Category Archives: systems thinking

The next big idea is a billion years old.

When we start something new, when we’re looking for solutions or are making an important decision we often look for sources of inspiration and perspective within our companies or sectors. We might interview our customers, employees, or suppliers. We might ask academic institutions or experts. We could commission research to see what competitors or even other sectors are doing.

Too often we miss out on asking advice of a rich source of wise answers that exists right in front of our eyes… nature.

Our planet is old – 4.5 billion years old. And for an astounding 3.8 billion years, it has harboured life. Life has had a bit of time to evolve strategies to maximise existence and sustain itself! It has arrived at well-adapted solutions that have stood the test of time, within the constraints of a planet with finite resources. Each new shoot or seed is nature taking a lean methodology approach to experimentation and rapid prototyping to find better solutions every time they grow. Millions of organisms have adapted and evolved to survive, to meet their needs efficiently within the limits of the planet and alongside all other life forms.

How could we learn from and emulate nature’s successful strategies?

  1. PRODUCT DESIGN

Nature is a master designer – and companies are catching on to the fact that they should look to how nature has addressed a specific challenge in order to come up with an optimised solution. This means looking at how shark skin is able to move sleekly through water and using that in swimsuit fabric and ship paint. It’s about a shift from rectangular, flat solar panels to ones that are shaped like leaves – the longest ever experiment in optimising surfaces for capturing sunlight. Interface designed pads to secure its carpet tiles to floors inspired by the way lizards have foot pads that enable them to cling to surfaces. This has transformed the carpet industry, created disruption in the glue industry and cut costs, reduced impact and provided a competitive differentiator for the organisation.

Questions to ask: What is the challenge I’m trying to solve?  How does nature perform this function?

2. PROCESS DESIGN

In comparison to the sleek processes of nature, human processes are clumsy, wasteful and inefficient.  Take manufacturing, a “take, make waste” process. We draw components out of the ground, turn them into products that may or may not be used and that ultimately land up in landfill. A tree takes resources out of the ground, moves it up a spiral and produces leaves. These resources are deposited on another side of the tree, ensuring broad distribution of essential elements that become resources for the next leaf.

Or look at innovation processes – many run by specialist teams stuck away in a room of a large building, silo’d and shut off. Nature innovates mostly in the edges – bringing together diversity between habitats (e.g. swamp land and grassland) and seeing what emerges. As the edge increases, the boundary habitat allows for greater biodiversity. Change happens at the fringes and the longer the ‘edges’ the more diversity and more change can happen.

Questions to ask: How does nature perform this process? Specifically, how could my organisation manufacture in a way that optimises resources? How can we create ‘edges’ and ‘intersections’ for our organisation to collide with others for increased diversity of thinking and accelerated innovation?

  1. ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND VENTURING

Recently I worked with a bright Imperial College graduate with an excellent idea that could shift the virtual reality industry by allowing better understanding of location for the user. He thought of how a new ecosystem would replace an old one in order to ensure that his product could be part of a technology shift into a new space. Steve Jobs did this with the iPod. Instead of just launching a ‘me too ‘music player, like the Sony Walkman, he defined the entirely new ecosystem that his music player would operate within – and the route to shift the industry. For this to work we need to think like nature – what is the broader function of this ecosystem, what are the elements that are needed to sustain it, which are key stone species?

Questions to ask: What is the broader ecosystem my venture is operating within? How do I effectively inhabit that?

  1. ORGANISATION RESILIENCE

Oak trees feed squirrels acorns, and squirrels eat harmful fungi off the oak. SABMiller buys its hops from farmers that buy its beer. Lloyd’s Bank worked with me to understand how to make the communities it operates within and takes transaction fees from, wealthier. We don’t operate in silos – everything is interconnected. Shifting thinking from being separate from the world around to being interdependent allows for greater resilience.

Questions to ask: Where can I increase my resilience by understanding and leveraging inter-dependencies?

  1. CHANGE

Nature is always in flux. We can see a tree as a static object – trunk, branches and leaves.  Or we can see it as a process in motion, taking up water and nutrients, depositing them, storing them and releasing them.  All organisations (and individuals within them) are in motion. We resist change, but it is inevitable. We can learn to flow with the changes and adapt, rather than take a static view of where we are. This involves seeing the emerging seeds of change and consciously deciding which ones to water and which ones to pluck out. It requires us to see beyond our current horizon into horizon two where these seeds will start growing to horizon three where the change will take root – and to plan and organise accordingly.

Questions to ask: What are the emergent properties of this current situation?  How do I leverage them for future success?

Einstein famously said you can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it.  Looking for answers in nature allows you to use ancient tried and tested wisdom to leapfrog contemporary thinking and to come up with better ideas.

