2014-06-04

Co.Exist

6 Lessons That Businesses Can Learn From Bees

Those hives are teeming centers of efficiency and production. We could learn a little from nature.

This is adapted from The Nature of Investing: Resilient Investment Strategies Through Biomimicry

We are all investors, whether investing our own talents, our company’s resources, our time and energy as citizens, or our financial assets. And investing, done well, is a creative, engaged endeavor, premised on mutual benefit and mutual exchange, producing something of value to the world. This kind of true investing is more than speculation, more than trading. It’s a high bar to set, and begs the question, where do we go for the best advice? Who has the edge? Aggressive hedge fund managers, the talking heads on television, the Oracle of Omaha, or the Oracle on the tickertape?

Turns out, our best mentor for investing has been with us all along: it’s not Mr. Market, it’s Mother Nature. We are all searching for resilient, regenerative, deeply profitable endeavors, and it seems every week brings a new acronym for sustainability processes or innovation methods. Yet nature has adapted and thrived for 3.8 billion years—the most compelling track record around. Nature is not just a place to escape our professional lives; it is the source of deep wisdom that can improve our designs and decision-making.

Pausing before we create a product, reorganize a team, or allocate investments to ask, WWND? (What Would Nature Do?) leads to decisions that are effective instead of merely efficient, simple instead of synthetic, mindful instead of mechanical. The six major principles of biomimicry, established by Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister of Biomimicry 3.8, aren’t just clever buzzwords. These concepts describe how the world around us actually functions, and biomimicry aims to embrace nature’s wisdom, rather than just harvesting nature’s stuff. Aligning with the essential features of natural systems inherently orients us towards approaches that are multidimensional, longer term, and deeply, durably profitable.

Some of the most compelling natural wisdom I’ve found comes from the honeybee. Here are the six principles of biomimicry, illustrated by this inspiring creature:

BE RESOURCE AND ENERGY EFFICIENT

Efficiency in nature is not just fast and cheap; it reflects a deeper sort of true effectiveness. For example, the bees’ honeycombs look cool, with all of those neatly arrayed hexagons, but they are also incredibly efficient: the hexagon uses less material and energy per unit of structural integrity than any other shape. What if a simple term sheet were really all the organization that an investor needed? What if every one of us had an ideal mix of structure and flexibility in our workspace, or our meeting schedules?

USE LIFE-FRIENDLY CHEMISTRY

There are no toxic dumps in nature, no piles of excess inventory. Bees create an amazing array of products—honey, royal jelly, beeswax—with simple inputs of pollen and nectar. What might we create if we were more imaginative in using simple building blocks, rather than adding complicated synthetic processing and packaging?

INTEGRATE GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT

Natural systems grow in a complete, connected way, with supporting systems developing in sync. Honeybees do not go all out to maximize growth for growth’s sake: they expand the hive as more space is needed for growing population and for food storage. This “just in time” approach ensures that bees never have excess overhead draining their energy resources. What might we gain by growing appropriately over time, instead of starting out at a sprint, only to stumble from lack of support?

BE LOCALLY ATTUNED

Natural organisms thrive in context, connected with the rhythms and circumstances that surround them. The famous bee waggle dances convey complex local information in a very simple way. Each dance contains information about both site and quality of resources, and the detail shifts as needed to incorporate changing sun position and availability. This adjusting works in reverse, too: flowers only produce a certain amount of nectar at a time, to maximize the chances of multi-day, multi-visitor pollination. Talk about an efficient market!

ADAPT TO CHANGING CONDITIONS

Darwin’s famous “survival of the fittest” was a precise statement. When he said “fittest,” Darwin did not mean strongest or fastest or even smartest: he meant most adaptable, best at handling change. When bees seek a change in hive location, simple rules and open, democratic information sharing guide their decision-making. First, the bees leave the hive; they do not call an all-hands meeting and retreat to a big conference room. Then, they share what they’ve learned from their scouting missions, openly and without spin; there are no bee pundits. What if we required leaving the office and objectively sharing knowledge when there was an important decision to be made?

EVOLVE TO SURVIVE

Over the long term, adaptation becomes evolution. No species evolves in isolation: honeybees and flowers have co-evolved over centuries. In fact, flowers evolved from ferns for the primary function of pollination, thus ensuring survival of their species. There are more specific types of evolutionary matches, too: one type of flower only releases its pollen when a certain type of bumblebee buzzes at the exact right vibration level. How might we better match investors and investees over the long term? What would our business ecosystems look like using this long term, co-evolutionary lens?

