I love nature. I loved studying Biology at school. There’s something elegant about much of it. It’s not all elegant though, some aspects of it are dysfunctional. But that’s the essential quality of a work in progress – it’s never perfect. So it is that I think we can learn a lot from nature about business, particularly some of the weirder ways that nature goes about the basic processes of surviving, growing, evolving, reproducing and dying.
For example, have you heard of auto-cannibalism? This is where an animal eats part of itself. It’s well documented, for example, that snakes sometimes mistake their own tails as other snakes and start to eat themselves. Or they start eating their own shed skin and perhaps because of the scent of prey on it, they get carried away.
Don’t Be Like the Snake
As a business owner, does running your business sometimes feel like this. You’re running around so fast it feels like you’re chasing your tail. Suppliers need paying, employees have constant questions, customers want to deal directly with you rather than your staff and there’s never quite enough time to do all that admin that’s piling up, let alone do “strategy” or planning!
At some point all businesses reach a plateau in their growth because of this. The ones that breakthrough break the vicious cycle by getting their employees do most of the heavy lifting with customers and suppliers leaving the directors free to develop and implement growth strategies. Getting started can be as simple as having a consistent delivery and distribution system in place.
Instead Emulate the Sea Squirt
A more elegant form of auto-cannibalism (yes, elegant cannibalism!) occurs during metamorphosis. The sea squirt for example consumes its own brain. In the larval stage it swims around filtering food and it needs a rudimentary brain to move around and sense its environment. At the end of the larval stage it attaches itself to a surface and never moves again. It consumes its nervous system and re-purposes the brain sac to help it feed. If the larval sea squirt didn’t consume part of itself it wouldn’t mature and wouldn’t be able to reproduce.
What part of your business do you no longer need? Is it stopping you moving to the next stage in your business cycle. It’s not unusual, for example, for businesses to continue offering products and services to customers well beyond their profitable or strategic life.
There can even be an emotional attachment to these services, particularly for people who started their business because they were good at something. For example, starting a web design business because you’re good at building web sites is great. But it can be difficult to scale a business if you’re spending all your time building websites. The strategic thing to do might be to switch to website maintenance. It might not be as sexy to deal with hacking threats, platform updates and shifting security trends, but there is long-term value in building a business around this rather than one-off website building. Continuing to supply websites could stop the business from offering maintenance programmes just from sheer lack of time.
Changing technology might signal a need for auto-cannibalism in business too. Accountancy, for example, have been transformed recently by the rapid adoption of cloud accounting software. Those practices that embrace the move to cloud accounting are having to re-purpose their people, consuming the technical accounting departments and creating departments to offer other services, such as business advice.
Escaping A Trap
Finally, some animals will chew off a limb to escape a trap. It’s not really auto-cannibalism because they don’t eat the limb, but close enough… Do you need to chew off part of your business to escape a trap? Maybe a supplier who won’t give you credit? A customer who won’t pay on time, an employee who is disengaged, or maybe a whole department that isn’t performing or that has been left behind by the competition? Maybe it’s time to take the 72 hours of pain involved in making and announcing the decision you know you should take but are avoiding. Bite off the trapped limb – your business will grow faster afterwards because you’ll be able to focus your efforts on more productive parts of your business.
Pareto’s principle states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort, 80% of profits from 20% of your products, 20% of your customers or 20% of your employees, 80% of problems stem from a different 20% of products, employees and customers. Ditch the 20% of problem customers, products and employees and focus on the rest.
In summary, your business may be failing to thrive or move to the next level of growth because you’re eating your own tail or because there are parts of the business you should be cannibalising that you’re not or there are parts of the business trapping you in the present that you need to bite off in order to move to the future…
Auto-cannibalism is a natural process in the life-cycle of growing organisms (and organisations) but don’t be a snake, be a sea squirt!