Have you ever seen a tree start growing beside its parent or have you ever seen trees grow alone in the middle of nowhere in a challenging environment?
Both are results of natural entrepreneurial thinking. Both follow very similar rules and principles that organizations (and start-up founders) follow when they try to explore new business opportunities.
The core vision of a tree is not just, as it may seem from a straight forward and efficiency driven human perspective, to grow strong and live long and prosper. Neither is it to use energy and carbon dioxide to produce wood, energy and, as a by-product, oxygen. All that is just the core imperative to fulfill its main reason for existence, its vision, to create new life and so secure the survival of its species. The production of seed, in business terms the exploration of new opportunities, is what it is all about.
Trees reproduce by producing seeds or offshoots. Seeds may settle nearby or far away, whilst offshoots only thrive close to the tree. There are obviously pros and cons for both ways as an entrepreneurial method.
The cuttings and seeds that fall close to the tree use the same environmental resources. That allows them to participate in the resources of the older tree, which in most cases will supply sugar and viable information about pests and other stress factors. At the same time, they are overshadowed and under close control of the mother tree which at the same time prevents the young tree from using the full energy of the environment for its own success.
The big moment for all those slow growing new trees only starts when the old tree – or one of its neighbors – dies and opens up the space for sunlight and water to reach that budding entrepreneur. Only then there is sufficient energy available to allow the young one to successfully grow. Only then can stakeholders like wildlife and humans benefit from the by-products like shelter, wood, and oxygen.
To keep the young tree in such a stand-by position is a good strategy for the old tree, as it can be sure that its reproduction strategy has succeeded.
But those young trees, although supported and regulated, are already competing with all the many different cuttings and seeds that try to survive in the area. If they are lucky they can now still make use of the limited resources the old tree has stored in its roots. Nevertheless, they need to find their route to success and growth whilst keeping themselves flexible in order to deal with the dynamics and complexity of their environment. Now is the time for them to invest in their own root system to provide sufficient stability to grow.
There are some strong analogies to the situation corporate-start-ups that are closely bonded to their mother company face. They have to grow and survive in their parent’s environment. They use existing resources, which may protect them from some issues.
But they remain in the shadow of their parent and live in a state of energetic and systemic dependency. Their moment of truth starts when they are freed from the protective shelter and they are left alone. Few succeed in finding enough space next to the old structure.
Then there are the other ones, those entrepreneurial seeds that start to colonize new ground. By doing that they leave behind access to previously developed resources but also to any limiting dependencies. They start to explore to what extent their new site enables and allows them to growth. They are exposed to the environment so they either need a strong root system and a flexible stem, or they crouch close to the ground, ready to flourish or fail completely.
They will do well if they can live their work-life in heterogeneous groups aiming to conquer their environment. Like the old trees, who have giant root systems which act as information channels, young trees can gain positive benefits from that kind of network.
What is it that we can learn from nature and where can we leverage human capabilities to maximise the success of both intra-/entrepreneurs and their mother companies?
Start-ups are not about winning a beauty contest or immediately optimizing KPIs and mother companies should avoid acting like a tree nursery, where roots and branches are cut out to shape the tree in a certain way. They should instead partner with the start-up at their level, recognising the start-up as a method of getting a perspective on their own behavior.
Entrepreneurs are the best source for cross-learning and vivid perspectives on new markets, click here for new opportunities, with different perspectives on old problems. For both sides, there’s an opportunity to initiate a strong network of cooperation, knowledge sharing that both entrepreneur and mother company can profit from.
The key is to leverage the unique human capability of open and direct communication. The old companies should initiate intense dialogues not only at board level but amongst people at all levels including entrepreneurs and start-ups. The broader the dialogue, the more open are the discussions on failure and success, and the bigger are the opportunities to extend personal networks. People that celebrate and talk about failure and success are more involved and open new ideas and start up activity. The more and easier employees can inform themselves about any kind of activity, the more they feel connected and the more they support each other. To drive optimal connection one-month internships in the start-ups are great opportunities for managers to get inspiration and new views.
As with high-performance teams, interdisciplinary collaboration is key. The more open minded people, who don’t follow the rules but stick to their vision and principles, the better. Bring in only the best, most committed, most enthusiastic you can find inside and outside the old structures and remain focussed on establishing personal relationships.
Entrepreneurs and mother companies that initiate intense communication and collaboration across mental boundaries start leveraging capabilities that are unique to humans and gain opportunities for long lasting profits far beyond pure financials.