Want to build an organization that lasts? Create a superorganism.

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By Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD

For the past 25 years, I’ve studied everything from baboon cooperation in Ethiopia and orca whale innovation in the Bering Sea, to the Argentine ant invasion in my kitchen, and my colleagues at work (not nearly as interesting!), all through an evolutionary lens.

Today, I use that lens to help companies evolve.

I’m a Biomimicry Professional, and a Biologist at the Design Table, and the teams I work with develop biologically-inspired solutions for a Global 500 clientele. We search for the technologies that make life — and business — go.

As an evolutionary biologist, a businessperson, and a biomimic, I’m always looking for the deep patterns in life, trying to find out what lasts. And here’s one thing I know is true:

Organizations can’t keep growing the way we structure them today.

It’s simple math. Like dinosaurs, organizations keep getting bigger, but they need huge bones to support the weight of all that complexity. The more weight, the more bones; the more bones, the more weight. It’s a catch-22. Management is the ponderous skeleton that keeps organizations from collapse. But as they grow, the costs of management rise, and the ability to adapt declines. When sudden change comes, there’s not much a company can do — it’s a sitting duck (or dinosaur) for the next cosmic collision. Hierarchies can only scale so much — we can’t grow bigger bones forever.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with hierarchies. In fact, nature uses them all the time — to stop change from happening. Scientists tell us that cells go rogue in our bodies every day, but a hierarchical system usually stops those cancers from growing. Hierarchies are important and useful. But they aren’t the right structures for adapting to change, and they inherently limit growth.

Change is coming — with shifting supply chains and customer needs, upstart competitors and technologies, resource scarcity and volatile prices, change is sudden, unexpected, and potentially calamitous. Multinationals span many divisions and fractured market segments, their teams cross cultures, languages, time zones, and governments. All of it held together by management. Between technological advances and social revolutions, climate change and peak everything, companies inhabit an unpredictable world of their own making. They are bound to topple and fall. Meanwhile, they have a mandate to maximize shareholder return. Companies that are beholden to this short-sighted maxim require infinite growth. What happens when they hit the limit? Something has to give.

As an evolutionary biologist, I find myself asking — who inherited the Earth in the dinosaurs’ place?

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Photo: Vacilando, Shutterstock

Tiny, nimble mammals for one. Those ancient furtive furballs diversified into everything from elephant shrews to platypi, blue whales to rhinoceros. One of those lucky species is us — and look at us now! Our societies are everywhere, transforming everything we touch.

But other creatures survived the crash as well. Hard-working teams of ants and termites built wealth alongside the dinosaurs, and are building it still. Termite colonies have chewed for 250 million years, to our lasting dismay, and ants have marched from their nests for 150 million. The great biologist E.O. Wilson estimates that all those ants tied in a sack would weigh about as much as all of us humans combined. The global mass of termites is about 27 times that — a cow’s worth of them for every one of us.

Termites working together, shuttling resources and information. Photo: Chaikom, Shutterstock

But there are more. Beneath the soil you walk on, no matter where you live, lies a very ancient and even more successful society. A half-billion year old pulsing nutrient superhighway of fungus toils away in the ground, constantly searching for molecules of matter to digest, minerals and water to absorb. Whatever these individuals find flows through the system, because the fungi are fused into one. Everyone gets more than they would on their own. We like to call this the “wood wide web”, a phrased coined by Professor Suzanne Simard (watch her extraordinary TED Ed talk here).

All these creatures are ‘superorganisms ’ — by which I mean ‘groups of genetically distinct individuals of the same species, with specialized division of labor, where one individual can’t survive alone for very long.’ Their colonies comprise millions of diverse individuals, but together they accomplish the same kinds of tasks a single organism does, with far less processing power.

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Photo: Oliver Tabary, Shutterstock

They are far more than one ordinary being. Superorganisms have a special knack for creating abundance within the kinds of landscapes of scarcity that typically exclude other creatures. You’ll find ants thriving in the deserts of Australia, and termites in parched Namibia. Naked mole rats push dirt around Somalia as we speak, and honeybees stay warm through bitter winter freezes as low as -30C (-22F). How do they do it?

They leverage the power of collective intelligence and collaborative innovation. Together, they gather tiny, scattered, squandered scraps that aren’t worth the effort for other animals — splinters of wood, bits of chopped up leaves, specks of pollen, molecules of water, and fertilizer.

