Leaders working in complex organizations have some things to learn from lichens. Let me first give you the biology lesson, then talk about how to apply this in organizational life.
Lichens are a composite organism of both fungal and algae (or cyanobacteria) cells. The algae cells are completely enclosed in the fungus layer like this:
Lichens are symbiotic; each part helps the whole organism. The algae layer is photosynthetic, using the energy of sunlight to convert atmospheric carbon into useful sugars. The fungus provides protection from dehydration, and more surface area to collect moisture and minerals. Lichens have enormous variety and are found in every land environment on the planet – including some of the harshest environments where no other plant species survives. Lichens thrive where neither algae nor fungus alone could survive.
New species of lichens appear in nature regularly. Scientists have created lichen species in the lab. The first in-lab creation of a lichen was done by Eugen Thomas in 1939.
(Want to learn more? There’s a nice article on lichens available on Wikipedia.)
So what organizational leadership lessons can leaders learn from lichens?
- There is power and elegance in combining two things into an entirely new solution – a software service, a human process, a new market, even a new business model.
- Lichens are successful because both entities contribute to success.
- “Lichen”-generating organizations can move into new (and often harsh) environmental niches that would not support either parent.
- A symbiosis is a step-change opportunity, not an incremental improvement.
- The diversity of lichens is astounding.
- “Lichen” opportunities can be engineered.
- If one component (e.g., one software package) is not a full solution, perhaps it can be “lichen-ized” with another component to create a more successful solution.
Look for lichen opportunities for the future of your organization.