A few weeks ago, I was driving by an abandoned Ford plant in Lorain, OH. The plant, a key regional employer closed in 2005. What
struck me were the parking lots. Some of them were fields! You couldn’t even see any concrete. Others were still in the process of re-fielding. In 6 years, the force of nature was powerful enough to break through concrete and asphalt, not just in cracks made from wear and tear but also in solid concrete. Do you know how much power and strength that takes? So I thought I’d find out. Two of my ‘learnings’ really hit me:
- The Network: since plants need light and water (remember osmosis and photosynthesis?), all it takes is 1 plant sprouting up between a crack to ‘distribute’ the energy and nutrients of light and water throughout its underground root system causing others to grow and push through.
- The Chemistry: the cellulose, starch and lignin in the plant cells creates electrical charges when wet – like water (2H are +, 1O is -). The water permeates these natural polymers creating a chemical bond (hydrogen bonding) that makes the cell contents and wall swell exponentially, which creates tremendous pressure - pressure strong enough to break through concrete and asphalt.
The Network. Nature has an incredible under-on-over-ground network that I believe is indestructible – not that we can’t damage it a lot. Man has a lot of hubris to think we are powerful enough to fully destroy what existed long before us. We have a lot to learn from nature’s powerful networks. Networks increase strength, resilience, diversity, and adaptation, which facilitate growth and innovation. We can use networks to create these same traits in society, in communities and even our companies: to solve wicked problems facing our world; to tell, share and create stories that transform; even to just have fun. We need to get over our hubris of our individual power and knowledge, just like our hubris with the planet, and realize its “The Network, Stupid”. We – as companies, organizations, people - need to stop fearing the network (e.g., twitter, Facebook, etc.) and embracing it – it is a key to survival.
The Chemistry. Have you ever met someone and you just clicked? The same strength of physical chemical bonds between atoms happens between people. These can’t be commanded or coerced, they happen (or don’t) naturally. It’s the power of these bonds between people that create, sustain and grow networks. That’s why networks, which are collaborative are great at innovation – whether in sustainability or other areas. When atoms collide, they create energy and new structures. When people collide, they create energy and new ideas, solutions.
So, look at the parking lot again. What can you learn from the power of nature, from its underlying extending network and adaptive evolving chemistry? How can this apply to your company, project, initiatives and people? You don’t have to start at some grand scale. All it takes is one small stalk sticking up through a crack in the seemingly impermeable concrete (your culture?) to spread.