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Leaf Litter Talks with the Experts: Toby Herzlich

This professional facilitator and trainer uses biomimicry tools to help organizations become like high functioning, resilient ecosystems.

By Amy Nelson

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Toby is a facilitator and trainer with a focus on leadership, sustainability, organizational excellence, and culture change. As Founder of Biomimicry for Social Innovation, her work uses principles from the natural world as inspiration for social change leadership and values-based organizational transformation.

With a practice aimed toward the diverse needs of multicultural groups, Toby’s participatory methods emphasize dialogue and collaborative problem solving to foster collective intelligence toward sustainable solutions.  Her work helps leaders, organizations, and networks cultivate the inner transformative practices that build purposeful, tangible, and effective social change results in the world.

What sparked you to apply biomimicry to leadership training?

There have been two tracks in my life, two parallel streams. In my professional world, I work with people, groups, and organizations in social change by helping them with facilitation, organizational development and leadership development. In my personal life, I love the outdoors and the natural world. I studied natural history in college. I spend a lot of time outdoors, and I always find the natural world to be a great source of inspiration and learning.

I have always had a sense that there must be something human systems can learn from ecological systems. When I started learning about biomimicry and seeing that that is exactly what’s being done in terms of sustainability around product design and green building, it struck me as a discipline that we should also apply to sustainability problems in the social world. This started an inquiry for me: if we’re trying to live sustainably on this planet, and we’re trying to come together in organizations and communities in social change movements to do so, why don’t we turn to the natural world to learn about what sustainability looks like in ecosystems? What if we learned from the 3.8 billion years of evolution that have informed it?

How did you go about applying this different approach to your work?

It is a process of integration, of uncovering what’s already there. We’re looking for a vision of a world that works and a pathway to get there. When we turn our attention outside, it’s all around us. It’s a process of putting on a new set of lenses that allows us to see what is already there and integrate it into what we’re doing.

At the same time, it’s a very different approach. Many of our organizations are still modeled after the Industrial Era and the Newtonian Age, where the [dominant ideology] was that you can break things down into little parts, and if you understand the parts, you can understand the whole. About 20 years ago, I read the book Leadership in the New Science, by Margaret Wheatley. She talks about how we structure our organizations based on a Newtonian world view rather than a living systems world view. Most of our organizations are still modeled in a very hierarchical, top-down way. It’s an efficient way to get work done, but it doesn’t actually take the whole system into account. With the world becoming as complex as it is, one leader at the top doesn’t usually carry the kind of knowledge, insight, and information needed in order to respond, anticipate, and be connected at the level that’s necessary today. More organizations are starting to look at how to model themselves more like an ecosystem, where the knowledge comes from the bottom up, or like a network, where the knowledge, information, and decision making is distributed.

Can you give us an example of such an organization?

I am affiliated with the Rockwood Leadership Institute. Like many organizations, Rockwood needed to take on a strategic planning process. Having done a lot of strategic planning for other groups, Rockwood’s president, Akaya Windwood, had seen the limitations of that process. She said, “Toby, you’re thinking about biomimicry. How does nature plan? What would planning look like in the natural world?”

Of course the natural world doesn’t plan. There is no one in charge saying, “this is the way we’re going to go,” and there is no group of organisms that come together and say, “where shall we go next?” But there are processes in nature that have to do with succession, and there are principles in the natural world that apply to how things grow, evolve, adapt and change. There are tenets of what it means to be resilient and how things develop in the natural world that we can learn from and replicate in our human systems.

Therefore Rockwood is now looking at becoming much more of an adaptive system, attuned to its local environment and connected with other “organisms” in that system. They are trying things, seeing what works, staying adaptive, and having a responsive, emergent attitude rather than one that says “we can lay out a plan that is a blueprint for exactly what we’re going to do, as if our context were unchanging or we are separate from the rest of the world in which we work.

How do you use biomimicry to teach leadership? What format and teaching tools have you found to be most effective in this process?

Most of the teaching I’m doing is through the lens of Life’s Principles. (Developed by Biomimicry 3.8). Life’s Principles are nature’s operating system.  They represent nature’s strategies for sustainability.

Life’s Principles represent adaptations embodied by 99.9% of organisms in the natural world. If we start using those same guidelines, then we’re going to be more in tune with the natural world, and inherently more sustainable. So I usually teach an introduction to Life’s Principles and ask people to think about their own leadership and organizational challenges and how they might be able to apply Life’s Principles to the things they are trying to figure out.

I have some tools that help people see each principle not only in a conceptual way but how a particular organism in the natural world exemplifies it. In my workshops, we develop relationships with natural mentors. You can see, for example, how a duck embraces and embodies the principle of “multi-functional design.” The preen oil in the duck’s feathers, which keeps them waterproof, becomes a source of vitamin B when exposed to sunlight. Vitamin B keeps the duck’s beak supple and able to grow as the duck grows. There are several ways that one design built into this duck serves many functions. After seeing the examples, we start to ask, “How would we design a strategy in an organization that will serve many functions?”