Step away from your desk.  Walk away from the board room.  Take a walk in a park nearby. Look at patterns, look at functions and look at the way nature has worked out how to live. Be inspired. And please do remember to respect, protect and, even better to regenerate this great mentor.  

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This article is taken from a speech delivered for Interface in 2016 and to the Swiss Advisory Group in 2017. If you’d like me to speak to your audience on this and other topics that inspire action and shift perspective or to find solutions with you to tricky challenges, please do get in touch nicola.millson@future-academy.co.uk.

Learning our way into tomorrow. 

Talking shop: systems change, intrapreneurship, entrepreneurship, innovation and social impact…

Thank you Cecilia Thirlway @solverboard for a fun interview! The original posting of her interview with me is on Medium.

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Talking to Nicola was a pleasure as it brought up a topic I hadn’t thought about for a while — system change and system design. I wrote about systems, particularly human systems, a while ago and have always been fascinated by how they grow and develop. Nicola’s thoughts on the subject were a really interesting insight. It was also a joy to talk to someone who was interested in the human journey of entrepreneurship as well as the economic and commercial one — we love to tell the stories of successful entrepreneurs, but spend less time working out how more people can be helped to be successful with the right emotional and practical support. And finally, of course, the topic of tech for good is one close to my own heart.


So Nicola, tell me about The League of Intrapreneurs. What makes an Intrapreneur and why do they need a league?

Intrapreneurs as people inside companies that have got a passion to create social impact, as well as the influencing skills to be able to make good things happen. We’ve seen some outstanding examples: Miriam Turner from Interface coming up with extraordinary ideas to be able to turn ocean plastic into carpet with social returns. She’s a great example of an Intrapreneur – adding significant value to businesses whilst at the same time solving big social issues.

To be effective, Intrapreneurs need a few different things: first is the support of others to know that there’s other people like them – an identity. Second, they need community they can learn from and with, and to go on the journey with them. The third thing they need is new skills and different ways of thinking. And the last thing that they need is visibility.

The League of Intrapreneurs helps create that identity and then is supported by people like me that offer tangible services to Intrapreneurs – through peer learning circles, through workshops on systems thinking and influence and tribe creation. Others support visibility and learning through conferences like the Intrapreneurship Conference and through competitions.

Do you think anybody can be an intrapreneur or is it a certain mindset or certain set of skills that people need?

It’s a tough choice to be an Intrapreneur! I think that everybody has a seed of possibility inside them but to be brave enough to buck the system for something that you believe in is a big step.

What sort of organisations do these people come from?

We find them in almost any organisation — we’re seeing more and more people coming out of different types of organisations that could work together to shift the system. For example, the Ellen McArthur Foundation is linking together corporate intrapreneurs in the plastics space with government agencies and NGO’s. We start to see people from different organisations working together to form ecosystems of change agents tackling big issues.

And how does the League fit in with your other work?

Essentially, I do three different things:

Firstly, innovation for large organisations. This includes strategy, global innovation programmes and internal start-ups for organisations like Interface, M&S, Nesta, the Carbon Trust and SABMiller.

Alongside that I’ve been working with disruptive start-ups with the idea of helping them scale their positive impact through Upstart Advice. I coach entrepreneurs from various programmes including Climate-KIC, Mass Challenge, Climate Launch Pad, Innoenergy and Imperial Enterprises Lab.

And finally I help convene change agents and support movements for change in order for the change seeded to have somewhere to land. This means that people to have the skills, the mindsets and the ways of working in place as this change happens. All of it is a way of understanding change and the self and opportunities to create better impact.

The first one was Six Heads, which has been a huge amount of fun: it’s young and it’s quirky and it’s all on sustainable innovation. It’s a gathering place for professionals to share stories, to learn together, to run events for each other to test out their skills and that can involve anything from perma-culture to trapeze. This is now run by Louisa Harris – an extraordinary young woman. The second movement is the League of Intrapreneurs, which I’ve helped to establish in the UK. Last, is my new initiative, the Future Academy, which brings together change-makers to solve societies most challenging problems and provides capabilities required for the next economy.

So that’s my model in terms of how I think about my work within the business system: transform the big, scale the small and create fertile ground for change to happen.

What kind of things do you tackle?

We did a really interesting project with SAB Miller last year: we were asked to work with them globally to support social innovation. It was fascinating because we were working with intrapreneurs across such a range of topics: we had someone from Switzerland looking at climate change, we had somebody in South Africa looking at poverty, another looking at access to markets for smallholder farmers, at water, the list goes on. All of these were internal projects that allowed growth opportunities for the employees involved, opportunities to increase business revenue and social impact. We set-up an innovation accelerator and supported projects through structured mentoring, coaching and communities of practice.

It was wonderful getting the feedback: one of the best quotes was somebody who said I’ve finally found meaning in what I do, I’ve got purpose in my job. I can see how I can make a difference and still do what I do day to day.

