Business lessons from Mother Nature

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Filling our lungs with the crisp scent of pine, we started our walk through the cool, dappled shade of the Cecilia plantation on the Constantia side of Table Mountain.

Our conversation of what we expected from investing a day of our precious time on this hike was lightly harmonised by the steady crunching of our boot steps on the gravel and twigs underfoot.

And after only ten minutes, just as our bodies were warming to the gentle exercise, we paused near a bubbling stream for the first of what would be innumerable story stops in the day. Here’s where we unexpectedly discovered a clue from nature that would answer one of our team’s strategic challenges in our business.

Over the weeks before our hike, our team had been grappling with several issues in refining our strategic plans for the coming years – from our brand’s point of difference in the market, defining exactly who our market is and how we access that market, to how we build capacity, organise ourselves and exploit each individual’s specialist expertise.

A change in scenery

As we wrestled with many potentially game-changing perspectives and options in our business’ existence, our strategy conversations felt like they hit a dead-end. Our creativity flagged and we seemed to be out of answers. That’s when we decided to radically change our environment to encourage new perspectives and stimulate creative energy.

It is remarkable what impact our environment has on us and how our emotional and mental being – our energy and thoughts, or lack of them- are immeasurably dependent on where we put our bodies in the world.

Now aside from the change in our environment, we had the benefit of having the pleasant services of, quite likely, the most experienced and qualified safari and hiking guide in Southern Africa, Steve Bolnick. A Zimbabwean by yearning and, having been in the safari business for several decades, Steve is qualified to lead the most dangerous tours and wild life walks in Southern Africa. His immense knowledge of fauna and flora and their interaction is stupendous. In every stop we made on our hike, there was some extraordinary fact to be shared, each of which led to several analogies and metaphors for our work and our business strategy.

For example and, quoting from Steve’s blog after our hike, “We were fortunate that the magnificent Tree Pagodas (Mimetes fimbriifolius) were in full colour and provided much opportunity for discussion.

“This plant employs the services of birds for pollination and ants for seed dispersal and protection. It ensures that these services are rendered by using [flower] designs that benefit the birds and ants. Without the co-operation of the birds and the ants, this plant species would not survive.

“These plants may take up to ten years before they flower and, in order to reproduce, they must survive fires at least until this time. To these ends they have a thick, fire-resistant bark which protects dormant shoots. In the event that fire destroys the growing tips, these dormant shoots take-over.”

Fresh insight

There are some obvious analogies and generic questions we could ask to trigger creative conversation, such as:

  • What strategic partnerships do you enjoy?
  • Do you make it easy for your target clients to do business with you?
  • Conversely and, analogous to the tubular shape of the flower holding the precious nectar, how do you discourage “wrong” clients from entering your sales funnel and consuming valuable resources?
  • What plans are in place to assure business continuity should a catastrophe strike?
  • Do you have insurance and does the fine print not exclude the risks and conditions you really need to be covered for?

So what was that insight we learned at our first stop? It may seem trite, but the meaning is infinitely more real than an MBA classroom case study.

Next to that bubbling stream, we stood on the soft path under the verdant green leaves of tall indigenous trees that made a small Afro-montagne forest. The unique thing about this type of forest is that it is found in very small niches of valleys in the Peninsula and Boland. Yet in these well-defined spaces, the trees thrive abundantly and in turn symbiotically support a diverse range of other plants and animals.

The business analogy? For where we are in our business’ life cycle and growth phase, we reinforced the strategic priority to niche our offering for a well-defined target audience of business leaders and teams. While we “knew” this before the hike, it became embodied knowledge from the hike.

In concluding the journey of this story, it seems appropriate that I’m reminded of T. S. Eliot’s quote:

“We shall never cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

About the author: Brent Combrink is the founding owner of ProMentor, which has helped hundreds of professionals, entrepreneurs and teams in Southern Africa to grow themselves and their businesses since 2003. Your business can benefit from nature’s strategies by doing ProMentor’s Natural Leaders, Natural Teams “workshop”, available throughout Southern Africa. Contact Brent at brent@promentor.co.za or visit www.promentor.co.za.


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