There are so many different examples in the natural world of organisms and systems that are embodying Life’s Principles. If we start to do things the way the natural world does within our own organizations, then we operate in more sustainable ways and we build stronger connections with the natural world.

Another example is the way that life self-organizes around complex challenges, using a few simple rules to bring coherence into a system.  Ants are not very intelligent as individuals, but as a colony, they are highly efficient at finding our picnics and bringing food back to their anthill.

They way that they do this is through very simple rules that have to do with laying down a scent trail – each ant knows instinctively to do two things: 1) leave a pheromone trail, and 2) follow a pheromone trail.  When two ants go out looking for food, they are both laying down trails in different direction.  One ant finds food first, and follows her own trail back to the next, which makes her trail two layers thick.  The next ant that goes out finds this more heavily scented trail and follows it to the closest food source, which further strengthens the scent.  Very quickly, the whole colony knows which way to go without wasting any energy, and without anyone directing the process.  Leaders are starting to think about how to apply this idea of simple rules to complex organizational challenges, so that leadership can be decentralized, team members can self-organize, and context-specific strategies can emerge naturally.

Who are some of your clients? Are they primarily activist groups?

Environmental organizations are interested in this work because they want to walk their talk and they know how important it is to protect our environment. But it’s a very different relationship to regard the natural world as your teacher versus something you protect.  It means turning to the natural world with more humility by asking, “How would nature do this? What do cooperative relationships look like in the natural world? How do mutualisms actually work? What can we learn from how organisms co-evolve over time so that they’re reliant on each other and enhancing each other’s success? What does that mean when we start applying that to partnerships within an organization?”

Can you give us a real world example of an organization that has looked at an organism or natural system and made changes in the way they led or organized themselves based on that?

The application of this work to organizations is still fairly new. There are lots of case studies and examples of applying biomimicry to things like product design and green building, but there isn’t yet a lot to point to in terms of social change and organizations. That’s one of the things I’m working on now…developing some of those real life examples through organizations that are trying some of this stuff out.

Many organizations are starting to ask these questions. Rockwood is a good example, with looking at how it builds its alumni network. They are exploring what networks look like in the natural world, and starting to apply that to building a network of people who have been through their program and can serve each other in a decentralized way.

Another example comes from the U.S. Green Building Council. They are not one of my clients, but this is a good story. The USGBC is a large and growing organization with nearly 80 chapters. A couple of years ago, they went through a process in which they asked, “How do we continue to grow with all of these chapters all over the country?” The organization had been very top-town, with the main office sending directives out to the chapters. As the organization became more complex, creativity was getting stifled and the “aliveness” of the organization was fading.  They began to study examples in the natural world of more decentralized ways of “doing business.” They landed on mimicking the mycelial network of fungi underground.  This network supplies both information and nutrients between and among everything that is growing on the surface of the earth.  Mushrooms are the fruiting body of a mycelial network.  The USGBC thought, “What if we behaved like the mycelial network? What if we, the national office, instead of being directive and telling chapters what do to, were more of a support system underground and saw our function as distributing information and resources where and when they are needed?”  They started operating that way, and the whole became much more dynamic, with lots of information coming from their local chapters. They started to experience more collaboration and innovation. So the national office totally rethought their own function of how they support a growing network of local chapters all around the country.

How many of your clients actually seek this nature-approach, versus being introduced to it while receiving more traditional leadership and organization training?

I’d love for you to ask me that question again in a year. At this point, it’s still pretty nascent. I have been working in organizational development, planning, and leadership development for 22 years. That work is well-established. Organizations need these types of services, and they seek help from people who can do that well. Right now, there’s a bit of shifting going on because people are recognizing that we need to do things in different ways; we need to innovate in every aspect of our world

There is an “awakening” going on throughout the field of social change. There are a few people saying, “We want to apply biomimicry to our organization,” but more people come to me saying, “We know we need a different direction. We know we need to do something in a way we’ve never done it before. Can you help us?” Then, I offer biomimicry as a possibility. People get very excited about it, because there is something about biomimicry that ignites a “remembering” in our hearts about how much more connected we are to the world around us than is reflected by the way we live.

I also do women’s leadership training. I work developing women leaders and bringing the feminine voice forward into leadership. Principles of women’s leadership and principles of the natural world are very closely aligned. They involve a very similar orientation, which is all about whole systems, distributed leadership, cooperation, and trusting a different way of knowing.

Is the power of the feminine voice something that we see in nature?

A couple of years ago I did a workshop at the Bioneers conference which looked into women’s leadership with nature as mentor. I asked participants (mostly women, but not all) to tap into a memory of themselves as a leader, and to think about [the feminine qualities they brought to that leadership]. There was a whole set of qualities and characteristics that women and men named as related to leading from the feminine: leading through partnership, being interconnected with those around us, being more cooperative and interdependent, being less directive and more emergent, and being adaptable and resource-efficient. Then we looked at the central themes of how the living world works, and they were the same.

There is a lot of misconception about the idea of “survival of the fittest,” and the idea that whoever is the toughest, strongest, and most able to outpower the others wins.  Survival is actually much more about those who are most fit and attuned to where they live and most adaptable and able to fit in even as things change. That means being connected with every other organism in that same ecosystem and being in relationships that result in everybody geting what they need. These are also very human principles at a level that you could call “feminine,” or “principles of wholeness.”

