What nature teaches us about strategy

Many of us are fond of using natural allegories in business. Most of these (such as “viral” or “organic” growth) are so embedded in the vernacular that their natural origins have been forgotten — however, there is one analogy which still draws on the natural world in a very conscious way: Darwinism.

Darwinian language — chiefly “survival of the fittest” — often finds its way into business discussions. It’s typically used to describe a hyper-competitive, dog-eat-dog vision of the way business should be done. One where it’s “kill or be killed,” where the weak perish and the strong survive.

This, we are led to believe, is the primary lesson companies can learn from nature: that it’s a harsh world out there, and that unless you’re prepared to meet it with animal aggression and a zero-sum mentality, you won’t stay in it for long.

Frankly, this is nonsense. Such conclusions are founded on an overly simplistic understanding of how natural systems work — and, in fact, when we delve into them, we can discover that the true lesson they have for us is pretty much the opposite of what we thought: collaboration, rather than competition.

In this piece, I want to lay out these dynamics and show how nature has developed a sophisticated and effective strategy for survival that has the potential to work better in business than the strategies we typically employ today.

First up, we need to establish that nature and business are indeed relevant things to compare. Not everything has lessons for everything else, so why would we think that there are strong parallels between these two worlds?

Well, obscure as it may seem on the surface, ecosystems and markets are, mechanically speaking, remarkably similar. They are both complex systems made up of individual organisms (or companies) that interact with each other in an effort to survive. If the conditions of the systems change — say, through an unanticipated climatic change or the emergence of a disruptive technology — then so too does the playing field for the entities within it; they have to adapt or die.

However, in spite of these dynamic similarities, there is one key difference between the two systems: our beliefs about how the entities within them thrive. Here our theories diverge. In business, the accepted strategy, as we’ve discussed, is typically competition; an adversarial dynamic whereby players seek to beat each other and emerge victorious. However, in nature, the strategy for success is rather different. Natural organisms, we understand, thrive by seeking symbiosis (or collaboration, if you prefer): to strike a balance with each other for the overall health of the system.

For example, if you were to go to Yellowstone National Park and observe the relationship of the animals there, you would see that, rather than fighting for supremacy (or each other’s extinction), they instead each perform specific tasks that benefit the ecosystem as a whole. In doing so, they could even be said to be serving each other — the polar opposite of an adversarial dynamic. This applies even to the predator-prey relationship. The wolf and the deer are not rivals; they are instead co-dependent. The wolf obviously needs the deer to eat, but the deer also needs the wolf to control its numbers, keep its own food supply plentiful, prevent the spread of disease, and so on. They each have their own unique jobs — the wolf to hunt and the deer to be hunted — and in performing them both, at a species level, are able to survive.

In the case of Yellowstone specifically, this symbiotic dynamic was sharply illustrated by, as a matter of fact, the reintroduction of wolves a few years ago. If we were to look at such an action through a competitive lens, we would assume that the presence of wolves would be bad news for other species as they are a strong (or highly competitive) animal who would blitz the market.

However because wolves are a necessary part of that particular ecosystem — it needs their service, if you like — their presence actually resulted in a holistic flourishing of other species as symbiotic balance was restored.

So what’s the relevance of this to business? Well, the critical thing about a symbiotic system is that every entity within it has a unique, specific role to play. What these roles entail precisely is determined by gaps left over by everything else and therefore mustn’t constitute a doubling- or tripling-up of roles already done by other entities. The majority of businesses, however, by trying to compete, do the opposite of this and end up trying to fulfill a market role that is already being satisfactorily filled by many others — meanwhile leaving many open roles otherwise unexplored. Competition, essentially, breeds conformity. This, then, results in an unbalanced, unhealthy market, which is neither good for consumers nor the companies that comprise it.

If, however, a business was to take a symbiotic view of the marketplace, it would not ask, “How can I beat these guys?” It would instead ask, “How can I complement these guys by pivoting off the positions in the system they are already filling?” In other words, success would be achieved by finding the place where they fit — without encroaching on anyone else.

This is what makes the misuse of survival of the fittest particularly amusing. Interpreting it as a reference to competition and strength comes from a misunderstanding of the word fit in this context. Fittest here doesn’t necessarily mean the fastest or strongest or most aggressive— it simply means that which fits best into the system. Far from being a competitive notion, it is, in fact, a collaborative one. It might mean competition within a species or company (i.e. between competing visions of which path is best to follow), but it doesn’t mean competition between them. When it comes to inter-species and inter-company relations, balance should be the goal, not conquest.

To illustrate this, we can look to the cautionary tale of Nokia.

The fall of Nokia is, of course, legendary. In the space of six years, their share of the cellphone market fell from a never-beaten 49% to an insignificant 3%. Why? Well, if we examine their strategy over that period, we can see that the turnaround occurred when they switched from a symbiotic view of the marketplace (where they played a unique role that balanced the market) to a competitive one (where they attempted to double-up on the roles other companies were performing and fell short).

How so?

In their heyday, Nokia was known for making devices that were simple, practical, and above all incredibly robust. Nothing exemplified this value offering better than the legendary 3310, dubbed by the public The Terminator Phone thanks to its near indestructibility. Thousands of YouTube videos have been made eulogising this phone and putting its strength to the test. To this day, it maintains a level of goodwill and fandom which has never been surpassed.

This, then, was Nokia’s unique role in the ecosystem — tough phones — a position which fit, symbiotically, with the rest of the market.

But then along came the iPhone, a market disruption that Nokia reacted to in precisely the wrong way. Noticing the traction Apple was gaining with a design-led approach, rather than reacting in a symbiotic manner and saying, “That’s great, they can do their thing, we’ll do ours, and we can each take care of our portions of the market,” they instead tried to beat Apple at their own game. They performed an immediate pivot, abandoning the rugged end of the market to focus on high-end design, and, of course, got destroyed by a company who were far better suited to such a role.

Linking this back to ecology, it’s rather like a bee one day deciding that it wants to be an ant. The bee, of course, is perfectly adapted to bee-like behaviour, to playing the role in the ecosystem that bees are meant to play. However, it’s very ill-suited to being an ant. Therefore, in trying to adopt ant-like behaviour, not only does the bee utterly fail to beat the ant, but it also neglects all of its natural advantages and ends up providing very little value to the market of any kind at all, resulting in extinction.

The tragic thing about the Nokia story is that the market probably would have been more than happy to support both types of business, and indeed they may have even strengthened each other’s positions — two counterpoints providing a certain symbiotic balance.

Hopefully, you can see that there is an alternative way to interpret market dynamics other than through the lens of competition. Markets can also operate, just as natural ecosystems do, symbiotically — with each business playing a particular role that balances with the offerings of others, rather than seeking to supplant them. We could even speculate, perhaps, that a perfectly functioning market would be one where there is no overlap between businesses at all, merely a series of mutually-reinforcing micro-monopolies that look after their own walled gardens and thrive accordingly. Such a notion is of course purely theoretical because, so long as you have the human factor at play, markets will never self-regulate the way ecosystems do but will always tend towards competitive clustering.

But that’s no bad thing because it makes the rewards for those who do refuse to compete so much the better.

If you want to know more about how you can apply this concept to your own work, check out this more in-depth talk I did on the subject for TEDx Folkestone:

Get weekly articles that will enable you to see things others don’t. 

Connect with Alex on Linkedin for daily ideas and discussion


Thank You

Check your inbox for your first mail.