We can think of these colonies as living, breathing patches of network, constantly shifting into new structures as the environment changes. Where the soil is rich in nutrients, they maximize their exposure to absorb as much as they can. Where nutrients are poor, they hurry on, pushing for new ground as fast as they can. Their networks crisscross and connect in dense webs, shuttling resources wherever they are needed. With no commander, they organize themselves into a “beautifully open-ended, indeterminate dynamic structure that continually responds to changing demands” (British mycologist Alan Rayner).

Isn’t that exactly what we want in business? It’s such a great idea, we’ve evolved a networked communication system for ourselves!

It took the fungi 500 million years to evolve their “internet”, but we did it in fifty — and theirs isn’t even global! But before we pat ourselves on the back, we better learn how to use it. We need a new way to think about leading, managing, and responding to change, and our remarkable invention is the key. But utilizing these resources correctly requires a massive change in the way we do business. Chemists call this a “phase shift” — like water moving from steam to a liquid to ice. The content is the same, but the form is so radically different you’d never even recognize it as the same stuff. That is what we are attempting to do — a phase shift.

Superorganisms, like ants and fungi, have been networked for a very long time. They know what they’re doing. How do they capitalize on opportunity, survive disturbance, and stay resilient? How do they spark innovation, nurture collaboration, and lead their teams? How do they seed the present for lasting — and growing — returns on investment for the next generation? What is their secret?

For one thing, they build their compounding wealth on infinite things — sunlight and sugars, for example, and the complexity, diversity, and interconnectedness of networks. They grow from the edges out, adding modular, self-managed units that seek and respond to opportunity and threat on the front lines. Team performance emerges in real-time, like a constantly updated film-reel of snapshots built from thousands of pixels. Superorganisms break large, complex problems into tiny bites of action, building until tipping points are reached and change is triggered. There are no forecasts, budgets, meetings, or plans. There is no boss. Strategy happens organically, all the time, everywhere, and decisions are frequent, small, and imperfect. This is how superorganisms adapt to change — at the edges, all the time, in little bits of work done by everyone.

We’ve found termite mounds in the Congo that have been occupied continuously for two millennia, and a humongous fungus in Oregon is over 2,400 years old. These superorganisms are as close to immortal as any living thing, and their ancient way of life is a recipe for unbounded value and lasting success.

The oldest organism in the world: fungal network in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon.

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Photo: leungchopan, Shutterstock

Even better — the value they create spills out into the larger ecosystem, feeding the life that feeds them. That is how their wealth compounds. Trees convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into sugars — the fungus can’t do that. Instead, vast numbers of fused individuals absorb bits of nitrogen, phosphorus, and water, and bring them to the tree, trading it for sugar. Hundreds of millions of years ago, the earliest land plants had only the feeblest roots. But they intertwined with the fungi and grew strong. Today, green plants carpet the land, feeding us all, and the fungi most of all.

Similarly, the mound-dwelling African termites collect scraps of wood and bits of grass. By concentrating energy and nutrients and unlocking their value, these mounds become hotspots, nurturing all kinds of life. The grass is better, and draws grazing herbivores who feed hungry carnivores and fertilize the soil with their dung. More vegetation grows, attracting more prey, more predators, and feeding more termites. It’s regenerative capitalism at its best.

These ancient beings offer us a new way of doing business, as we do the hard work of adapting to the reality of a finite Earth. Ants are not choking on smog or stuck in traffic, fungi aren’t counting carbon credits or worrying about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Termites don’t have slums. But all of them grow and prosper, building infinite wealth from infinite stuff.

We can do it too. We just need to study what lasts and why.

If you want your company to change and grow, nimbly and continuously, without that slow and costly layer of management, what you need is a living thing.

What you need to build is a superorganism.

About The Author

Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker is an author and evolutionary biologist independently providing biological innovation research for a Fortune 100 clientele through organizations like Biomimicry 3.8 and the Biomimicry Institute. She writes ‘The Biomimicry Manual,’ a regular column for Inhabitat.com. Her forthcoming book on mimicking nature’s organizational structures is available for pre-order through White Cloud Press.

The Biomimicry Institute empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet. www.biomimicry.org

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