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Learning from Lichens [Nature
Posted on January 27, 2014 @ 09:55:00 AM by Paul Meagher

As I learn more about nature, I like to ponder whether nature has any lessons we might learn regarding business survival and growth. Previously I looked at lessons we might learn from nature by studying how natural ecosystems work and applying similiar principles to growing a business. See business guilds and metaphors of growth for more.

Today I want to look at a specific species, Lichens, to see if they have anything to teach us about business survival and growth.

Lets start with the basics and define what a Lichen is: it is an organism that consists of a fungus and an algae (and/or cyanobacteria) with the fungus supplying the organisms framework and the embedded algae converting sunlight to energy (i.e., sugars, nutrients) for the organism. The fungus and the algae are in a symbiotic relationship with each other, each supplies something the other needs. While both may exist without the other, they perform much better if they are symbiotically intertwined. They are smaller, weaker, and much less adaptable when they exist apart.

Lichens are a tremendously successful organism occupying 10% of the earth's land surface, especially in the far north. They can exists in some of the harshest conditions on the planet and play a major role in the process of creating soil by releasing acids that break down rock which eventually becomes soil.

One of the main lessons we might learn from lichens is that a symbiotic relationship can create a new level of adaptability that cannot happen without the symbiotic relationship. One reason to partner with another company is because that company supplies something that is missing from your own company and vice versa. We partner with companies so that we can each benefit monetarily or otherwise from the arrangement. A lichen, however, goes one level above a simple partnership insofar as the arrangement allows them to compete in new environments that they otherwise would not be in if the fungi and algae they did not partner. Likewise, companies can partner because the joint organism that results can compete in a new environment that the separate companies cannot compete in individually. So partnerships are not just about staying in the same environment and extracting more of the resources from that environment; it is also about joining together so that you can venture into new territory and compete against the incumbents in that territory.

Another lesson we might learn from lichens is how to survive in harsh environments. Lichens can survive in extreme cold and extreme drought. They are able to do this because they can approach a state close to death when times are tough but as soon as conditions warm or rain comes, they can spring back into life and thrive again. A lichen will shrink in size when there is no rain thereby reducing it's requirements for water. When water does come, it expands in size again. Likewise, for a company to survive in tough economic times it should have a strategy for entering into a low energy conservation state and exiting that state when conditions become favorable again. The life of any company is often marked by periods of growth and setback. When life is good and the company is growing you may think that life will stay that way and structure your company accordingly - buy new company assets, take on more loans, spend money as soon as it comes in. Any little setback, however, could quickly spell the end of the company. How easily can you shrink the company when economic times get tough and how long can you stay in the state? The lichen has learned how to live through the bad times and exploit the good times with equal ease.

In "The Forest Unseen: A year's Watch in Nature" (2012), David Haskell, describes lichen existence as follows:

Supple physiology allows lichens to shine with life when most other creatures are locked down for the winter. Lichens master the cold months through the paradox of surrender. They burn no fuel in quest of warmth, instead letting the pace of their lives rise and fall with the thermometer. Lichens don't cling to water as plants and animals do. A lichen body swells on damp days, then puckers as the air dries. Plants shrink back from the chill, packing up their cells until spring gradually coaxes them out. Lichen cells are light sleepers. When winter eases for a day, lichens float easily back to life. (p. 2).

These are just a couple of aspect of lichen existence and physiology that we can learn from if we study lichens more closely with an eye towards what they might tell us metaphorically about business survival and growth.

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