When I set out to try to understand what might help organisations activate a culture of energised engagement, I looked in all sorts of places to find answers. One of the most fascinating places I went to was The Biomimicry Institute where I found some key insights. It turns out that self responsibility is best encouraged by practices and principles that mirror the way in which nature works. It’s also becoming more common for organisations to create conversations and hold meetings using methods inspired by indigenous wisdom.
Biomimicry is most commonly recognised as an excellent design principle. We are used to seeing innovations inspired by nature. Shark skin structure for example very readily repels bacteria, and is also highly aero-dynamic. We’ve seen it inspire Olympic performance swimsuits and also be a source for re-designing the surface of hospital equipment, beds, railings to better repel bacterial infections like MRSA.
The Esplanade Theater and commercial district in Singapore, designed by DP Architects and Michael Wilford, hosts an elaborate building skin which influenced the look and function of the interiors, inspired by the multi-layered Durian plant with its formidable thorn-covered husk. The Durian plant uses its semi rigid pressurized skin to protect the seeds inside, just as the building exterior is part of an elaborate shading system that adjusts throughout the day to allow sunlight in but protects the interiors from overheating.
Corporate Rebels, a two-man team who have interviewed many self-managed businesses shared the story of how Darren Childs of UKTV wanted to disassemble the hierarchy in his organisation through physical design. Partly he did that by redesigning their entire office. The huge stairway at the centre of the building is designed to connect employees on both floors with as many change and random places to meet along the way to create serendipitous meetings where some of the company’s best ideas are born. There are no offices for senior employees, and hardly any fixed desks. Every piece of information produced is stored in the cloud with open access to everything by everybody.
But how can nature inspire the shape and structure of leadership or behaviour?
We have all seen flocks of geese migrating south in the Winter. What happens? There is a single leader at the head of the V formation. This lead goose leads for a short while and then gives way to another goose to take over. A principle of shared leadership. How does an enormous murmuration of starlings know exactly which way to go without crashing into each other? One single bird watches only the one next to him. If that bird moves, he moves. And then the next, and the next. Until we have one of nature’s most wonderful displays of co-creative collaboration.
What does that look like in organisations? Let’s look at Dutch company Buurtzorg. A healthcare company which deliver care at home set up some 10 years ago when its leaders wanted to find a better way to deliver quality service whilst having memorable work experiences. It is structured with small groups of on average 12 people managing a geographic region. Each is a qualified nurse, each individual takes care of a number of patients and does all the work required by that single individual patient. The nurses are able to deliver work that is meaningful to them. The patients have just one single point of contact.
Each group works together with equal power, equal say over what they will do and how they will work. They make collective decisions about budgets, salaries, offices – all the things that make up a business. Although I doubt founder Jos de Blok looked at it this way as he built it 10 years ago, this is a structure which looks very similar to nature’s distributed clusters; not unlike a Romanescu cauliflower or beehive!
Who can processes like symbiosis offer us as inspiration?
Similarly symbiosis, the intimate living together of vastly different organisms, has been a key contributor to evolutionary on Earth. Some of the most striking symbiotic relationships in the biosphere include the bacterial and fungal symbioses which are so critical for the health of our planet. Today scientists and ecologists alike are exploring how self-regulation and symbiosis could impact our ethics and philosophy, our social organisations, our politics, our responses to climate change and even the ways in which taxes are collected and distributed. Alongside these explorations are also included ways in which leadership, meaning and purpose can be found. Schumacher College, the UK’s foremost provider of short courses in ecology, indigenous wisdom and nature-inspired leadership has recently added a short course Gaia and Symbiosis.
The pattern language of nature and the behaviour of biological networks, communities, symbioses: i.e. the biology of relationships – from the micro to the macro offer us new insights to explore what it might mean to exhibit ‘biological leadership’ – learning to lead from a place of deep wisdom of Nature’s patterns and gestures.
New Zealand’s Enspiral, a de-centralised and DIY social enterprise network, is a great example of a social experiment which takes advantage of nature’s structures. A network wholly owned by the founders, it began as a community who wanted to work together to have a positive social impact, sharing resources and jobs. Teams comes together around ideas and collaboratively fund the community and share the income generated from the mainly digital products and services they develop.
Can indigenous wisdom help us unlock meaningful work?
When I sat down on the sandy plateau high up in the Arizona with the Hopi Tribe elders, I was full of expectation to learn more about the traditional farming and land management systems they have used since time imemorial. There was a hot wind, dust was swirling around, but the views from even the centre of the village across the sculptured rock of northeastern Arizona were breathtaking. As we sat in a circle on the ground, what was more immediately apparent was the respectful silence that accompanies the start of any meeting, discussion or sharing when a group of the tribe gathers. Everyone takes a moment to pause, gather their thoughts, ground themselves away from the stresses of the day to prepare for a discussion on a specific subject. They then invite each person to connect with and share how they are feeling; the emotional and spiritual place from which they have ‘arrived’ at the meeting.
