Yes, We Live in a VUCA World… But Nature has 3.8 Billion Years of Experience!

Ready for another series of articles?

This time we’ll explore what we can learn from nature about being/becoming agile.

We will co-write this series to combine our insights about both agile organizational models and the fundamental strategies nature has been using for billions of years.

If you haven’t read the previous series of articles, it may be a good idea to do so, especially the article on what an agile organization really is (and isn’t), as it covers all the basics. The link to that article can be found here.

First, we’ll introduce the principles behind the agile HR manifesto, which is a set of five key principles that support the development of agile organizations. Then, we’ll introduce the Life’s Principles, a set of six basic design principles that underlies almost all successful biological strategies found in nature. In the following articles we’ll tackle one or a few of those principles at a time and compare them with each other. We’ll try to answer questions such as: are we on the right track with the agile HR manifesto compared to what nature has been doing for so long? What aspects are used by nature that we haven’t included (yet) to become more agile? And so on.

What are the agile HR Manifesto principles?

According to a recent survey done by McKinsey & Company “Three-quarters of respondents say organizational agility is a top or top-three priority on their units’ agendas, and more transformations appear to be on the way.”

This need for agility is not new, especially not in the software development world.

Already in 2001, The Agile Manifesto was written by seventeen independent-minded software practitioners. This work group agreed on a set of 4 core principles, which has been widely used and implemented in organizations across the globe:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

These principles have proven themselves to be extremely useful, but is clear from the first series of articles that agility is about much more than just IT. Indeed, many organizations are looking for ways to increase their organizational agility, which is defined as “the ability to quickly reconfigure strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology (…)” by McKinsey.

That’s why an international work group of HR professionals has created the Agile HR Manifesto. This group agreed on five central principles to help HR shape agile companies:

  1. Support people to engage, grow and be happy in their workplace
  2. Encourage people to welcome change and adapt where needed
  3. Help to build and support networks of empowered, self-organizing and collaborative teams
  4. Nourish and support the people’s and team’s motivation and capabilities, help them build the environment they need, and trust them to get the job done
  5. Facilitate and nurture personal growth, to harness employee’s different strengths and talents

What are the Life’s Principles?

Scientists have been studying patterns that occur in many, if not all, living species, and summarized the successful design principles into what is called the Life’s Principles. We could basically consider them as the “secret sauce” to surviving and being successful in living on our planet.

The following graphic shows the six basic design principles scientists have unveiled:

  1. Evolve to survive
  2. Adapt to changing conditions
  3. Be locally attuned and responsive
  4. Use life friendly-chemistry
  5. Be resource efficient
  6. Integrate development with growth

Why is it relevant to compare the Life’s Principles with the Agile HR Manifesto?

We believe that it’s relevant to use the Life’s Principles as a reference and guidance to organizational agility because this set of principles is what makes organisms thrive under earth’s operating conditions, which are:

  • Sunlight , water, and gravity
  • Dynamic, non-equilibrium
  • Limits and boundaries
  • Cyclic processes (e.g. seasonality, day/night)

These conditions are very similar to those that define organizations:

  • Organizations are dependent on their resources (financial, employees, market opportunity)
  • They need to survive in a VUCA-world; “the only certainty is change”
  • They cannot grow indefinitely
    “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.”― Kenneth E. Boulding
  • Organizational Development also follows a cyclic process (HRPeople)

What to expect for the follow-up articles?

We’ll share our key take-aways we have identified throughout our exploration of what we can learn from Life’s Principles to make organizations more agile. Each article will focus on one of the Life’s Principles, so we can offer a more detailed explanation about their meaning, and what kind of lessons and take-aways we can gain from them that are applicable to the agile HR principles.