To Overcome Your Company’s Limits, Look to Symbiosis

To Overcome Your Company’s Limits, Look to Symbiosis

by Rafe Sagarin  |  12:00 PM June 25, 2013

No matter how nimble, innovative, or globally networked your organization or business is, it will run smack into the limits of its capabilities just by virtue of operating in today’s dynamic world. To push through these limits, you need to tap into a nearly bottomless force of adaptability known as symbiosis.

Symbiosis is a biological concept — roughly defined as a partnership between organisms — that has helped living creatures innovate and expand into new niches for billions of years. Symbiosis has allowed organisms to defend themselves from predators, to lure prey into their mouths, to produce energy from the sun, and to produce energy in places where the sun never shines, among other things. Every organism on Earth is engaged in many symbioses with other organisms.Symbiosis is a powerful force in business too. A broad examination of nature reveals six key guidelines for adaptable symbiotic relationships that can be applied to today’s organizations:

Make your symbiosis count. Symbioses have no intrinsic value. Animals don’t work together because it’s a good idea to “break down silos” or “reach across the aisle” or “diversify their assets.” They work together to solve problems. When Yahoo bought Flickr and let it sit on the shelf, that wasn’t symbiotic, it was just a waste of money. Likewise, if you’re organizing a meeting to get engineers and marketers in the same room, getting them in the same room is not a good enough reason. There had better be a problem to solve that they cannot solve unless they’re in the same room.

Love thine enemy. Natural symbioses occur between the most unlikely of partners. Throughout life’s history, conflicts between organisms have resolved into symbiotic partnerships. There are small fish that swim right into the mouths of large predatory fish to clean their parasites — the little fish gets some food and the big fish forgoes eating the little fish in exchange for getting its parasites removed. After Superstorm Sandy, Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Democrat President Obama forgot election-year politics for a brief partnership that ensured a better flow of federal disaster aid to the Jersey shore and provided Obama a measure of credibility as a leader in a time of crisis.

Don’t wed your partner. No one thought the “bromance” between Obama and Christie would last long after the last relief check was cashed, but it doesn’t matter. Symbioses can be so long-lived that the individuals become inseparable, or they can consist of extremely short get-togethers that focus on one immediate problem. After the Boston Marathon bombings, to show support for the shell-shocked city, New York Yankees fans sang the Red Sox anthem “Sweet Caroline” in Yankee Stadium. That gesture was warmly welcomed by Bostonians, but I doubt it will happen again. These symbiotic relationships are no less powerful when they are short-lived — in fact, having the freedom to make short-term partnerships with the enemy provides much more latitude to respond to unexpected crises or seize novel opportunities.

Forget quid pro quo. For a while in ecology, a sort of Chicago School of Economics mentality prevailed, and there was a near-constant search to identify the cost-benefit functions that supposedly govern natural symbiotic partnerships. The problem is, those functions don’t exist. Symbiotic partnerships occur because they solve problems, not because some Pareto optimal resolution has been achieved. Sometimes one side of the partnership benefits enormously while the other barely benefits, and sometimes one side gives up an awful lot in order to be able to adapt to difficult circumstances. When Dr Pepper Snapple Group wanted to reach a huge but tricky demographic — the Millennials — it developed a novel symbiosis with Viacom, the parent company of Millennial-tuned MTV. To draw MTV in, Dr Pepper made the unusual offer to let MTV choose any lesser-known Dr Pepper brand it wanted to market and offer Viacom equity in that brand. In the end, MTV helped Dr Pepper turn a third-tier product called Sun Drop into a national player, and gave itself credibility as the go-to marketer for any brand — no matter how staid — desperate for Millennial attention (General Motors lined up next). It’s impossible to say which side got the best end of this relationship, and it doesn’t matter — if either side can do just a little better as a result of a symbiosis, it makes sense to partner up.

There’s no such thing as a perfect partnership. Natural organisms don’t strive for perfection, they just try to solve problems. I’ve written about partnerships among Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian health officials. They’ve worked together successfully to stop the spread of infectious diseases, but none of them is trying to create peace in the Middle East. Symbioses built out of “grand visions” are the most likely to fail. As Car and Driver noted in its analysis of partnerships between automakers, big all-or-nothing partnerships, like DaimlerChrysler, tend to fail, whereas very tightly focused partnerships (like Toyota licensing hybrid technology to Subaru, or BMW providing diesel engines to Toyota) have been so successful that they no longer raise eyebrows, even in the highly competitive auto industry.

Prepare for the unexpected. The most amazing thing about symbiosis is that the outcome can’t ever be predicted just by looking at the two entities separately. The bacteria in our own gut — which help us digest a wide variety of foods in exchange for a home to proliferate within — also now seem to play an essential role in preventing autism and obesity. In ecology, we call these unpredictables “emergent properties,” but they’re a close analog to that hard-to-define and harder-to-predict concept of “serendipity” that is so actively sought after in business.

You can’t plan for serendipity, but you can create space for the emergent properties that often come with symbiotic relationships. One way to do this is to identify new or longstanding problems within your organization or throughout your industry and issue a reward-based challenge to anyone in the organization to help solve it. A challenge-based problem-solving program typically yields fast, cheap, and unexpected solutions, often because it creates a natural point of coalescence for symbiotic partnerships.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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