What projects can learn from nature

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Projects can learn from nature

With the return of David Attenborough to our screens in another excellent wildlife series “Dynasties” we can see how brutal the natural world can be.  The Chimp “David” trying to maintain his role at the top of his troop, and then this week the trials that penguins suffer on an annual basis.  Truly inspiring stuff that shows that projects can learn from nature.

So, what has this got to do with Project management you may ask yourself, I will explain how project team might benefit.  Over the last couple of years I have followed some thinking on the social arrangement and dynamics of wolf packs.  

Project management can, and should, learn more from natural patterns.  This article looks at wolf packs as an example.  But there are a range of other social and team structures that nature provides that can offer valuable lessons to project managers.

Pack command structure

Decades ago it was thought that the alpha male ran everything, and wolves were likely to ditch the weaker members of the pack.  Now with a lot more knowledge, researchers have seen that there are a range of roles in a wolf pack, and a complex social order that supports all members.  Even on occasion the alpha male and high-ranking pack members will allow cubs and weaker members food first for the benefit of the pack.

Although the alpha male assumes the role of leader, they keep it by the consent of the pack as a whole.  If the welfare of the pack is threatened, then that creates situations where leadership is challenged and sometime replaced.

In the project management world, a Project Manager is appointed from outside the team.  But increasing trends means project managers need to lead and support.  Being autocratic is not the best way.  But being appropriately assertive is central to success.  The project manager as the servant leader enabling and facilitating process can work well in some situations.

But regardless of the project method, or the type of project, project managers should work with the team for the benefit of the project.


Collaboration of all team members strengthens the team.  In the same way the pack is much stronger hunting as a collaborative group.  But collaboration does not happen by accident, each member needs to know their role.  Success only occurs by working as a well-oiled machine.

Project teams sharing roles like planning and communication with the customer establish far better chances of success.  Project Managers that establish a framework of understanding and clear roles for the team enable working together more effectively.

Focused goal

The hunting of food, guarding territory, and even creating the next generation are all focused goals for the pack.  There are clear targets and successful packs remain focused.

Now I have never been in project teams that need to have quite as basic a focus as this. There are valid points to be gained.  Understanding of the objectives and common goals do help projects to success.

Conflict resolution

Packs have some interesting ways of resolving conflicts.  Some members, often not the alpha male or female, act as enforcers to police behaviour.  Warnings are given for those that step out of line.  But on occasions teeth are bared, even then damage and injury rarely happen.  But keeping order in the pack allows it to be more focused.

While I am sure there are many project managers who might love to have a 60Kg wolf enforcer, I am sure HR departments would complain.  But having support in the team to maintain the approach is very useful.  A flexible structure but rigid values that enforces quick resolution to conflict. Then allowing learning and development to take place, not naming and blaming to happen.

I wonder what other things might be highlighted from Dynasties.  It is sure to be captivating and full of drama.  We can learn a lot from the structures nature uses and apply them to improving our personal and team performance. Projects can learn from nature.

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