You have worked to build leadership among women in war-torn areas of the Middle East and the Balkans.  How does the use of biomimicry in teaching leadership in war-torn areas help women strengthen their leadership skills in the face of gender inequality? 

A lot of it is about creating the conditions in which women can hear their own voice again and reclaim who they know themselves to be, with recognition and support for a circle of women who are doing the same thing. It involves “re-storying” the ideas they’re holding about what leadership looks like. This is a similar process to how we reconnect to the natural world and have it inform us.  That involves listening again in a new way. Hearing what is embodied in the natural world and letting go of our ideas of how we think it should be. Janine Benyus (Biomimicry 3.8 founder) talks about “quieting our human cleverness” in order to really notice the patterns of how things grow, relate to one another, and adapt to pressures in the environment.

The feminine wants to sing, soar and give birth to what’s next.  Life rushes in to regenerate. These days we need to be honest and sober about how much, through our ignorance as humans, we have done to suppress or hurt that which is most alive. We need to take a breath, get humble, and make room for the regeneration, reclaiming, and re-expression of that life to come forward and inform everything we’re doing.

Why is a biomimetic approach to how we organize and lead important now?

The world is changing quickly. The issues around climate are real and recognized, and we are living in a complex, rapidly changing society. Organizations and leaders are recognizing that they need to learn how to be more adaptable and resilient. Questions like, “How can we communicate in new ways? How can we work more as a network? What does it really mean to cooperate in ways that are mutually beneficial?” are very alive in minds of leaders who want to change the world in positive ways. If we want to learn how to be adaptable, resilient, and have cooperative, mutually beneficial relationships, the teachers are all around us in the natural world.  These are all capacities of high-functioning ecosystems. So now it’s about how we really understand our own questions, and how we look to biology to glean insights into the strategies that have evolved.

There seem to be levels of application of biomimicry…mimic the natural form, the process, the whole system. Are there different levels of application when it comes to teaching leadership?

I think there are. Form, process, and ecosystem are different ways to go into biomimicry. I have been thinking about how to apply these to organizational life.  There are things we can learn about form and structure from the natural world. For example, how would nature organize? Mostly through networks.  So we look at a much more distributed leadership structure than was common 50 years ago.  That’s one avenue in.

Process is a question of how we do things. What kind of strategies do we employ? What kind of feedback loops do we build into our system? How does nature communicate? What can we learn from nature in terms of signaling and response? About moving a group through studying herds? What can we learn from the way collective intelligence happens in insect swarms (the way bees select a new hive, for example)?

In terms of ecosystems, that means really looking at a whole system, with many diverse and interdependent parts, and the relationships among them.  We need to be studying the “selection pressures” of our environments as well as the opportunities for mutualisms with the larger community of partners, clients, funders, etc.

Form, process, and ecosystem are good lenses to use in applying biomimicry to organization and leadership. I have also been thinking a lot about one of the models I use in organizational change called the “Wheel of Change.” Developed by a colleague of mine, Robert Gass, this model looks at how change actually happens in human systems.

According to McKinsey, a big consulting company, 70% of organizational change efforts fail. That is a pretty startling number. The reason [for this failure] is that change is not approached from a whole systems point of view. The Wheel of Change says you need to look at change at three different levels: hearts and minds (visions, beliefs, ideas, culture); behavior (how we interact, communicate, build trust, develop community, etc.); and systems and structures (strategies, decision-making protocols, training, etc). I’m currently looking into how this model of change relates to different levels of Life’s Principles and biomimicry. At the level of hearts and minds, it has a lot to do with thinking more systemically, having an attitude of curiousity and an intention toward evolving, “quieting our cleverness” in order to observe, and thinking more about creating conditions for something to emerge rather than imposing our will.  At the level of behavior, it’s about acting in ways that foster interconnectedness, mutualisms, feedback loops, and adaptability. At the level of systems and structure, it’s about what we can learn from the way ecosystems are formed, the way succession happens over time, etc. There are things at all three of those levels that can be learned from nature.

Can you recommend resources and offer advice for readers who may want to learn more about biomimicry and the lessons it can teach us about organizational and personal leadership? 

For Leaf Litter readers, biomimicry is certainly applicable in terms of the actual mechanisms you are using for things like water harvesting and ecological restoration work, but it can also be applied to the social dynamics surrounding them. It can inform how you work with communities to support your work over time; how you get people thinking about themselves as an integral part of the ecosystem they’re trying to protect and preserve; and how you develop policy that will create the conditions for the funding, resources, and decisions that are the underpinning of creating sustainability in a community.

Janine Benyus’ book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature is a must-read. The links on the biomimicry 3.8 web site about Life’s Principles are very important. There isn’t a lot out there. There’s a new book called The Nature of Business by Giles Hutchins.  I’m just about to launch a web site called “Biomimicry for Social Innovation.”

This area of leadership and organization inspired by nature is really leading edge. There’s not much out there yet, but there are a lot of people thinking about it.

Got an idea?

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