I think meaning is incredibly important, isn’t itYou get to a point in your life where you wonder why you bother, and what impact you have in the world.

It’s best to think: do I want to be part of the problem or part of the solution. All of us at the moment are exposed to so much horrible stuff: you know, you can’t pick up a newspaper without seeing fish dying, climate change, social inequity and the death of democracy… so how do we sit around and not do something. I think that people are looking for ways they can work differently and I think companies are starting to take more responsibility. One of the ways that they can do that is by unleashing their talent on these issues and to look for solutions that suit multiple objectives.

Why do you think that needs unleashing and why now? There were huge amounts of innovation in the industrial revolution, but no one was an innovation consultant then.

We face bigger social issues than we’ve ever faced before, and I don’t think it’s just about unleashing it I think it’s also about channelling it. I don’t think we need any more flavours of soft drink, I don’t think we need any more flavours of ice cream, but I do think we need to channel ingenuity into solving some social problems — and not only solving them but reframing some of the ways that we’re operating as a society. From consumerism to community or from consumer to citizen.

Do you think businesses are now much more interested in doing good?

A lot of it is enlightened self-interest. If you speak to the businesses pioneering this area — Marks and Spencer, Unilever — they talk about the fact that everybody wants to work with them as a result of this approach. For all businesses, being able to capture talent is important, and millennials particularly are looking for purposeful organisations to join.

When you look at indicators about employee well-being and retention, a company that provides meaning is important. It was interesting when the retail sector here was hit how quickly Marks and Spencer bounced back versus some of the other retailers, because there’s so much trust in it as a purpose-based organisation.

And is the pace of change getting faster? Do you think movements such as Tech for Good are gathering pace?

I like to think so. Think about the progression from sponsorship 20 years ago where big corporates would give money to their local football team to modern corporate social responsibility. Now we’re seeing the third wave where it’s becoming far more integrated. You see companies having to report to investors on climate change, you see organisations having to think about purpose to attract millennials, you see them looking at their supply chains differently and having different kinds of contracts to have longer term relationships, you see choice editing which is beyond commercial.

A great example is Interface, which makes floor tiles. About 20 years ago, their CEO realised he was ruining the world by running this business and he set out to completely reinvent the manufacturing of one of the most boring things ever: the carpet tile. He’s pioneered environmental standards around how carpeting works, he invented little stickies that go on the floor so that you’re not putting toxic glue down. The most recent one uses discarded fishing nets to make carpets. These discarded nets often end up floating in the sea killing fish, but now they have a value to the fishermen so they’re not being discarded.

In one of my other interviews I discussed philanthropists like Bill Gates who make a huge amount of money and then redistribute it. Is it better to make money and then redistribute or share the talent, or is it better to have a more equitable world to start with?

I’d love a more equitable world to start with, but what I believe is that business is the biggest system that we’ve got, it’s completely powerful. It links all of us and it determines and creates the world around us, so it makes sense for us to use this system differently. What I’m really engaged in is the system redesign, because I think that business could and should be the thing that solves the problems that we’ve got. It is a social construct: we just need to construct it differently.

That sounds interesting — tell me more?

My interest in systems innovation came out of the question of whether I am doing the right thing. You try and do things, but are you intervening in such a way that you are going to make a fundamental difference? I started becoming more and more interested in what the points in any kind of system are where you can create the most change and how you work that out.

The thing that’s always fascinated me about human systems is the potential for the weird and the wonderful to happen. If you have any kind of engineering system you know you hit point a and b will happen, but as soon as humans get involved you get weirdness.

In a way, the word ‘system’ is wrong: there’s something deeply organic about the way that systems operate and in the way that we as humans operate. Where I start getting interested is in how the systems are partly embedded in the past and partly in the present, and how they are embedded with stakeholders and people. What are the stories that are being told in parts of the system, and how do we humanise it in such a way that we can start to understand where some of the levers are? A lot of the levers are around mindsets and perception.

I’m a big fan of Edison: lots of people invented the light bulb but he put the entire system together to make it work as a commercial item. Often we create something and we don’t understand what the different things are that we need to build around it. He had to carry out many system interventions to get his invention integrated — he trained people and he set up schools.

I’m noticing that coming out of the best universities are amazing post-graduates in physics and engineering and mathematics. They are the creators of the future but they don’t have a huge grounding in sustainability and systems thinking. I’m meeting some that are setting up their businesses at the moment and speaking to them about unintended consequences. People are creating drones and robotics and looking at machine intelligence, and they need to understand this stuff and go into it consciously.

It’s also important to understand that there are three journeys across any innovation programme. Of course there’s the journey from the idea to the implementation, but I think there’s two other journeys that are often overlooked. One is the journey of the self: what do I want to be, where am I going with this, but also your personal resilience — how do you make sure that you look after yourself on the journey? A personal resilience plan is just as important as a business plan or a stakeholder engagement plan.

