Alisa Knuutinen: What can nature teach us about change leadership

Have you ever caught yourself asking questions like: “Will this organization ever change?” or “Why is this change moving so slowly?” You are not alone. In the role of change or transformation lead, we often embark in projects that take many years. 

Throughout the change journey, we experience ups and downs. More likely than not, things will get frustrating and slow at times. That made me wonder: What can nature teach us about (organizational) change? What qualities and skills should we develop as change experts?

1. Take your time – be patient 

“Nature doesn’t hurry, yet everything is accomplished,” goes the beautiful quote by Lao Tzu. Following tight program schedules, we might forget that change takes time, both in nature and in organizations. 

Waiting for the change occur can feel a lot like watching a tree grow. Although it might look like nothing happens, underneath the surface there is a lot of vital processes taking place. What we as change leaders can do is provide a fruitful environment for the tree to grow – or a change to take place. We can nourish the soil and water the tree – but we also need time and patience.

2. Embrace the storms and heat – develop resilience

Just like the seasons change, there is also a fluctuation in change projects. There are moments when the project “blooms” but also in contrast, there are moments of “hibernation,” slowing down. Both blooming and hibernation are a natural part of the cycle. 

Throughout these seasons, we experience different weather events. As humans, some of these events – such as storms – might feel unpleasant. However, for the nature they have a purpose. For instance, storms can bring rainfall to areas that need it and provide a global heat balance. Everything has a purpose. 

Similarly, change leaders can see a meaning in the “storms” – or setbacks – we experience in our work. Perhaps there’s a piece of learning you can take from them, whether that’s an insight or a different path that you end up taking. Living through the storms and heat waves calls for resilience, which is a skill to bounce back after a setback. Certainly, we will all experience some sun and rain throughout the way. That is why it is good to have a rain jacket, just in case.

3. Work towards a common goal together – collaborate

In the nature, collaborating with the same or other species is often a matter of survival. There are many beautiful examples of the interconnectedness and interdependency of nature. Think about for instance ants and bees in establishing hives and colonies. Another example is of coral and algae that live symbiotically. Algae provides energy to corals and some algae even make coral more resilient to heat stress. 
 
Working towards a common goal is not only necessary in the animal kingdom – but also vital for us humans in organizations. For us to realize a change vision, we need to get people behind it and work together towards it. Involvement is a key in getting commitment from all relevant stakeholders. It might initially feel like the slower way – but trust me, it is more likely to get you to the right destination. Change rarely happens in isolation – but takes place in contact with other humans. We must work together to nourish the soil and water the tree.

Finally...

Then almost surprisingly, you start noticing the first signs of the change. Perhaps first the tone of the conversation changes and eventually people start doing things differently – adopting to the new way of working. And sooner than you know, you see a blooming tree in front of you.