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In Nature, Myriad Lessons for Effective Sustainability Leadership
January 28th, 2013
Sustainability leaders in large service-based organizations know it is important to promote grassroots leadership to engage employees with their organizations’ sustainability goals and brand promise. What happens when we explore the deepest roots of sustainable practices by letting nature guide us?
When most of us first hear about biomimicry, we are captivated by the elegance of the solutions developed in product and building designs that emulate natural forms and systems. We may even think it makes perfect sense for designers and engineers to apply nature’s remarkably efficient strategies in order to solve complex design challenges. What is less clear is how biomimicry can help inform our work of engaging employees, leveraging loose networks, and integrating sustainable practices into the DNA of large organizations.
At Alameda County, California, we are testing the theory that biomimicry is relevant to organizational design because it offers us clues to time-tested strategies from nature’s best social organizers, communicators, and resource managers.
In a pilot program, twenty-six employee grassroots sustainability leaders are being introduced to ways that natural systems can inform human network-building and communication. These “green ambassadors” act as peer educators and sustainability role models within their divisions. They apply basic principles of biomimicry, called life’s principles, to help them teach fellow employees how to be green at work.
Leading From Life’s Principles
Life’s principles describe deep patterns in how organisms relate to the world and each other. Biomimicry 3.8 distilled these design lessons from scientific research and refined them over the past fifteen years. The green ambassador network is employing life’s principles as a metaphoric touchpoint for innovation and motivation, resulting in a fresh new perspective on the challenge of cultivating sustainability leadership.
Be Locally Attuned
The concept of the green ambassadors network is grounded in the life’s principle of being locally attuned and responsive. With workplaces varying from libraries to warehouses, Alameda County’s 9000 employees work in many different contexts. Local representatives who know the pulse of their divisions can tailor key messages and act as peer educators from within to promote activities such as carpooling and making environmentally responsible purchasing decisions.
The green ambassadors network is designed to enable members to self-organize to directly support each other and build on each other’s work.
We observe self-organization in nature when individual organisms within a group attend to their own interests via local interactions, and an overall pattern of collective behavior emerges spontaneously. Without central coordination instructions, flocks of birds and swarms of fish can tightly maneuver together because each individual follows a few simple rules, such as matching the speed and average direction of its neighbors while maintaining a minimum distance.
Inspired by these natural models of swarm intelligence, leadership networks might empower their members to agree on a few simple rules that are easy for each individual to follow, thus creating the possibility for combined effects to emerge that are greater than the sum of individual actions. For instance, when the green ambassadors experience a success, they can share this with two fellow ambassadors working in similar contexts, who may then localize and replicate that strategy. When ambassadors need a new idea, they can ask two network members who are in very different contexts, so creative ideas can spread. Simple rules that encourage direct, timely interaction with other team members make the team as a whole more nimble and responsive.
Use Feedback Loops
To enable the flow of information, the green ambassadors are encouraged to use feedback loops. This two-way communication strategy reminds ambassadors to give action-oriented feedback to the employee peers they are educating and leading, while receiving ongoing feedback to improve the delivery of their messages.
A local organism provides a model. The pitch of the song of white-crowned sparrows in San Francisco has become higher as the rumbling from traffic has increased in the last forty years. This is because a higher frequency is less likely to be masked by low-frequency ambient noise.
Similarly, the green ambassadors are competing with many other messages being sent to employees. The sparrow inspires them to ask: rather than sending more or louder messages to compete with the noise, how can the ambassadors learn which messages effectively penetrate the ambient noise? Perhaps this involves tuning to the right frequency of personalized, fun, and engaging communications.
As individuals passionate about the environment and their work, the green ambassadors are discovering that training in biomimicry stretches the way they think about problem-solving – and provides a rewarding opportunity to reconnect with nature. Biomimicry can bring inspiration and authenticity to your brand’s sustainability promise.
Thank you to Julie Sammons for her valuable contributions to this piece, Toyota and Audubon for their support of this pilot program through the TogetherGreen Conservation Leadership Fellowship, Climate Corps Bay Area for volunteer support, and all the green ambassadors for their commitment.