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Lessons in the Mud

27 September 2016

Geof came across the article Elephant (Loxodonta africana) footprints as habitat for aquatic macroinvertebrate communities in Kibale National Park, south-west Uganda, about the role of water-filled African-elephant footprints as micro-habitats, and was fascinated by what he read.

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Why's this a big deal? The footprints create a network of waterholes through Africa's Kibale Forest, allowing smaller species to move from one water source to another. Additionally the footprints act as "a habitat and refuge during dry periods." 

As lead author Wolfram Remmers describes in his article Elephant (Loxodonta africana) footprints as habitat for aquatic macroinvertebrate communities in Kibale National Park, south-west Uganda, "Without elephants, the number of small and stagnant water bodies…would be next to zero. This fact strongly suggests that the aquatic macroinvertebrate fauna depends on water-filled footprints as habitat and as a refuge during dry periods. In forest conservation practice, the elephant should be considered as an important ecosystem engineer, creating habitats for numerous aquatic species, especially from the insect class."

For whatever reason, this is fascinating to me. I like the idea of elephant footprints as microcosms. I've been racking my brain trying to turn this into an allegory for business or leadership. I thought I'd suggest a few and see which you, the reader, thinks are the most interesting.

Metaphor One - Elephant footprint ecosystems as a metaphor for adjacent growth.
The elephant footprints create a network of habitats allowing insects and smaller animals to move across the arid land from one watering hole to another. In this metaphor, the footprints and associated microcosms, represent adjacent growth strategies for an organization. These adjacent growth strategies are the equivalent of incremental innovation in pursuit of transformational innovation. Rare is the organization that can introduce and sustain a transformational innovation to the world. So like the elephant footprints sustaining life between larger watering holes, leaders can create the equivalent habits that allow an organization to explore, launch, and nurture adjacent growth strategies on a path to the next big transformation (or watering hole).

Metaphor Two - The Elephant as the unconscious signaler of organizational culture.
The Elephant is not a benevolent agent stomping around Africa deliberately creating habitats for insects and small animals. Instead he or she is in a selfish pursuit of water, food, and shelter. The footprints, and subsequent habitats, are an unintended consequence to the environment. In this metaphor our elephant is like the leader of an organization unconsciously signaling cultural behaviors in the pursuit of his or her own agenda. The consequences of this pursuit might be positive or negative to the organization and its culture. Regardless, the signals do impact the organization and create small habitats (or subcultures) that operate within a larger environment. The lesson here is being aware of the signals (footprints) you as a leader communicate and the consequences those signals might suggest - intended or unintended. 

Metaphor Three - Footprint microcosms as the mature marketplace.
The researchers observed that over time "species diversity and number of predators such as dragonfly larvae increased with age of the footprints, whilst the number of individuals decreased." Essentially there were more different types of bugs, but fewer of them. So like a maturing marketplace, competition among species (or organizations) will increase with additional entrants competing for finite resources and a declining consumer base. Like a business entering the mature phase in the Sigmoid-curve, the next footprint represents the next opportunity for growth. The lesson here, how can a leader monitor the marketplace and anticipate the next growth opportunity before the mature and decline phases?

Like I said, these are works in progress. I'm enamored by the story and need to continue to work on a decent business or leadership allegory. Take a look at the study (here’s a link) and see what metaphors you might think of - and be sure to share them in the comments section.  


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