Rewilding Organisations | An Ecological Approach to Change
Updated: Feb 7
Organisations are now faced with significant challenges relating to the complex business, social and technological environment in which they operate. In the same breath we know that our natural world is under threat by climate change and many species are under threat from extinction.
I was recently introduced to a potential solution, Rewilding, at an Extinction Rebellion event. Cain Blythe and Paul Jepson shared details of their book Rewilding. I immediately saw the principles relevant to Organisation Development Professionals.
What is Rewilding?
Rewilding is a progressive approach to conservation. It's about letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes. Through rewilding, wildlife's natural rhythms create wilder, more biodiverse habitats.
A Rewilding Example
Perhaps the most famous case of wildlife reintroduction is Yellowstone park. Eleven packs and 108 wolves are reported, as of 2016, while there were none before the 1995 reintroduction of 14 Canadian wolves. The project was sparked by rampant elk overpopulation.
This video shares the remarkable story:
The challenge with traditional change approaches
Rewilding is different from traditional conservation efforts. Common conservation efforts choose an ideal state decided by humans. Conservation picks winners and decides what is right at the time for that landscape.
The goal of conservation is in the name. It aims to conserve a landscape, species, or a specific habitat, to preserve or enhance a chosen state of things. Conservation picks winners and then protects those winners in the future.
"Take a look at the paperwork produced for conservation areas and national parks. You'll find maintenance and development plans that are far too eager to put sawmills and chain-saws to work. In the end, such plans for saving as many native species of trees as possible are neither aesthetically pleasing nor ecologically beneficial."
Peter Wohlleben - The Secret Network of Nature
This definition of an ideal target state and interventions towards it will be recognisable to organisational change professionals. We see here in an ecological context the problem with this approach. The problem is highlighted in these 12 organisation design principles that embrace complexity. As you will learn, Rewilding can teach Organisation Design Professionals a different way to do Organisation Design.
How is Rewilding different?
Rewilding in contrast to traditional conservation believes that giving control back to nature is key. It is surrendering the need to organise the land, which is perfectly capable of organising itself.
"It is not an attempt to restore them to any prior state, but to permit ecological processes to resume. Rewilding is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way… While conservation often looks to the past, rewilding of this kind looks to the future.”
George Monbiot - Feral
It is time to allow the interactions, rather than human interventions, to steer the future trajectory of natural systems
Cain Blythe, Paul Jepson - Rewilding
Examining this further, Rewilding strives to maximize the three central properties of healthy ecosystems.
1. Trophic Complexity
This recognizes that species within an ecosystem are highly connected and often depend on one another. Particularly, large herbivores can be critically important for modifying the physical environment (e.g. by grazing, trampling, and fertilizing the land) to generate hospitable environments for birds, small mammals, insects, and plants.
2. Stochastic Disturbances
Natural disturbances such as wildfires are often important for ecosystems but can be suppressed or altered by human behaviour. Another example is natural flooding. These random events are often reduced to make land more manageable and predictable for human management.
Healthy Ecosystems depend on the exchange of individuals from different populations to increase gene flow and lead to more resilient habitats. Human interventions, like putting up fences or other physical barriers, can suppress dispersal and result in ecosystems that are more vulnerable to change.
The concepts of Trophic Complexity, Stochastic Disturbances and Dispersal are important in an Organisation context too. Organisations try to control natural disturbances and limit risk to projects. Perhaps the opposite approach could be taken to welcome these natural disturbances and the opportunities that they may present. In addition, organisational boundaries often limit the dispersal of knowledge. Physical and mental barriers are built around teams in the form of organisational structure. This limits the knowledge sharing across the organisation.
Below are the 11 principles of rewilding developed by Rewilding Europe. Organisation Design professionals will start to see how these principles draw parallels to organisation change.
The 11 Principles:
Providing hope and purpose
Offering natural solutions
Letting nature lead
Working at nature’s scale
People are key
Building nature-based economies
Acting in context
How are these principles relevant for organisation change?
One that jumps out is "Letting nature lead". How could the organisation design enable employees to flourish? Environments that enable people to achieve their potential and meet their human needs.
A second is Knowledge Exchange. The majority of organisational learning (70%) happens in informal networks. It's important for organisations to develop these networks to build rapid and high-quality knowledge exchange.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. Share on Twitter or post your comment below
In addition, if you have a passion for ecology or organisation change I'd love to partner with you. In particular folks from the rewilding community, let's see what collaboration opportunities exist!
Want to learn more about ecology?
Here are some great books I've found helpful in understand ecology and its relationship with organisation design:
Rewilding - Cain Blythe, Paul Jepson
Feral - George Monbiot
The Secret Network of Nature - Peter Wohlleben
The Hidden Life of Trees - Peter Wohlleben