From machines to ecosystems

When we talk about thriving in the digital age, we tend to revert to discussing how to leverage social media, mobile and other cool channels. There’s nothing wrong with that (and I do it myself!), but it can be useful to consider the bigger picture now and then.

The challenges we face in business are not related to technology, they’re related to human beings. The industrial revolution brought us machines; and with it linear, machine-age thinking, articulated in machine-age language that in turn makes us think more like machines. This machine metaphor shaped the 20th century. We viewed biology as a big machine, we searched for machine-like predictability in economics and physics – and you could argue that it served us fairly well when we lived in a world that was changing less rapidly, with fewer choices.

However lately we’ve started to realise that our rigid financial forecasts, waterfall development methods and other attempts at predicting what’s likely to work or not work in business and product design are very flawed.

A more useful metaphor for the 21st century is nature. Instead of technology and nature being enemies, I believe our most successful innovations will be like living things. Concepts like self-organisation, co-evolution, emergence and feedback loops are coming to the forefront.

If you look at thriving companies – like Facebook – you can see the characteristics that make them fittest. They’re thriving within millions of systems and sub-systems (i.e. markets). The structure of what they’re creating is all about fluidity, feedback loops, interlinking; people, applications, APIs – lots of iterations and replications.

We need to start focusing on developing traits that make us more likely to be fittest within any given system. Traits include: agility; the ability to replicate; the ability to get undistorted, accurate feedback and a fine balance – between impulse and restraint, competition and cooperation, chaos and order.

Meanwhile, on an individual, personal level, each of us should seek the conditions and environment in which we’re fittest. Nobody is fittest in every situation, so move fluidly through different systems in seek of a place where you thrive; and if energy dissipates (which it always does, according to the 2nd law of thermodynamics!), shift to another system.

If we do things as nature does, we’ll see real progress.

1 Comment

  • Weird, this is like reading something from my own mind :) I've been thinking along the same lines lately. A product / organisational structure / methodology is not an end goal, but a living dynamic entity, which must constantly adapt to its environment. What I find exciting about the nature analogy is that we can look a change not as a threat, but an opportunity. An opportunity to blow away the competition. In order to grab this opportunity we need to have proactive high quality feedback mechanisms, and the ability to adapt both quickly and efficiently. To not only anticipate change, but thrive on it, making it a competitive advantage.

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