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Digital Transformation, Organization Design, and The Value of Nature Inspired Design

Photo  Jimmy Chang

Photo  Jimmy Chang

It's news to nobody that digital innovation has upended companies that have been around for decades or centuries. From Music, News, Television, to Transportation we have seen the rise of a digital age where information and smart design allows for faster, easier, more affordable products and services that dominate the competition. Existing companies are often caught off-guard in this fast moving environment, where not only has their core product changed but also the rules of the game. It's more important now than ever for companies to build their capacity to adapt, and to find their niche in this new economy. One way to help companies navigate this complex territory is to look to natural systems that have been dealing with complex adaptive information rich systems for millions of years to learn a few tricks to survive in this new landscape. Here are two (of many) tips from nature I have found useful, inspirational, and instructional.

Become an Ecosystem Engineer

In biology we recognize specific species as 'ecosystem engineers' because of their large impact on what results in the system. There tend to be two types, the type that create the space for new interactions, and the type that changes the flow of resources. 

Space altering Ecosystem Engineers are the trees and corals of the world. Their physical space literally changes the game for everyone else, without them the system could not exist. Flow altering Ecosystem Engineers are the beavers and fungi of the world. Their ability to slow down or speed up critical resources means they can change the game locally. Companies can use these biology insights to ask themselves "What type of Ecosystem Engineer do they want to be?"

For example, IDEO worked with MassMutual to create 'The Society of Grownups'. In this effort a key component was creating a physical, digital, educational, and emotional space where younger adults could mingle, exchange information and stories, build relationships and figure out what life insurance really meant to them. The digital transformation here is realizing that the value is in creating the exchange of information, not just in selling the service on-line. You might ask yourself 'What space can we create that would allow a specific conversation to thrive?'

A rather famous example of an Ecosystem Engineer is Uber, this time it is all about flow. Like any fungi in the forest, Uber wants to connect and absorb. Uber connects the driver and the rider, facilitating a low friction payment of which it takes a part. It further amps up the appeal of the system by increasing the 'good feels' of the rider and driver by facilitating the information flow between them; ratings, arrival time, location, etc. For your own company you might ask yourself; 'Who are you connecting?' or 'What could we do to help them connect better?'

Get Slippery with your DNA

Photo Mathew Wiebe

Photo Mathew Wiebe

Dogs come in many shapes, colors, and sizes yet they are all dogs. This ability to transform is no accident, it allows the species to be flexible over time, to shift, adjust, and suit the always changing needs of their environment. Dogs accomplish this with what is known as 'slippery DNA'. The details of the mechanism here are not as important, but suffice it to say that portions of the dogs DNA that code for hair length, color, snout length, etc have evolved to have low fidelity from one generation to the next. This low fidelity means that these traits can morph, in fact they always do morph. You might use this biological inspiration to ask yourself 'What are the key traits of my organization that could morph, and how can we actively enable them to change to suit the needs of the environment?'

An example of where a slippery DNA strategy might be useful today is in the hotel business, where many older brands confronted by the emergence of Airbnb seem to be flailing around trying to figure out how to counter this digital juggernaut without loosing their existing customers. Brands can change, but being clear with the aspects that are allowed to evolve and those that need to remain the same is both liberating and enables the business to focus on core values that have led to its success. Taking a look at how dogs have remained our best friends, and allow their DNA to flex yet remain who they are could be the best thing a company could do.

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Timothy McGeeComment