Six more examples of organizations thinking as living systems

June 16, 2021 4:18 pm

Nature of Work: The new story of work for a living age is a book that presents ideas intended to challenge the reader around how taking inspiration form nature can unlock new ways of thinking about work, management and organizations. At the heart of the book are twelve elements of nature that we explore in more detail and show how these can be applied to thinking about work in your organization. 

Nature of Work is also meant to be a practical and accessible book that results in action; we didn’t want it to feel like something that was ‘out there’ or simply filed under ‘that’s interesting’. One of the ways we’ve tried to do this is through including many examples of different organizations that are already living and breathing the different elements of Nature of Work. These are organizations that think and function more as living systems than as machines. As part of the book writing team, I researched and wrote about many of these examples, and it was a fascinating process. 

In my last post, I explored the first six elements and some of the organizations featured in the book. In this follow-up, I’m going to cover the second six elements, from ‘Life cycles’ through to ‘Health’.  

Life cycles 

Life cycles are a clear theme in nature; everything has a beginning and an end, with changing needs, behaviours and actions arising at different stages of the cycle. It’s also a concept that influences our experience as human beings throughout the various stages and phases of our lives, careers, relationships, and so on. 

Life cycles are also a key theme in the workplace, providing a useful framework for both strategic and operational level matters. HR functions consider the employee life cycle when they are formulating how best to support the employee experience, from onboarding a person to the day they move on, as well how more literally to support the different stages of the human life cycle within work. Product owners plan for a product life cycle from launch to when it will become superseded. IT teams look at the life cycle of technology. Intranet teams think about the life cycle of an individual piece of content. We can also observe the life cycles of organizations and the ways in which they evolve over time, with some eventually even closing down. Indeed, everything has a beginning and an end. 

One organization we cover in the book is Nokia, a company with a remarkable history. Nokia was actually originally founded as a Finnish paper-mill operation in 1865. After the First World War it nearly went bankrupt before becoming involved in the telecommunications sector, eventually undergoing a remarkable transformation to emerge as a pioneer in mobile telephony before various further dramatic ups and downs over the past 20 years or so. As we state in the book: “the Nokia journey is one that has unfolded across many life cycles” – and thinking about its various phases provides a fascinating lens through which to consider other aspects of work and organizational life. 


Migration is a widely recurring theme in nature, happening on a daily, seasonal or maybe annual basis. At school we learn about the incredible and inspiring migration journeys made by so many birds and animals as life responds to the natural cycles of the Earth. Migration has also been integral to human history and evolution, and continues to the present day, played out in what we see around us and in the daily news headlines.  

We can observe migration patterns in the workplace too, both in the continual churn of employees starting and leaving  different organizations, but also in the daily commute of people travelling to and from the workplace. Now, the scaling up of remote working promises to bring in another new dynamic to migration, impacting where people work, with organizations thinking about how they should respond to the ability to work from anywhere. Just as migration is a trending subject in the news, it’s also a hot topic in the workplace. 

In the book, two of the ‘biomarker’ examples featured in the Migration chapter refer to Microsoft and how the company is responding to different aspects of migration. For Microsoft, its alumni are critical, providing a large number of rehires and also employed across the Microsoft partner network. The investment it has put into its 50,000-strong alumni network through benefits, networking and learning opportunities has paid off, keeping the door open for alumni potentially to return. Meanwhile, measures to provide decentralized work spaces at WeWork locations across New York have helped to increase productivity and satisfaction for Microsoft’s NYC-based sales team, who no longer have to return to one central downtown hub at the end of their working day. This demonstrates well how considering the concept of migration can result in real-world benefits. 


Nature is packed with threats – death, survival and avoiding danger are all part of the daily experience for every living thing. That cute, fluffy little cat you just enjoyed watching in a video may very well earlier have been toying with and killing a terrified small bird or rodent! Equally, each day in the news we are reminded of the destructive power of the natural world. 

Dealing with threats is also important for the survival of organizations. In the Threats chapter we focus on different ways organizations are coping with threats and adopting new perspectives in place of more traditional risk management techniques – for example, working together to reduce threats and introduce new approaches to vigilance. I love the example from HSBC, which has developed an ambitious employee listening programme, called Exchange; in this, managers facilitate a listening meeting with employees and insights are collected in an online portal, allowing issues to be identified and enabling senior management to take early action against any threats that are likely to impact HSBC’s global workforce. 


Regeneration and renewal are key themes in nature – and we can take inspiration from the way life has the power to regenerate itself in the face of destruction. This is also an important topic in our  relationship with nature and the world around us as we urgently look to reverse our erosion of natural habitats but at the same time to regenerate urban areas. Organizations too can regenerate, reinventing themselves to be relevant, develop resilience, drive innovation and undergo transformation after transformation. 

In the book, we feature examples of organizations that are going through a regenerative process themselves but also those that are directly supporting regeneration around them. One of my favourites biomarkers details the efforts of Scottish craft brewery Brewdog to support the environment. This innovative disruptive company is investing £30m in efforts to become truly carbon negative and has even bought 2,000 acres in the Scottish Highlands, three quarters of which will become woodland supporting a million trees, while the rest will be restored as peatlands. A variety of other offset initiatives also underpin the company’s commitment. It’s good to see pledges resulting in real action and organizations actively influencing regeneration efforts. 


When we think about intelligence in nature, we can find it in unusual and surprising places: in the behaviour of animals sometimes assumed to be unintelligent, in the collective relationships between different living things, even in the way an ecosystem works. The book argues for a more fluid and integrated definition of what intelligence is, rooted in our relationship with what is around us rather than in the confines of the human intelligence of the individual or, increasingly, the artificial intelligence (AI) of machines. Intelligence is not about IQs. 

When we apply a more collective view of intelligence to organizations and the workplace, it can be very powerful. Technology and digital workplaces have evolved to help capture collective intelligence that can have mindboggling results. In the book, we cover a crowdsourcing initiative from NASA called NeMO-Net, which is helping to train a supercomputer to better identify corals from underwater imaging technology, in order to map the world’s corals and help better protect them. The NeMO-Net team have created an online game that the public can play, where they help to identify corals from a fictional underwater research vessel and from which machine learning can then extract meaning to train the computer. The game directly welds human intelligence together with AI to produce a positive outcome.  


The last element in the book is Health. One of the reasons we placed it last in the ‘story’ is that all the other elements in the book contribute to and influence this. When we think about health, we need to take a holistic view of all the different elements that impact our health. This is true for when we look at the health of, say, a forest, or of an organization; we need to consider all the different factors that can impact health and to watch for the relative indicators. 

Health is already a popular metaphor for looking at the state of an organization and aspects of work; for example, we ‘diagnose’ problems and ‘take the pulse’ of employee sentiment. The health and wellbeing of employees is now a priority area for many HR functions.  

In the book, we consider how organizations are looking at different indicators of organizational health, including relative reporting; increasingly, this also takes into account the organization’s impact on the health of the world around it. Two organizations cited as examples include global investor Blackrock, which now only invests in companies that meet environmental, societal and political risks, and  Microsoft, which has committed to becoming carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050 to cover all the carbon it has ever produced since 1975. Our view of organizational health is expanding to beyond financial indicators and the return to shareholders. 

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