To Keep Your Company Growing, Think Of Your Business As A Forest—And Burn It Down Sometimes

My first week back from vacation hit me with a flurry of ideas. My schedule packed with interviews my assistant set up with CEOs, entrepreneurs, and thinkers, my dam is near bursting with things to share. Here is the first: David Hurst and his new book, The New Ecology of Leadership.

I first met David several months ago when he addressed a group I organize in New York called the Outthinker Network. This senior manager turned teacher and guru has woven his experience with insights from ecology, psychology, history, economics, and biology into an elegant framework for managing organizations in a chaotic world. I highly recommend you explore his work. Here are my favorite key lessons.

Embrace the wildfire

David introduces the study of “ecologics”--ecology applied to human behavior--and shows that this challenges the economics principles we’ve been fed. Economists seek to show that markets reach a natural equilibrium where supply meets demand. But nature does not work that way. Forests, for example, repeat cycles of creation and destruction. Out of brush spring young trees which grow into dark forests, kill off new shrubs, become unstable and catch fire, clearing the ground for the cycle to repeat. Why, then, should we expect companies, markets, and economies not to follow the same pattern?

A company built to last does not persist; rather it can recognize when it is time to destroy and recreate itself. GE, for example, recreated itself at least three times. American Express was once a FedEx-like courier service and now offers credit cards. Netflix seems to be recreating itself as HBO (Netflix’s exclusive production, Lilyhammer, is an example worth checking out).

Implication: Embrace destruction and recreate your business before the competition does.

Humans are analogical, not rational

Humans don’t make decisions by computing the outcomes of options like machines. Instead, we take cues to recognize situations and try actions that have worked in similar situations before. You know this intuitively. The last time you faced a decision, did you ask, “What does Porter’s Five Forces dictate I should do?” No, you probably thought, “What does this remind me of?” and then, “What worked for me then?”

In David’s words, “We are profoundly analogical animals, with an amazing ability to express one kind of experience in terms of another.”

Implication: Instead of looking for rules to follow, expand your repertoire of situations. To drive change, show people via analogy the new reality we are facing and let them respond naturally.

Humans seek “narrative truth”

Humans seek to fulfill the story they believe they are living in. This is how we create meaning. While scientists seek to confirm permanent truth, managers should, instead, seek to understand how people think and feel about what is happening. This gives you greater control over the reins that guide your organization.

Implication: Listen to your people to discern what story they are living in, and if the story does not lead to something they feel good about or in a direction you feel you should be headed, change the narrative.

Management is like riding a bicycle

My son learned to ride a two-wheel bike by the age of 3. But my 4-year-old daughter still leans on her training wheels. I can’t teach my daughter how to ride a bike by explaining the laws of gravity and centripetal force. She needs to get on a bike and go. The reason she cannot yet ride is that my son grew up in flat Florida and my daughter in hilly Greenwich, Conn., which affords fewer opportunities for her to practice. Management is the same. We learn by doing, not by studying.

Implication: Don’t just read a book; try, fail, and learn.

There is time for purpose and time for means

Young companies are born to pursue a purpose. A group gathers, sets a vision, and figures out what is necessary to realize the vision. As companies mature, their focus shifts to means. They systematize processes and build operating manuals. This natural evolution is necessary to build scale, but it also has a dark side. Your people will forget the purpose and start following the rules. They will start gaming the rules. You company will become a program rather than an intelligent, adapting organization.

Implication: Keep looking for where people are following the formula just to follow the formula but have forgotten the reason why.

These brief points don’t even qualify as CliffsNotes, but hopefully they give you a few things you can try today to lead more successfully. To really understand David’s model and theory, pick up the book.

For more on David, check out video I took of him outlining his theory by going to www.kaihan.net > Insight and Ideas > Video Blog.

[Image: Flickr user Alan English]