Families, machines, brains, political systems. We’ve come up with all kinds of metaphors to help us understand what a high functioning and happy organization should look like.
I’ve written before about how my background in biology helped (and once hindered) my work as an entrepreneur. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that imagining my organization as an organism resonates with me as a leader.
A whole with interdependent parts, an organism must evolve, adapt and develop new traits that will help it survive.
Indeed, the pandemic has shown us just how important adaptability is to surviving upheaval as a company—and as individuals. Even before the pandemic, McKinsey recommended companies focus on adaptability and resilience as a no-regret investment. When the crisis hit, it was the businesses with the confidence to implement new technology that came out on top, as did those with the optionality to scale up or down.
That’s why, as leaders, it’s in our best interest to focus on making our companies more like an organism: living, breathing, interdependent and resilient.
Don’t know where to begin? Here’s what I’ve learned.
Why Go Back to Biology?
Of course, no metaphor or simile is iron-clad, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. But, for me, most other analogies for businesses don’t quite fit.
Take families, for example: The comparison has been scrutinized and for good reason. Families are held together with love but, for better and worse, you’re stuck with them even when you’re not all on the same page.
Organisms, in contrast, are in a constant state of flux. As a university student, my earliest days in the lab were spent studying DNA, cells and tissues of humans and small organisms like Drosophila melanogaster—otherwise known as the fruit fly. You’re probably most familiar with fruit flies as a nuisance, but they’re also a model organism.
When I think about it now, those experiences taught me a lot more than I realized. Organisms are made of many interdependent parts that are evolving, dying and regenerating moment-to-moment. They are all supporting the life, goals and success of the organism as a whole. And so it goes with businesses. Business lines, products and roles may ebb and flow, but when people feel they are truly part of a team, they’re more invested in the organization’s success.
Diversity Is Key
But that doesn’t mean everyone has to think the same way. In fact, survival depends on differences.
Take soil, for example. It’s far more than just dirt—it’s actually alive. Even a single teaspoon of garden soil holds billions of organisms. Bacteria convert nitrogen from the air for plants to digest, while earthworms dig tunnels for growing roots. Independently, each little part does something different while working together for the success of the collective.
Research shows that diversity—different people, perspectives and backgrounds—enhances organizational resilience, too. It strengthens the odds of being able to anticipate change, cope and adapt to challenges.
Those challenges will sometimes lead to failure, but that’s OK. In fact, it’s desirable. Trial and error is what allows an organism to survive. That’s why we’ve normalized experimentation and failure at my company as key steps in the problem-solving process. Not every experiment yields the desired results—and that’s OK. Failure isn’t an end, it’s a more informed beginning.
How to Get Your Team Working Like an Organism
So, how do you make your company a resilient, adaptable and collaborative organism? It comes down to three things: unity of purpose, flow and empathy.
Organisms and companies share a common goal: to survive and thrive. To do that as an organization—especially one experiencing growth—your team must be aligned on the same goals.
Research shows companies driven by a strong sense of purpose are able to transform and innovate better, and leaders who use purpose to guide their strategy and decision-making see consistent revenue growth. Indeed, it’s not just the business that benefits. Sixty-three percent of employees at companies with clearly defined purpose say they’re motivated, and 65 percent say they’re passionate about their work.
When you’re truly aligned on purpose, “flow” is the best-case scenario. It’s a state where everyone is working harmoniously without even having to think about it—just like interdependent parts of a whole.
It’s a difficult thing to achieve, and even more challenging to maintain, but when you’re in those moments, it feels like anything is possible.
Flow happens for organisms in nature because it’s encoded into their DNA. And companies are more than just interdependent “parts” of a whole…they’re made of a group of interdependent talented individual people.
In order to effectively structure your company as an organism, empathy is one of the biggest ingredients. Everyone must be willing to listen, be transparent and give each other room to be themselves. At my company, a big part of that has been promoting self-care days for everyone—especially throughout the pandemic—to make it clear that taking time to regenerate is not only encouraged, but necessary in order to be the best team we can be.
Indeed, the health of all living things is top of mind right now. We’ve been through a summer where drought and wildfires challenged North America, floods battered Europe and new variants of COVID-19 extended the pandemic worldwide.
The past year and a half has shown us it’s not realistic for companies to stay stagnant. It’s adapt or be eaten. It’s more important now than ever that we look to nature to lead by example. Your company’s survival depends on it.
Karn Manhas is the CEO and founder of Vancouver-based Terramera, a global agtech leader fusing science, nature and artificial intelligence to transform how food is grown and the economics of agriculture.