Snowflakes are one of nature’s most magical constructions, with their dynamic patterns adored by people everywhere. They start their journey from the sky as droplets of super-cooled water, forming ice crystals. As they drift slowly to earth, the crystals create an almost infinite number of designs around a basic hexagonal structure. Each snowflake is unique, fine-tuning its existence to very small changes in local temperature and humidity. When they reach earth, the translucent crystals bind together, reflecting the full light spectrum and scattering rays in every direction. This gives snow its distinctive white colour. Eventually, sometimes after a fun-induced transformation into snowballs, the molecules change state back to the liquid we know well, continuing their flow in the earth’s water cycle, without which we simply would not exist.
Nature is full of resonances that yield insights, if only we take the time to stop and think. Snowflakes provide deep messages to help us organise ourselves in society. As Christmas draws near, let me highlight just three that corporate leaders might do well to consider amidst their plans for the New Year.
Firstly, snowflakes are ever-evolving, constantly adjusting themselves in tiny ways to ensure they are in tune with their immediate environment. Paradoxically, it is only through this constant change and diversity that they retain continuity and integrity.
Snowflakes are ever-evolving, constantly adjusting themselves in tiny ways to ensure they are in tune with their immediate environment.
Companies are not that different. Leaders need to be able to adapt quickly to ever-changing customer and stakeholder needs in their relevant market contexts. This flexibility is essential to ensure both financial and corporate sustainability. In part, this is a data challenge, where artificial intelligence (AI) is well placed to help. Data-poor, customer-distant companies are simply on a road to extinction in tomorrow’s world.
Secondly, a storm of snowflakes is part of a complex system that stretches well beyond its immediate surroundings. The evolution of those crystals is driven not just by nearby ground temperature, but by more distant forces, most notably the sun. As its rays break through snow-clouds, it heralds an imminent tipping point for the crystals themselves, that must prepare for a new part of their journey as water, not ice.
In similar vein, corporate entities need to be alert to meet the more distant threats and opportunities lying beyond immediate customer demands. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s idea of anti-fragility, captures this well. The anti-fragile company thrives on shocks, retaining an admiration for uncertainty, just like nature.
Truly great companies are structured to respond to dramatic change, be it within their respective industries or otherwise, in ways that are not only robust, but which create new options. Here, it is human imagination rather than AI that is likely to help us. What is required is genuine experience retained in the intuitive mind, not in Big Data clouds.
The conclusion so far is that top companies need to not only be in tune with their immediate environments, but also be able to see the risks in the broader context in which they find themselves. Companies need both a torchlight and searchlight focus. The two forms of attention need to work in harmony within a business organisation.
There is one final point to make, perhaps the most intriguing and paradoxical of all. These flurries of chaos from the skies manage to organise themselves into something we all consider beautiful. What can be more awe-inspiring than the ‘easy wind and downy flake’, as Robert Frost put it. Who painted this chaotic beauty?
The answer, paradoxically, is no one. Snowflakes are self-organising. There is an important analogue for our broader economic system. Markets are best thought of as organisms, constantly evolving and adapting, a theme since the great Adam Smith.
The future movements of customers and companies is inherently uncertain, but overall the market economy has proven itself better to meet our economic needs than any other. It may lack the beauty and majesty of a snowstorm, but it is awe-inspiring in its own way, processing huge amounts of information in fascinating ways. They allow us to explore the future, but not to predict it. Like snowflakes, markets leave us clues but retain their magic.
So, as we contemplate the winter season, let’s look around and listen to the real messages that resonate around us. In this era of fake news, it is important to remember there are still trustworthy paths to insight – and living with nature is surely one of them.
A very happy Christmas to everyone.
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