Saturday, December 17, 2016

Biomimicry In Business - Part 2 - Growing Over Building

Biomimicry In Business - Part 1 introduced the concept of biomodels and discussed some strengths, limitations, and application of a biomodel called closed loop.  The standard methods for forming and maintaining businesses have been developed with the open loop model in mind (remember "take, make, dispose").  Consequently, these methods can cause drifting toward open loop operation.


This presents a problem if you want your business to enjoy the strengths of the closed loop model.  And this applies not only to an entire enterprise, but likewise to single divisions, departments, franchises, programs, products, projects, and small teams.  Say you're sponsoring a program within a large corporation.  You may estimate the inputs and outputs of the program and find a way to match them with corresponding outputs and inputs of your context, but once you've made your case for the program, explained your plans, and adjusted them as needed to obtain authorization to start working, you will invariably find that you missed something in your analysis, or that your estimates were off, or that the inputs and outputs of your context change.  But by that time, the plans are vetted, and the budget and schedule are set.  You may find your only options are: 1) revamp your plan to get back to closed loop operation, unilaterally decide to proceed with the new plan, and beg forgiveness for short-term budget and schedule impacts, 2) review your revamped plan with the decision makers try to get approval for a less favorable short-term budget and/or schedule (good luck), or 3) stick to the approved plan and operate in open loop (and keep your job).


Let's talk about a complex of patterns that, like the closed loop, are found in so many species and so many situations in nature that you will immediately recognize them.  This collection of patterns is about how living things develop, and collectively, we can call this set "growing."

As was the case with the closed loop, growing might at first seem so obviously the right way for something to develop that it's hard to imagine a reference by which to judge its merits, until we consider a common alternative that's often used in artificial development: building.

So, how is the development process of building different from that of growing?  Can we unpack some patterns that occur in the process of growing, and identify analogous patterns in building?  Well, I'm already writing this post, so you know my answer is yes, we can.

Growing means formation happens while the things being formed are in operation, instead of completing formation before starting use.

Here's a notional timeline of the building process.

In something that is built, there is very little (if any) overlap between formation and operation. 

See how different growing is in this regard.

Here are some other key differences between growing and building:
 - Growing means developing on all scales simultaneously.  Molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, colonies, biomes, ecosystems, and even planets and the universe are all developing at the same time.  In contrast, building means parts are manufactured first and assembled later.
 - Growing means developing all parts in place, whereas building involves producing parts in one factory and then assembling modules in another factory and finally bolting them together on site.
 - Growing means applying patterns in a flexible way to varying contexts, as opposed to replicating exact copies.  This allows every element to be custom formed to fit into and to balance all the forces in the context where it will live.

In a business setting, the word "grow" is often applied to an enterprise, a division, or a team, but in the sense of the word described above, "build" would be closer to the truth.  We'll talk about why in the next section.


So what are the resulting strengths in biological systems that come from growing vs building?

 - Synergy with surroundings - Because the building process has little or no overlap between formation and operation, the formation of the built thing is directed by the plan and there is no opportunity for feedback from the way it will operate in its context.  It may be perfectly faithful to the plan, but that's no guarantee that it will coexist well with its surroundings.
 - Efficiency and adaptability - In addition to fostering interoperability between the grown thing and its surroundings, growing also provides better efficiency and adaptability by allowing every scale of the grown thing to develop resolutions to the unbalanced forces on the scales above and below it.  Bone tissue can develop in a way that provides support for the body's weight while protecting individual bone cells from being crushed by those forces.

 - The resulting parts from the growing process are not interchangeable (as they can be from the building process).
 - Some decision makers may not like having the formation and executions steps smeared together, especially if they want a project or program to be completely planned before they're willing to approve it.
 - The benefit of feedback from early execution comes at a cost in formation speed.  Mainstream business culture places high priority on optimized (shortened) payback periods.  The building lifecycle supports that priority well by maximizing the speed of formation and yielding a fully formed result as soon as possible.  The growing process also allows execution to start quickly after formation, but it's execution at a low initial rate.


Up to this point, we've been using the growing process and the building process as metaphors.  Let's interpret the metaphors.  How exactly can the strengths of the growing biomodel be applied in a business setting?  To a project, program, or product?  To a division or an entire enterprise?  The table below shows some example interpretations.

In Nature Example Applications In Business

Plant Animal Enterprise Product Project
Growing Concepts Emergence Sprouting Birth Agreement to a plan
Formation Development Creation of legal entity, mission, facilities, processes, partnerships Design, factory setup, beta testing Creation of budget and schedule, allocation of resources
Execution Living Selling goods and services Production Working scheduled tasks
Parts Organs Groups Assemblies Tasks
Scales Cell, tissue, organ, system, organism Divisions, regions, locations, functional groups, teams Assembly hierarchy Links in a chain of intention (value → objective → goal → plan → action)
Flexible patterns Anatomic structure Processes and policies Evolutionary prototyping “This or better” planning
Context Ecosystem Suppliers, customers, competitors, governments, regulators, local public, environment Other projects, company resources, sponsors

Here are some concrete steps a director or decision maker can take to reap the benefits of the growing biomodel in a business setting:
 - Publish values that foster the closed loop and growing biomodels.
 - Encourage and support open dialog, questioning, and changes to further those values.
 - Establish an acceptable way to tailor, change, or exempt company policies and processes for the sake of those values.

 - Make the growing biomodel and closed loop operation required conditions for programs or projects to be approved.  You can require a small scale initial execution phase and a review of results, focusing on the "fit" between any effort and its context.