Of course, we are not insects—but looking to examples like the honeybee when we search for mentors, models, measures and muses can inspire actions that are more effective and adaptive, and therefore more fully and truly profitable. Moreover, we are part of nature ourselves, and re-centering on that basic fact can help us to establish a sense of humility and wonder, two central ingredients for real innovation and independent thinking. We are unique creatures, able to observe and process and create and connect in deeply human ways. Valuing this uniqueness, and the context in which it exists, begins to reconnect our investing with the real world. This, in turn, allows us to re-root our work in service to the even better world that we envision.

We are all investors—as citizens, as consumers, as business people, as creative beings. And this nature-based approach—resilient, regenerative, and reconnected—this is the true nature of investing.

[Image: Bees via ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock]

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7 Comments

  • Taher Topiwala

    Love this article! Indeed there are so many things we can learn from the honeybees - not just about investing but about business and personal lives as well. So much so that my whole company is based on the study and teachings of Honeybees. Thank you and will share this :)

  • Many thanks for this Katherine and also the comments from Shayne who refers to the Cartesian logic underpinning much of how we view Nature, humanity and machines today, alas. Biomimicry is a useful way of re-dressing this out-dated logic as long as the flaws of this underlying logic are re-cognized, which often are not by some biomimetic scientists. The future of biomimicry is rich, as long as the Hobbesian, Cartesian, Neo-Darwinian logic so engrained in much of how we perceive Nature (including human society and organisations) is righted, see here what I wrote for CSRWire a couple of days back on this: http://www.csrwire.com/blog/posts/1379-what-is-the-future-for-biomimicry

    Put another way, if we superficially copy Nature to do the same stuff but more resiliently, with the same flawed logic, we will have over-looked a much deeper wisdom Nature can afford us, and we shall continue to go down an evolutionary cul-de-sac. Thank you for sharing Katherine and Shayne.

  • Trevor Leeds

    What an excellent article. I own a top roofing contractor business in Southern California and I will most definitely share this article with my team and roofing peers. The information very much applies to the roofing and greater construction business. Well done!

  • Can't wait to read your book! Also, Darwin did not coin the term survival of the fittest, Herbert Spencer did, and he meant it to be used, exactly the way it is today. Best to not even try to re-frame it, I think. John Rockefeller, of Standard Oil also said “The growth of large business is only survival of the fttest. It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God”. What's interesting is how he says law of nature and law of God. The Cartesian worldview, proceeds evolution, and even though the public discourse thinks of religion and science being quite separate, I think for people like Rockefeller and many still today, there is no real difference. That's the problem. We need to as aware of issues with Descartes' thinking, just as much as Darwin's.

  • Descartes was of course a philosopher. And philosophy doesn't seem to be keeping up with science. I hope biomimicry can in fact change this. To expand on what I have been saying above though, I think the interpretation of "fittest" depends on whether you have a mechanistic or teleological view of life. Of course, some scientists who favor the mechanistic view still write in a teleological manner, and favor what Frans de Waal calls veneer theories (e.g. memes). Some turn the machine metaphor into a false teleology and say the purpose of life is to create more machines; this seems to be what we are doing. I don't think machines in themselves are evil, but if we think of ourselves and the economy as machines, then we shouldn't be surprised when reports emerge that predict 45% of today's jobs will be automated over the next few decades (when we already have mass inequality). It's really a self-fulfilling prophesy. We can change this; biomimicry is leading the way. Thanks for your work.

  • Hi Shayne and thanks so much for your thoughtful commentary. There was a lot of back and forth between Darwin and Spencer over the years, of course, and also a lot of interpretation (and misinterpretation) of both of their bodies of work in the decades since, so perhaps you are right to think that is a discussion best left alone. But the idea of adaptation as being a key part of effectiveness (and ultimately, survival) is a central one, and relates to your point about machines. I like machines just fine, the same as I like most investment tools - but no matter how complex, they are all tools, and their usefulness depends upon how appropriately they are employed. One element of biomimicry that I really appreciate is that it helps to guide us to asking better questions - to me this is the key to progress of all sorts. Thanks again for your comments, and I hope you like the book! -kc

  • Absolutely, I think that's why Darwin said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” The expression "survival of the fittest" seems to be quite a polarizing frame and its interpretation depends on the other metaphors you already employ (cf Lakoff/Johnson). It's really, I think "survival of the most fitted-in", as I believe Danya Baumeister, Paul Hawken and likely Janine herself have said. I've requested your book from my library, but if they don't get it, I'm ordering online. :)