THE BLOG
07/28/2010 02:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Survival Instinct: Businesses Must Turn to Mother Nature

It's an age-old story. An entrepreneur enters a complacent industry with a startling innovation. The start-up's market share steadily grows and before long, it's the new behemoth. But then the surviving competitors, backed against the wall, counter with their own innovations that neutralize the new behemoth's advantage. Soon, the new behemoth is scrambling for survival, its former success rendered meaningless in the new competitive landscape.

This isn't a story about Microsoft and Apple. It's a story about weeds.

Several decades ago Monsanto, one of the large agribusiness firms developed a new herbicide called "RoundUp." Revolutionary at the time, RoundUp came to dominate the market because it was both highly effective and broke down quickly, making it less toxic than other herbicides in common use. But the innovative breakthrough that made Monsanto's success was genetically engineering staple crops so they were resistant to RoundUp (branded RoundUp Ready). This innovation meant farmers could spray their entire fields with RoundUp, but only kill the weeds, saving a huge amount of time. No weeds means that farmers don't need to till their fields -- a huge ecological boon. And no-till farming equates to fewer emissions, less soil-erosion and less chemical runoff.

But this story doesn't have a happy ending. The weeds weren't content to just die off. As the use of RoundUp and RoundUp Ready crops has become ubiquitous, the weeds developed innovations of their own -- an evolved resistance to RoundUp. As a result, Monsanto and its customers are scrambling. Farmers are returning to tilling and using older, more toxic herbicides to control weeds. There is even some concern that the revenge of the weeds will cause agricultural yields to fall for some crops. If so, the price of crops -- like corn, soy beans and cotton where RoundUp Ready seeds were most popular -- could rise.

From a business perspective the strategic errors are evident. No competent executive would ignore competitive moves made by rivals. Indeed, one of the main responsibilities of management is to think about, anticipate and plan for competitive gambits.

I spend a lot of my time convincing companies they should emulate the biosphere if they want to be sustainable. But it's also time we begin thinking of the biosphere within the framework of competitive strategy. Just like traditional competitors, the biosphere will react and adapt to any business strategy that affects it.

In a way, we need to go back to learn from the master -- Mother Nature. After all, the biosphere's rule of survival of the fittest gives us an ideal model of competitive adaptation and interplay. Predators get stronger and prey get sneakier, predators get smarter and prey get faster, and so on to produce the diversity and dynamism of the natural world today.

It's a continual refrain for humanity. Monsanto failed to view weeds as a competitor who would react to their innovation. Far too many companies act similarly -- as if the impact they have on the planet will not change the competitive landscape and that the biosphere won't react. A recent article from The Climate Desk by Felix Salmon notes how few companies have even begun to think about contingency plans -- or competitive responses more properly -- to the biosphere's adaptation to the changing climate.

The private sector shouldn't be singled out here. It's time for the biosphere to figure into more strategic plans -- as a partner and a competitor -- that is constantly adapting.

Cross-posted from Forbes