Executive Coach Vs. The Octopus: Embracing The Business Lessons Of Biology

Decentralization, redundancy, and symbiosis have worked well enough for a few billion years—so they might work in 2013, too.

"All of Earth's successful organisms have thrived without analyzing past crises or trying to predict the next one," writes Rafe Sagarin in HBR, free of "planning exercises," "predictive frameworks," or other buzzy human constructions. "Instead," he says, "they've adapted."

This is because if a species doesn't adapt to the changes in its environment, it's quite dead—not unlike your company (or career). And nature knows this without executive coaching. Meaning that we might have a few things to learn.

Decentralize like a mollusk

Consider the octopus: Fleet of tentacle and prismatic of color, the cephalopod is a paragon of flat, startup-style organizational structure:

An octopus ... doesn't order each arm to change a certain color when it needs to hide quickly. Rather, individual skin cells across its body sense and respond to change and give the octopus a collective camouflage.

If we take managers to be the brains of the octopus—a frightening proposition—employees, especially those with a customer touch point, are the spectacular, tentacular, color-shifting cells—a credo of the connected company. When you move with your feelers (or suckers, as is the case with eight-arms over there), you can move much quicker than your centralized competitors: Wikipedia over Brittanica, Google Flu Trends over the CDC.

Department of redundancy department

Apologies if you've heard it before, but redundancies can be key to survival, in the wild and in manufacturing. Sagarin relates a story:

A CEO I know who uses biological principles to run a manufacturing firm that has never been unprofitable or laid off an employee in 30 years keeps a massive warehouse full of multiple copies of every part he's ever made. This cache of inventory and wasted real estate violates all the norms of just-in-time manufacturing, but when a 20-year-old helicopter is grounded and needs to fly now, he is the only one who has the part.

That evidences the incentive to keep a storehouse of parts, processes, and other resources, though it may not seem characteristically lean. You can see it in the way that Github, the indispensable social coding platform, keeps a wiki-scale amount of code laying around for would-be developers to integrate into their own projects—and why Andreessen Horowitz sent $100 million their way last summer. Sometimes more is more.

Is this your symbiosis?

Keep your clownfish close, your anemones closer

Just as the clownfish and the anemone mutually benefit one another, symbiotic partnerships can create value for the oddest of couples: Consider Ben & Jerry's and Unilever. The socially conscious Vermont creamery needed to grow after years of flat sales, and Unilever needed to bring boutique brands into its many-tentacled portfolio.

"The larger organization adapted more than the smaller one to make the symbiosis work," Sagarin writes, by allowing casual dress for Ben & Jerry's execs, keeping their charitable giving going, and growing more eco-friendly. And thus, he says, the behemoth brought "aspects of Ben & Jerry's DNA" into its corporate life.

To Become More Adaptable, Take a Lesson from Biology

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Mr. Nixter]

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  • Gibson George

    Executive coaching is one of the essential requirements in an organization or any sector. So for this there are many sectors providing these options. As we all know octopus has got many tentacles which e uses for different tasks such as we need to learn from him the lesson of executive coaching so more preferable is to follow these skills.

  • grant

    Hi Drake: Are you suggesting executive coaching is not necessary if one can learn to be adaptable? I find the title a bit confusing.

  • Niek Temme

    I think the article of Rafe Sagarin in HBR is a brilliant article
    and I am looking forward in reading his book. My brother is a biologist and
    having a business background myself, we have had many discussions on borrowing
    analogies from biology world to the world of organizations. As we still take a
    lot of vacations together I can guarantee these discussions always ended well.


    Personally, I think the key in understanding the survival of
    organisms is that they do not adapt. Instead of adapting themselves, organisms
    use variation in offspring to create new variations next to the original
    variation. Following the evolutionary model, the answer to the question of
    survival of organizations is to create independent parts within the
    organization and to foster variation in 'offspring' from the parent company. The
    parent company can remain optimized for the current environment and competitors
    whereas the independent subsidiary can be agile, flexible and develop new


    Niek Temme