very aliveness and little bit of wisdom. His wisdom, his bodily grace, and even his habit of making beautiful objects are just as “animal” as his cruelty. After all, the very word “animal” means “endowed with mind or spirit (animus).”

As our linear, competitive, reductionist thinking (which, alas, schools and colleges still in the main teach as being the best way to approach life) shifts to more networked, emergent ways of engaging and empowering ourselves, we start to see that everyone participates and contributes to the network, and we start to see inspiration all around us in ourselves and nature.  Rather than a ‘dog-eat-dog’ approach to business and life, we start to realise that the spark of life is self-integrating divergent parts networking for a shared goal, this is the power of emergent networks; as Michelle Holliday says ‘divergence within convergence’ is what ensures life thrives.

Whether it be facebook and pinterest or crowd-funding and co-innovation, new frameworks thrive by encouraging connectivity and community; hence transforming the old paradigm and out-dated ways of viewing life (power, competition and control) to new ways (empowering, collaborating and connecting).

Re-connecting with our authentic human nature and the natural world around us is one of the most joyous and yet pivotal actions we can undertake on our individual and collective journey towards sustainable living, working, doing and being.


To explore ‘business inspired by nature’ further, join the Face Book community here


View a short video clip on business inspired by nature here


See here for the recently released North American version of The Nature of Business.

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