The third journey is the journey of team, how do we get like-minded people to work together, how do you set objectives and make it work for everybody. There’s enormous amounts of literature around developing ideas and commercialisation, but the weak points making things fail are around influencing those inside your company, building a team or creating the community that can drive things through.

I think that’s what’s next for me, to think about that idea.


These articles are supported by idea management platform Solverboard. I work with Solverboard as their Head of Innovation Practice, and they have kindly agreed to support this side project of mine. Do check out their suite of idea management tools for businesses of any size, their public open innovation platform Solverboard Open, or their extremely well-written blog 😉

Natural Business for a World That’s Waking up

Thoughts from the wonderful Giles Hutchins –

Albert Einstein threw down the gauntlet for our human evolution when he said,

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and spaceHe experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

A task not for the faint-hearted, as it requires great courage to widen our circle of compassion amid increasing tension, fear and uncertainty. Not least it requires a fundamental shift in worldview, in how we perceive our sense of self, our relationship with others, and our sense of place and purpose within this world.

Whether it’s the disciplines of quantum physics, psychology, ecology, organisational development or evolutionary theory, it is now dawning on our contemporary consciousness that life is not simply a mechanistic construct of push-pull factors and selfish genes, where separate organisms compete with each other in the struggle for survival. Rather, we are now recognising that life is an inter-relational network of inter-being, where everything is in dynamic relation with its environment, continuously communicating and collaborating within an ocean of being. The ‘self’ is not the ‘separate self’ of individualism but the ‘differentiating self’ immersed within a rich milieu of relations. It is the diversity and reciprocity of these relations which provides for the organism’s resilience and in-turn the resilience of the wider ecosystem. As the world-renowned biologist Lynn Margulis succinctly puts it,

“Life did not take over the globe by combat but by networking.”

This living-systems view of life is beginning to permeate our corridors of power. There is an increasing recognition that business-as-usual thinking is not going to get us very far. To becomefuture-fit we need to embrace a new way of operating and organising. That new way just so happens to be the way life really works – not the control-based dominate-or-be-dominated mechanistic logic of yesterday, but the real logic of life perceived beyond the illusion of separation: emergence, receptivity, reciprocity, local-attunement, power-with, eco-systemic thinking.

In practice, this means emancipating ourselves from many of the structures inhibiting our natural aliveness today by embracing collaborative soulful practices, such as Way of Council, deep listening, mindfulness-in-motion, foresight planning, prototyping, multi-stakeholder dialogue sessions, scenario planning, white space technologies and the art of hosting tools, as well as direct inspiration from living systems such as eco-literacy, biomimicry, industrial ecology, circular economics, regenerative and adaptive cycle approaches.

There are a multitude of simple yet courageous undertakings each of us can take to help nurture a more soulful, living-systems approach to work. For instance, how about starting each and every mmasteryeeting with a minute’s silence, to help centre ourselves and tune-in to more of our natural ways of knowing (intuitive, somatic, emotional and rational) allowing for more than a glimpse of what lies beyond the busyness of our masturbating monkey-minds. How about checking in with our teams at the end of the day to share in a heartfelt way, where we practice meditation-in-motion by listening and speaking from the heart. How about having a quick round-robin at the beginning of each day for people to share what they feel grateful for at the present time, perhaps sharing who we might like to thank for helping us out in small yet loving ways, and so celebrating the good qualities of ourselves and our community. How about creating a two hour space in our schedules every Friday morning for our team to sit together in a circle, having the permission to explore and envision new ways of operating that embrace and serve life. How about creating space for a half-day workshop every four weeks with other stakeholders – such as pressure groups, think tanks, customers, suppliers, investors – giving permission for us all to explore together and share perspectives of how to do things better. How about creating a ‘children’s fire’ in our boardroom, so that all key strategic and operational decisions consider the potential impact they have on the next generation, our children. All of these are very real business practices being applied by a range of organisations today. This is not some futurist utopian vision, it’s becoming mainstream.

The number one most important thing facing our leaders, managers and change agents today is this shift in logic from an essentially mechanistic, reductive, competitive, control-based, power-over logic rooted in the story-of-separation, towards the logic-of-life, and with it the realisation that our organisations are living systems immersed within the living systems of society which are immersed within the living systems of our more-than-human world. This is why my latest book Future Fit explores – indeed activates – the qualities required for future-fit business by exploring the practical tools and techniques for this necessary shift in logic from machine to living. In this way, we deal not just with downstream effects (climate change, biodiversity degradation, endemic social inequality, racism, and so forth) we also deal with the root cause – our very relationship with life, and our sense of place and purpose as human beings in our more-than-human world.