From ambiguous to aspirational: Is your company ready to be bio-inspired?
By Taryn Mead
This is the first of a two-part series to introduce Dr. Taryn Mead’s new book “Bioinspiration in Business and Management: Innovating for Sustainability.” More complete and academic findings will also be publicly available in her PhD thesis/dissertation entitled: “Factors Influencing the Adoption of Nature Inspired Innovation in Multinational Corporations,” recently completed at the University of Exeter, UK.
A major reason that I pursued a PhD in biomimicry was to have the time and space to reflect on my experiences as a practitioner and consultant. I wanted to know why some organizations seem to embody the emulation of nature as an inherent part of their identity while others dabbled on a project or two and decided it didn’t work. As a reflective consultant, I was always looking for ways to serve my clients more effectively and enable a positive experience in their learning from nature. The majority of the last few professional years of my life have been dedicated to a seemingly simple question: What factors influence the adoption of nature-inspired innovation in multinational corporations?
A framework to guide the question
What I hadn’t anticipated of an intensive research process was how valuable the existing bodies of theory would be to help with the sensemaking process for my clients, my interviewees, and me. After much consideration, I eventually honed in on research in innovation management and sustainability-oriented innovation as the signposts to guide my questions and looked at three aspects of the innovation process:
1. Characteristics of bioinspiration as an innovation approach.
2. Characteristics of the business unit attempting to use bioinspiration.
3. Characteristics of the innovation context, including the entire business and the overall socioeconomic context of the bioinspired innovation process.
In regards to #1, for the most part, my 60+ interviewees at six organizations described bioinspired approaches in similar ways. They found them to be complex, but no more complex than other innovation approaches that they’d experimented with. While comfort levels with ambiguity varied, the ambiguity of “doing biomimicry” didn’t cause any additional distress compared to other similar efforts. Biomimicry was perceived largely as an innovation approach, rather than a methodology per say.
The characteristics of the business unit trying to apply bioinspiration varied immensely, ranging from marketing to sustainability to human resources to R&D departments. While there was a great deal of variation, there was also no particular pattern that emerged when looking at the characteristics of the business units. Success or failure wasn’t influenced much how much funding or time they had to dedicate to biomimicry or how the leadership of that business unit viewed the initiative. The effectiveness of the business unit itself was highly variable with no clear patterns correlating with the specific characteristics of the business unit.
What seemed to matter most was the characteristics of the larger context of the organization and the socioeconomic circumstances that surrounded it. It was the way that interviewees experienced their innovation processes, the engagement and culture of leadership in the biomimicry activities, and the way that they define, describe, and implement sustainability practices that influence their success or failure with bioinspiration.
Narratives of Sustainability-Oriented Innovation
What emerged were three distinctive narratives related to sustainability-oriented innovation: The Ambiguous, the Accountable, and the Aspirational. The table below provides stereotypical, comparative statements from each of the three narratives so you can get a sense of the differences. You can see that some clear patterns emerged across the organizations.
Those organizations with Ambiguous narratives had tried using biomimicry once, but got little value out of it. Their senior leadership was never engaged in biomimicry or sustainability and were perceived as separate from the team innovation activities. The biomimicry projects were done outside of traditional incremental innovation channels. However, although circumventing these traditional channels was an attempt to create more flexibility and openness to a biomimicry initiative, the project was not ultimately successful. These organizations aim to simply “learn from nature” with their biomimicry projects.
In the Accountable organizations, they describe sustainability as a core aspect of their brand and identity. They have well-developed sustainability guidelines, metrics, and accountability structures that are highly institutionalized. Innovation is also highly managed, with stage-gated processes and departments dedicated to research and development outside of the daily operational decision-making. Sustainability is who they are and how things always will be. But concurrently, when presented with the opportunity to reinvent their sustainability narrative, they are unable to do so because of the strength of the existing cultural identity that emphasizes supply chain issues of sustainability rather then systems-level interventions. One interviewee described how they were “stuck in a very 90s model of sustainability” and unable to make the leap to radical approaches like biomimicry, despite their significant investment in it. These organizations strive to “do like nature” in their use of biomimicry and other bioinspired approaches.
The Aspirational organizations, on the other hand, are constantly reinventing the way that they conceive sustainability. Their oral history reflects the changes in their perspectives. For instance, one interviewee at a cleaning product company described how they were founded with a sustainability vision focused on producing a better cleaning product, but only what was inside the bottle. Then they started looking at the bottle itself. Now they are looking at the entire socioeconomic systems that produce the bottle and trying to influence this larger system of production and consumption.
Aspirational organizations are very innovative companies, but don’t try to manage innovation through any sort of stage-gated process or particularly dedicated budgets. Instead, they strive to create a culture where innovation is encouraged and opportunities can be seized. One chief innovation officer reflected, “Whenever I try to manage innovation, I get crappy results.” And yet, these organizations were by far the most successful with biomimicry. These organizations aim to “be like nature” in everything that they do, including their company cultures.
Assessing a company’s narrative
It’s important to note that these three narratives were identified in the context of multinationals, so there may be some specific subtleties that may not be transferable to other contexts, such as design studios or government entities. I also speculate that there are other narratives yet to be described that would inform the implementation of biomimicry in an organization. If you have ideas about other organizational cultures and narratives, I would love to chat about it.
What’s interesting about these categories is not just that they describe existing organizational views on bioinspiration. More importantly, they can give consultants, practitioners, and internal champions insight into how biomimicry might be received in varied organizational narratives. It may be helpful to read through the table again to see if any statements resonate with your organizational culture. If so, the approach to introducing and pursuing bioinspired innovation should be tailored to the specific existing narratives of the organization. Biomimicry is not a one-size-fits-all approach and the differences between organizational narratives does a lot to explain why.
The next post in this two-part series will discuss how to make the most of a bioinspired innovation effort and offer some suggestions for effective implementation in each of the three narratives.
Taryn Mead is a sustainability, innovation, and management scholar whose research focuses on the interface between corporate strategies and conceptualizations of nature. This includes subjects such as sustainability-oriented innovation, biomimicry, circular economy, the integration of planetary boundaries into corporate strategy, and the role of corporations in sustainable development. She also has expertise in creativity for sustainability among design and engineering professionals in interdisciplinary settings. Before pursuing her PhD in Management at the University of Exeter, Taryn worked as biologist, sustainability strategist, and certified biomimicry professional consulting with over 30 corporate, municipal, and non-profit organizations. As a practitioner of nature-inspired innovation, she has consulted on domestic and international projects ranging from new product design to industrial ecosystems to new cities for two million inhabitants. She has also served as the lead facilitator for numerous workshops with corporate clients and blossoming biomimics, and lectured for large audiences.