Planning for New Growth: What Business Can Learn From Nature’s Cycle
When I started working in sustainable business, most of my conversations consisted of persuading leaders that there was a business case for sustainable action. Today, the mainstream conversation looks and feels radically different. Coming out of COP26, ESG has become a robust part of the international and national debate and is rising firmly up the agenda for businesses, boards and investors. There is now mounting pressure from an increasingly diverse range of stakeholder voices. Maintaining business as usual – i.e. based on past actions – in pursuit of exponential growth is no longer a primary strategic option for resilience or success.
Yet in a world addicted to unsustainable growth and business practices that plan for, and reward, short-term value creation, it is not surprising that CEOs and their teams are uncertain of what a new model would look like. At the same time their audiences and customers are often sceptical of the commitment to change.
This is not a new conversation, but talk is not enough. We need purposeful businesses and leaders that are committed to harnessing their intelligence and resources to tackle meaningful challenges aligned to what the world needs now. One way is to look at how the turning of the seasons breeds regeneration.
“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.” – Albert Einstein
For decades, innovative minds have turned to biomimicry to help solve complex human design challenges – the practice of emulating the genius of nature when creating products and structures. The burrs in his dog’s fur provided a starting point for Velcro inventor George de Mestral, and the bumpy fins of humpback whales inspired engineers to create more effective, aerodynamic wind turbines.
In nature, a healthy system is one that maintains itself. So a simple and elegant starting point for thinking about sustainability is to tune into the pattern of the seasons and what they can teach us about growth.
A time for everything
In the natural world, seasonal cycles are of course natural patterns of regeneration. In the spring, there’s movement, creation and growth. The summer gives us long days, good weather and the opportunity to enjoy the new life generated weeks earlier. Autumn is when we harvest that growth, and then there’s winter’s retreat – a time for slowing down, renewal and preparing for the cycle to begin again.
The seasonal metaphor here is the value that comes from paying attention to the natural rhythms of planning, activity, and energy within your business. Regenerative Leadership co-authors Giles Hutchins and Laura Storm describe this pattern as the ‘Rhythm of Life.’
Slowing down to appreciate where the seasonal rhythm shows up in individual and organisational capacities allows us to harness our regenerative potential and give greater meaning and purpose to what we do.
Useful questions for business leaders to consider are:
- How are you creating space for reflection and deeper understanding to support innovation?
- Just as we have lunar, daily, and life cycles within each year; How do you tune into multiple cycles within your business?
- How are they interconnected?
- Where do you see this rhythm in projects and individuals’ energies?
- Where are you asking for an eternal spring and summer?
- What unhealthy practices does this create?
- And finally: how might these concepts help you adapt and adjust your business cycles to be more resilient and grow in a way that creates long-term shared value?
In the UK we are in the middle of winter as I write this, and while the concept of winter in business may not sound immediately intuitive, it is full of wisdom. Words like decay, darkness, and dormancy can often symbolise failure, uncertainty and stagnation. These may be unattractive prospects to the business world. But my experience as a sustainability and systems change consultant has shown me that businesses that don’t allow for periods of pause fail to thrive and are less likely to support flourishing environments and communities.
Integrating a period of reflection and readjustment into your business’s yearly cycle enables it to operate with agility, creativity and resilience. Without this reflection hardwired into processes, I often see businesses sticking to fixed long term plans instead of acting on new information which highlights a better and more impactful course of action. Nature is iterative, emergent and highly adaptive – something businesses need to be to survive, especially at our current pace of change.
Today’s dominant work cultures discourage us from letting go, embracing failures and taking time to learn from them. It keeps us on a constant cycle, neglecting to nurture the seeds of new ideas and stopping us from letting go practices that are no longer fit for purpose.
We are facing hugely complex systemic challenges and solving them will take all our creativity and capacity for radical innovation. Redefining our relationship with failure – like understanding winter’s seasonal decay – is vital for innovation at the speed and scale we need to succeed. We won’t get it right all the time, and we need to create safety nets and space for a better conversation about failure to support businesses and leaders to take bold, positive action. An even greater challenge is for business leaders to let go of business models that do not contribute to a sustainable future: purpose must be redefined to make them fit for the seasons ahead.
This isn’t about shutting down the office from November to February during the coldest months of the year. Instead, the invitation is to understand the essential function of winter’s natural interval and seek to follow suit – taking time to rejuvenate. When the working world operates at a constant frequency equivalent to spring and summer, it inevitably also celebrates long working hours and perpetual growth. It is no wonder that wellbeing and, somewhat ironically, productivity pay the price. Failing to acknowledge our natural energy patterns often results in high levels of burnout, with individuals having to take much longer periods out of work at huge personal cost – negatively impacting the business.
Lockdown has added to this state of affairs and initiated a huge shift in our working patterns, pace and processes. Employers and employees are re-evaluating what is most important to them and how they work best. We have had a collective reset from the established rhythm of commuting and office life, and not everyone is keen to return to pre-pandemic routines. Shaping inclusive, hybrid working cultures is one of the biggest challenges facing CEOs and people teams today. It’s exciting to see businesses redefining their patterns and policies as they adapt to new ways of working.
In spite of the enormity of the challenges we face, I am inspired by the growing movement of regenerative and purposeful businesses driving change. Embracing periods of winter does not mean inactivity. Quite the opposite: in this decade it will help inspire, resource and galvanise the critical and urgent action we need to see organisations and leaders taking.
I am hopeful that businesses that seek to emulate rather than exploit nature will emerge more resilient with a better understanding of how to plan for sustainable growth.