I’ve made this simple centering, grounding and human connection process part of every meeting I have, and encouraged clients to do it. It’s a very elegant way of bringing what’s essentially human about us into the room. It diffuses the sense that you have to arrive ready to explode from the starting blocks in a performance frenzy, completely ignoring the fact that your child may be at home sick, or that you’re just back at work after 2 days off with enteritis, or that you’re worried about an elderly parent.
Now I should disabuse any romantic notions you may have that I was sitting there in full Native American regalia round a blazing fire with painted ponies standing by! It was simply the coolest place to sit and talk. But always, Hopi meetings are circular.There is a simple difference between square and round. There’s no hierarchy; no-one can barrel in through the boardroom doors to grab the head of the table spot and thus make themselves more important! It also supports the opportunity for each person to speak, to share what’s on their mind about the topic of the day. There is a facilitator – whoever is deemed to know most about the subject – who metaphorically passes the speaking stick to the next person (no pipe of peace – this was not the Hollywood version) and everyone gets a chance to share what they know.
As I listened I remembered reading Ed Catmull’s great book Creativity Inc in which he told the story of Steve Jobs’ designer boardroom table which they had acquired at great expense. When everyone gathered in the boardroom to kick off a new project (and that’s everyone in the company), Steve and Ed would sit at the centre of an enormously long table. A row of people would gather around the table, another row would be leaning against the wall, a row would sit on chairs between the wall and the table. And the level of contribution to the discussion would lessen the further away from the centre you would sit. Somehow, even in this most creative and innovative of companies, the expensive designer table had created a hierarchy where it was subconsciously recognised that the closer you were to the centre, the more power, influence and validity your contribution would have. I think the table went to a charity.
I also recalled a discussion with the CEO of a global perfume brand who had instituted many purposeful team-oriented practices in the organisation one of which was to try to remove hierarchy from meetings. But who also defeatedly recognised that when there was something difficult on the agenda she had been handed down from the hierarchy above or a challenging process to implement that she knew might meet resistance, she speedily got into the room and sat at the head of the table in order to stamp authority on the meeting! It’s not surprising we go back to power plays and command/control methodologies when the chips are down – everyone reverts to the method they’ve grown up with in times of challenge. It takes deep awareness and consciousness to hold yourself to conscious practices in times of stress.
Is there a better way to facilitate engagement in meetings or innovation processes?
A number of facilitated practices have developed in the last few years. many of which owe their thinking to indigenous wisdom. The Art of Hosting and harvesting conversations that matter aims to harness the collective wisdom and self-organizing capacity of groups of any size. Based on the assumption that people give their energy and lend their resources to what matters most to them – in work as in life – the Art of Hosting blends a series of powerful conversational processes to invite people to step in and take charge of the challenges facing them. AOH uses practices like Circle, World Café, Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space Technology, ProAction Café, storytelling and more – practitioners can tailor the approach to their context and purpose.
One way in which I combined my own Art of Hosting practice with my research was to combine some of the practices with the insights gained into how to deal with the communications challenges of cultural diversity, gender diversity and personality/character differences.
At any point in time in a meeting today we have a complex cocktail of people which makes arriving at conclusions challenges. Whilst cultural diversity inside global organisations is an enormously positive development, it is one which can raise significant issues as people from diverse cultures communicate, make-decisions, give feedback, lead, give trust, and deal with time, very differently. Secondly gender, where I was looking to understand if there were any truly broad brush stroke differences between the ways in which women and men communicate in leadership teams or in meetings in general. And thirdly I wanted to take into account the wide variety of personality and character differences that is likely to be in the room at any one time, specifically trying to understand how to make it possible for both extrovert and introverted personality types to participate equally in creative innovation.
What I have found is that the tools we have relied on in the past such as motivational team-building and training programmes, are much less likely to help us arrive at a plan of action to move forward on any question – from who should change the lightbulb to what’s our strategy for the next 3 years. But that shape and structure, where individuals are forced to abandon their normal characteristics – without them knowing or noticing it – is much more functional, co-creative and collaborative!
Activating Creativity 90 is one of a series of 90 minute workshops which forms the basis of starting a new process of creativity and innovation. It seeks to answer one question which is carefully formulated with a team of people, an organisation or a community that has become ‘stuck’. Activating Creativity 90 seeks to help organisations address issues, specific questions, challenges they may have in a very short timeframe, using a process which incorporates all the findings on the above three challenges. It takes advantage of many tools and techniques from simple pressure of time to more complex approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, biomimicry and indigenous wisdom.
The end result is a process which allows everyone in a team to participate with equal input, equal decision-making power, and equal levels of engagement. We have found that the process by its structure and character inevitably leads to an engaged, supported and meaningful way forward.
You can find out about many more practices and tools which help tackle problem-solving in my forthcoming book Activation. Some of the above are excerpts.
If you would like to know more about how The Creative Burst could help you unlock a thorny challenge, hop on over to Activating Creativity to find out more.