Lessons from the Octopus: Business Ecosystems, Adaptability, and Change Leadership

A camouflaged octopus has much to teach organizations about thriving in business ecosystems. Image: Arkive.com.

Why should companies care about octopi? It turns out that there’s plenty to learn from these creatures about adaptability, change leadership, and business ecosystems.

Rafe Sagarin, author of Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease, is a fan of the octopus. Not only are these creatures highly intelligent and capable of problem solving, they also have the ability to camouflage in sophisticated ways. When moving from one area of the ocean to another, they rapidly change color to match their surroundings. To the human eye, it’s almost too fast to see: octopi blend almost instantaneously with the fauna behind them. How they do this is interesting. The brain doesn’t tell one arm to go gray, the second arm to get mottled, the third arm to turn red, and so on. Instead, each arm acts totally independently.

Sagarin sees this capability as critically important in today’s organizational environment. Says Sagarin, “Natural organisms have learned to thrive in an unpredictable and risk filled planet without having the power to plan, predict, or try to perfect themselves. By contrast, we waste endless resources on strategic planning, predictive models, and optimization, with few successes to show for it. Natural organisms have successfully avoided all this waste by being adaptable.”

Now, I wouldn’t throw planning out altogether. Strategic planning, when done right, helps people explore potential paths within business ecosystems, anticipate trends, align activities, and mobilize energy for change. However, planning often backfires when it involves only a small, hierarchically homogeneous group. They become the heavy centralized decision-making and guiding body that must be consulted before local outposts and teams can respond to emerging issues.

And this is the core of the problem. As organizations grow, they tend to split between a centralized decision-making group and local execution-oriented branches. Yet local branches almost always know more what’s happening in the field, what customers want, and what immediate, tactical issues are threatening the organization. This is the information that all in the organization need desperately. Just as critically, local areas need to be empowered to take action quickly. The solution isn’t all or nothing, centralize or decentralize. Instead, the question is this: how can organizations empower their arms to adapt quickly to local stimuli while supporting the core mission and goals?

Here are a few options, courtesy of Rafe Sagarin:

Issue challenges, not orders. Don’t tell branches or departments what to do. Instead, give them challenges. Let them figure out how to make them happen. This technique can mobilize, motivate, and tap the inherent creativity and problem-solving abilities in the workforce.

Use people from across the system for planning and learning. Organizations are pretty lousy at learning retrospectively. We tend to start things with a fanfare but ignore them when they finish. So, action #1 is to take the time to debrief at the end of milestones, projects, and initiatives. Then, to increase adaptive capacity, engage people from throughout the organization in learning from the experience. They’ll have unexpected and interesting insights.

What would you recommend for organizations that want to become more adaptable within their business ecosystems?

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