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  • Writer's pictureTracey Camilleri

Learning from Leaves: Three Lessons for Business from the Giant Waterlily

Giant waterlilies produce the largest floating leaves in nature. They can reach 3 metres across and can carry the weight of a small child. They sometimes grow up to 40 cm in one day. Inspired by this article on the website of the Oxford University Biology Department, by Deputy Director of the Oxford Botanic Garden, Chris Thorogood (currently somewhere in the jungle, discovering more plants) uncovers some of its secrets.

High Strength at Low Cost

If you want to grow an organisation large, fast and strong but still remain relatively flat, you need a fractal structure. The undersides of the giant waterlily leaf are its saving grace. The ‘high strength’ of the vascular structure comes at ‘a low cost’ – to quote Dr Finn Box at Manchester University. In just the same way, a fractalised organisational structure can enable a business to grow big whilst at the same time remaining relational and resilient, by building out through small units or teams rather than the traditional pyramid.

Gaining a Competitive Edge

All leaves are in a race for space and light. The flexible framework of the giant water lily leaf enables flexible deformation if, for example, a wading bird damages it. Tiny holes in each vascular pocket allow rainwater to pass through, preventing the leaf from becoming overcharged. Its vast size prevents other leaves below from getting the light and space they need, thereby reserving the nutrients below for the water lily. The flexibility afforded by its structure helps it to outcompete its neighbours.

Hidden in Plain Sight

We tend to be ‘plant blind’, rarely thinking of the opportunities to learn from nature. Chris Thorogood* looks to plants for inspiration. He believes that the waterlily could inspire giant floating platforms that could be used for example for solar panels in the sea, or floating housing to mitigate the effects of climate change.

At Thompson Harrison, we see the structure of the waterlily as an inspiration for future organisations, designed both for growth and for human thriving.

*Chris Thorogood will be a member of faculty on the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme in May 2022

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