Innovation Guidance from Mother Nature

Innovation Guidance from Mother Nature 1024 683 The Body Corporate

Google the words “innovation” and “crisis” and you will find thousands of articles that offer explanations and solutions. Opinion leaders provide insight into innovation crises that span the globe, that threaten national economies or blue chip corporations. You will read about crises in business, medicine, education and almost any field you choose to research. If innovation is so important, then why are we doing so poorly?

I was prompted to think about this after reading an interview with Linda A. Hill, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Gareth Cook interviewed her about her book Collective Genius for a recent article in Scientific American, in their Mind and Brain edition (Volume 26, Issue 2, February 19, 2015). Hill worked alongside colleagues from MIT and Pixar to define a culture that enables innovation. They identified three key principles: creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution.

Creative abrasion describes an organization’s capacity for generating and harnessing conflict and debate. Abrasive force maximizes diversity of opinion in order to create the dissonance required to spark truly different thinking. Creative agility refers to rapid cycles of experimentation, reflection and adaptation. This is like the model for empiric scientific research. The emphasis is on doing, and then learning from it, rather that testing hypotheses or piloting new ideas. Empiric science values all outcomes; even failure (perhaps especially failure) provides learning. Creative resolution is the ability to integrate best aspects of multiple experimental approaches into a composite solution. Participants can see past the confusion of divergent views to a harmonious (but disruptive) outcome.

Nature is the great innovator. Over millions of years, she has experimented, debated and resolved better ways of working. Her stakes are high: survival is a great judge. How does her leadership style match up with that advocated by Hill?

Mother Nature stays out of the way. She sets the rules, and then steps aside to allow individual species to figure it out. This unobtrusive style is something that Hill advocates for, suggesting that an innovative culture is very much bottom-up, with leaders “setting the stage but not performing on it”. Even when they are visionaries, they understand that innovation requires a full set of creative ideas from a broad range of participants. Heavy-handed leadership is counterproductive. I think Mother Nature exceeds expectations in this respect!

This hands-off leadership approach allows Nature to spawn multiple parallel initiatives all aimed at enhancing the survival of the experimenter. The prototype antelope on the plains of Africa evolved in multiple directions at the same time. Some stayed eating grass, the so-called grazers. Some became browsers and ate from trees. Yet others developed very long necks and now eat from the highest branches (we call them giraffe). Some, like the sitatunga, developed special hoofs that allow them to walk on reed beds, away from the competition for the dry Savannah. If diversity is a hallmark of innovative cultures, then Mother Nature wins first prize.

The process of evolution is tightly aligned with Hall’s definition of creative agility, although the rate of experimentation and adaptation may be lower than that required to compete in a modern economy. Under immense pressure (extinction is forever), species evolve to survive. Less by design than accident, experimentation results in success and survival, or failure and demise. Whereas failure can be devastating for a single species, it becomes excellent learning for the system. No other birds tried to follow the Dodo into extinction by walking alongside their own predators. They all used their wings to escape into the air and the trees above. Lesson learned! Mother Nature is the archetypal empiric scientist.

Perhaps Mother Nature is less like Hall’s ideal in the principle of creative abrasion. Nature is loaded with dissonance which, although not explicitly stated is probably part of the concept of creative abrasion. The survival imperative of competing species results in huge tension. The system harnesses this in a highly creative manner. Whereas Hill calls for debate, nature favors action.

There are two lessons that I think we should embrace from Mother Nature’s example. First, I would emphasize even more than Hill does the low-touch leadership. Perhaps I reveal a personal bias here, but I’m happy to be in the same camp as Mother Nature on this one. Having made the rules, she is all but invisible. Her reward is unprecedented innovation and diversity. Second, Mother Nature is dispassionate in judging success. We humans allow emotion to enter our decisions. I have seen many initiatives funded in top-tier organizations simply because the idea came from a popular leader, or because the collective couldn’t find the heart to say “no” to a bad idea. Nobody wins like this. We would never survive in organizations devoid of emotion, but we should probably learn a little from Mother Nature about pragmatic survival-based decision-making.

We are in dire need of new ideas. We need better business, better science, better medicine, better education, better human rights, to name a few. I hope that you will find challenges to take into your own organization by contemplating the provocative work of both Linda Hill and Mother Nature.

Have fun,


(Roddy Carter is an executive consultant who uses nature to provide analogues for human organizational structure and function. Through the BioSimilar Programs he helps organizations select and learn from a species or environment that closely resembles their own circumstances. This is a fun way to build and implement strategy and to enhance performance. Please reach out through the connect tab at if you’d like to explore a BioSimilar Program in your organization.)

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