Adam Werbach’s book offers a great list of Nature’s 10 Simple Rules for Business Survival. In this list Adam draws from nature a tough bottom line for sustainable business. “Nature is far harsher than the market: If you are not sustainable, you die. No second chances and no bailouts.” I’m not usually a fan of rules but these ten make sense to me. They are big-scale – forest-scale. Ocean-scale. Planet-scale. I’ve jotted down my own thoughts on each one. I’ll share them with you here – five this week and five next.
Nature’s # 1. Diversify across generations. This idea has certainly inspired me to write a number of posts here that I’ve called Stella’s World. Of course they are about my and Ro’s first grandchild but they are also about what change across generations can really mean. How few companies have that aspiration! In principle we all want our businesses to thrive across generations, but how few succeed. Adam tells me that fully one-third of the companies profiled in Jim Collins’ Built to Last as out-performers, are now under-performers. Think Ford and Citibank. They lost the juice of excitement, wonder and delight and got lost in expectations and self-obsession.
Nature’s # 2. Adapt to the changing environment – and specialize. To get to the future first you have to take on what I call the three ‘A’s – Adapt, Adopt and Act. It’s worked for children, for animals – for all living things and never forget that businesses are living things too. People are often held back by the feeling that the challenges we face are so great that they can’t effect any meaningful change. My response? If you can’t change the situation, change yourself. At Saatchi & Saatchi we have a True Blue sustainability program called DOT. Do One Thing. In other words, don’t take on the world; specialize. Sure, some of the things people chose to change are small, but put them together and we’re talking serious action. Action that can build as we get more confident about Adapting, Adopting and Acting.
Nature’s # 3. Celebrate transparency. Every species knows which species will eat it and which will not. I like to see transparency as opportunity rather than threat. Take the emotional transparency of Lovemarks. You can’t hide love – and few of us want to. Check out Lovemarks.com and see how that community responds to the brands it loves; openly, without hesitation, with pride. When consumers can push a brand like Tropicana to revert to its traditional packaging in just a few months, something’s up. And what’s up is that consumers are in control. They want confidentiality for themselves and transparency from their Lovemarks. No one said it would be easy.
Nature’s # 4. Plan and execute systematically, not compartmentally. Every part of a plant contributes to its growth. Anyone who has been in business understands the damage caused by silo thinking. Community is key. All of us are better than some of us. In Peak Performance we demonstrated the power of inspirational leadership and teams. Groups of like-minded people working together to overcome all odds and achieve impossible goals. At Saatchi & Saatchi we sum this up in our spirit ‘One team, one dream’. And our dream? “To be revered as the hot-house for world-changing ideas that create sustainable growth for our clients.”
Nature’s # 5. Form groups and protect the young. Most animals travel in flocks, gaggles, and prides. Packs offer strength and efficacy. This is a fantastic rule and the best argument ever for playing in teams. Most young people aren’t educated into creativity; they are educated out of it. At Saatchi & Saatchi we give people an elastic-sided sand box, a problem, a deadline, and we get out of their way. To make sure they reach their full potential we have some older folk around to guide, mentor and run protection when it’s needed. Usually it’s not needed because what they want is responsibility, learning, recognition and joy. All that they get.
Here’s the second half of my thoughts on Nature’s 10 Simple Rules for Business Survival. Send me your views on this list. Also, make sure you pin it up on your wall, your company’s survival may depend on it. Nature’s # 6. Integrate metrics. Nature brings the right information to the right place at the right time. When a tree needs water, the leaves curl; when there is rain, the curled leaves move more water to the root system. OK, I’m not a big metrics guy. Experience has shown me that a quick decision grounded in intuition often beats the 100 page report and meeting from hell. But I also find inspiration in understanding how the world works, and for that big picture we need numbers – just numbers from a lot of different sources. Smart, revealing, insightful numbers. For example, James Dyson worked through around 5,000 prototypes before coming up with the wildly successful Dyson vacuum cleaner. Let the truth of that number hit you around the head. When did any of us make 5,000 attempts at anything? If all you read are balance sheets, that’s how you’ll see the world and you will fail. Too many factors impact on us for any one perspective to show the way forward. If you think otherwise, ask a banker about subprime.
Nature’s # 7. Improve with each cycle. Evolution is a strategy for long-term survival. The long-term is the only term if you want to survive. Short-term thinking – like the ridiculous obsession with quarterly earnings – has taken more eyes off the ball than a couple of streakers at a football match. The magic mix? Big, long-term ideas combined with the spirit of “Fail fast, learn fast, fix fast“. We can all learn from the frenzied world of fashion. In my first job at Mary Quant, we had nine months to conceive, produce, launch, sell, and then discontinue, a complete line. We got better at it – I promise you.
Nature’s # 8. Right size regularly, rather than downsize occasionally. If an organism grows too big to support itself, it collapses. If it withers, it is eaten. When businesses start there are usually just a few people doing everything. Then there comes a time when more people are on the job than can comfortably fit around the lunch table. Thus middle management kicks in and, as Kurt Vonnegut put it in Slaughterhouse-Five, “So it goes”. Right size is such a great term. The right size of a business depends on the business. This is where business gets specific and where clarity counts. If you want to manufacture cars for the world to drive, your right size is nothing like that of a boutique fragrance. The key though is to know what’s right – right size, right people, right choices – and to take action.
Nature’s # 9. Foster longevity, not immediate gratification. Nature does not buy on credit and uses resources only to the level that they can be renewed. Since joining Saatchi & Saatchi, one of my great pleasures has been the opportunity to speak to the P&G Alumni. These are people who have worked for P&G and believe in P&G principles. Best of all, they keep the P&G flag flying long after they have left the company. They are in it for the long-term and the long-term extends beyond a job at P&G and even their working life. They are an amazing renewable source for P&G that promotes the company, attracts more great people to work there, and connects P&G in rich and complex ways to the communities and countries it works in. Longevity is about making a worthwhile contribution. Gratification is about an immediate sensation.
Nature’s # 10. Waste nothing, recycle everything. Some of the greatest opportunities in the 21st century will be turning waste — including inefficiency and underutilization — into profit. This rule can transform businesses, regions, nations, and people. One area of waste that I take very personally is the waste of human potential. That’s why TYLA – Turn Your Life Around – is very close to my heart. This remarkable program based in New Zealand helps kids at risk start to make positive choices about their lives. We use mentors, fresh opportunities, experiences, support – whatever it takes to transform these young people into hard-working, energetic and joyful citizens. In today’s tough climate, we want every hand to the pump. Waste not, want not.