Recession Survival – Lessons From Nature

Estimated reading time: 5 mins

Many parts of the world regularly suffer from drought and famine. People and wildlife seem to adapt well (as a matter of course) to what is a cyclical phenomenon.

So is economic recession. There are many common characteristics between recession in the economy and the natural world, yet an economic downturn seems to come as a surprize and unprepared for. Why?

Nature – people and wildlife – has found rehearsed strategies in order to survive:

  • They use their resources sparingly.
  • They may migrate to regions which have more abundance. The annual migration of the wildebeest in Africa is one of best known examples of this.
  • They understand and anticipate the side effects. These may range from an increase in disease or plagues of mosquitoes and locusts, to a rise in food prices (exacerbating the situation) and on to land degradation, bush fires and ultimately, social conflict and widespread death and destruction.
  • They adapt, as best they can, to their new, temporary environment.
  • They take advantage of unexpected opportunities – crocodiles and lions wait in ambush for the migrating wildebeest.
  • Outside agencies attempt to alleviate the problems or at least, reduce the effects – Aid Agencies and other NGOs offer food and shelter in the worst effected regions.

As economic recession continues, are there lessons that we, in the business world, can learn from the natural world? Let’s take another look at the above strategies and see how they can be applied to the business environment…

  • They use their resources sparingly – This lesson has obviously been learned by most of us. Spending is down (which is, of course, deepening the recession), many people are overpaying their mortgages every month and credit card debt is being paid off faster than before. ‘Eating In’ is the new ‘Going Out’ and the large supermarkets and take away chains are the main beneficiaries. In the workplace, budgets are being cut and we are all asked to ‘do more with less’.
  • They may migrate to regions which have more abundance – Many people will look around for a new job, either at home or abroad. Whilst vacancies are more limited at the moment, those of us working in IT with strong transferable skills are better placed than most to take advantage of new opportunities.
  • They understand and anticipate the side effects – The side effects, of course, include redundancies, and longer working hours for those who survive the cull. Personal relationships may suffer as a result of this and you must recognize if this is becoming an issue in your own relationships, both at work and (more importantly) at home.
  • They adapt, as best they can, to their new, temporary environment – this point is absolutely key to your survival during this recession. Here are some thoughts for your consideration:
      1. Network – Make sure you get to know as many managers as possible in your organisation and make sure they know who you are. This means getting outside of the IT department!
      2. Operate above your payscale – Offer suggestions to your boss, offer to make presentations at departmental meetings. Take the initiative and start (or carry on) doing things that your boss should be doing but for which you can take responsibility.
      3. Make yourself indispensable – Help your line manager as much as you can. If you’ve moved around in the IT department, help those who are currently working in an area where you’ve worked previously (without annoying them, of course). If you know people in other departments of the organisation, spend time with them and understand their issues – can the IT department help them to overcome these?
      4. Go the extra mile – If your line manager asks you to help him/her prepare for a board meeting, for example, go the extra mile and prepare some presentation slides too. They may not be the finished article but it’s much easier to finesse something that already exists than to start with a blank piece of paper.
      5. Socialize with your colleagues – Integrate with your colleagues. Go for a drink after work. Get involved in societies and clubs. You never know who you might meet and the deeper you dig yourself into the fabric of the organization, the more difficult it becomes to do without you.
  • They take advantage of unexpected opportunities – If your line manager leaves, for whatever reason, you may find yourself running the team in a ‘holding capacity’. Take the initiative and do more than just ‘hold the fort’. Make your own decisions and add your own stamp to the team. In times of recession, it is more likely that you will be offered the job permanently, if you show promise, rather than recruiting externally. Budget cuts may also offer opportunities for you to develop skills which are currently under-utilized. Perhaps you know some html or java but don’t use it at work because web development is outsourced. Offer to help with support and development – you never know where it may lead.
  • Outside agencies attempt to alleviate the problems or at least, reduce the effects – In the business world, the government(s) is responsible for tackling the recession. They do this in a number of ways. Currently, interest rates are extremely low. If you have a mortgage that’s not on a fixed rate, overpay your monthly payments. You will be pleasantly surprized how this affects the length of your mortgage term. If you are on a fixed rate mortgage, check out how much you will pay in redemption fees to move to a Tracker mortgage. This may be worth your while.
    And haggle! If you’re buying something over and above the usual weekly shopping, ask for a deal. You’ll often get something off the price – it all helps!

There are many survival lessons to be learned from the natural world and a whole lot more that apply in our world. The most important lesson of all is that in YOUR life, it’s up to YOU – Nobody’s going to do it for you!

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6 thoughts on “Recession Survival – Lessons From Nature”

  1. This works as a way of thinking at a high level, but aren’t the stakes very different? Nature is dealing with true survival and from instinct – I don’t think organizations have an instinct other than culture, and most organizations wouldn’t describe their culture as survivalist

  2. Simon,

    Great post, as always. I especially like that most of the suggestions speak to personal excellence, which I am a fan of. Working “above your payscale” is a wonderful way of phrasing it. It’s not guarantee, but consistently going above and beyond is the hallmark of a great employee (read: an employee that stays employed).

    @Asif – you have a valid point, and I would suggest that organizations may have more instinct than we give them credit for. They are run by humans after all, and I’ve been party to a number of executive decisions that have been made just as much by instinct than facts.

    1. simonstapleton

      Hi Dave! Nice to hear from you again. (Guys, if you haven’t been to Dave’s website about entrepreneurialism then you must take a look:

      Firstly, I can’t take the credit for writing this piece ( although I will for choosing to publish it… 🙂 ) – it was written by my new friend Rob Horlock (you can see Rob’s work about efficiency in the workplace at

      Nevertheless, you hit upon my fave point in Rob’s article – working above payscale. This takes courage and confidence, and it doesn’t always pay off, but this isn’t a reason not to do it. Everyone should feel they can choose to empower themself to do this. It involves Assuming Authority when you haven’t been asked to. It also involves building the belief that you can always progress from your current level if you’re prepared to put the effort in and take a chance.

      Thanks for commenting against Asif’s point (hi Asif!). Belief in your assertion will be reinforced (or not) from experience. I’ve worked for organizations that make decisions frequently from instinct. And then again I’ve worked for other organizations that are highly ordered and rational, using instinct to only seed a decision. I enjoy the more instinctive environments – they’re much more fun – but only when they allow room for risk and mistakes to happen. When heavy penalties follow a mistake borne of an instinctive decision, instinct is soon quashed! The highly ordered organizations (which tend to be the bigger organizations) are dull by comparison.

      Thanks Dave!!

  3. Good point on the experience issue. We all tend to get so focused on our own experiences that we forget there are lots of other models out there happening.

    It does feel though like maybe we’re talking about two different cultural characteristics: risk-taking and personal instinct.

    When I talk about executive decision making based on instinct, I mean more of the “trust my gut” type of decision.

    What you were talking about sounded more like an organization that has made room for organizational risk-taking. Definitely some overlap between the two, but maybe two distinct characteristics?

    Good conversation.

  4. A little late to the game, but a very interesting comparison. Plus, we like the name Simon 🙂

    Our company lives in the realm of survival, so I see a lot of similarities as well – especially as it relates to being prepared. The recession has made us all assess our level of preparation. You must think on your feet, but have the resources to draw from in an emergency situation.

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