The Management Intelligence of the Octopus

A committed omnivore, I took octopus off my personal menu more than 10 years ago. It’s not that the weird, eight-armed critters are endangered; they aren’t. It’s because they are so darn smart—scary smart—that I would feel guilty continuing to eat them (although they are delicious cooked many ways).

While waiting for the weather to clear at a dive center of Hornby Island in British Columbia in 2001, I saw a video on the octopus (there are many now available on YouTube) that demonstrated that the lowly cephalopods not only can escape from their tanks in remarkable ways but can make tools and even evidence a sense of humor. They seem to be amused when they return to their tanks after sorties around the lab and their human handlers are perplexed by the clues the octopi have left behind. Perhaps I am anthropomorphizing. Perhaps not.

Now, it turns out we humans can learn many things from the amazing octopus, and some of those things are useful in management. I’ve just finished reading Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Helps Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease (Basic Books, 2012). Written by University of Arizona marine biologist Rafe Sagarin, the book uses the octopus to examine issues related to human existence, including adaptation, organization, and cooperation. Sagarin writes:

If you want to learn about security and adaptability from nature, I can think of no better place to start than to stare into the eye of an octopus.

Octopuses learn not only how to survive but how to thrive in almost any environment. Even in the barren, isolated tanks of a marine biology lab, colleagues have discovered octopuses escaping from their chambers and braving the dry air to scamper across a lab bench and find a snack in a nearby tank before returning to their own. But this portrayal reveals only part of the octopus’s success. With its soft meaty body, the octopus is an attractive target for predators. So it constructs a protective den in the rocks, sometimes with a peephole for its keen eyes to peer out from. If good rocky crevices aren’t available, it will learn to use whatever is around it—a shell, an old crate, or the champagne bottle tossed decades ago from my adviser’s shipboard wedding just offshore from the Hopkins Marine Laboratory in Pacific Grove, Calif.

The main point that Sagarin makes is that, despite the surface differences, octopi and mankind are all animals at the core, confronting many of the same problems as we walk or swim through life. As Sagarin says, “Under our hoods is the same DNA engine that powers most life forms. We may have neat flame decals and a clever dashboard GPS system, but we’re essentially the same type of vehicle weaving through traffic (and occasionally driving right over it) on the road of life.”

Octopi don’t hold elaborate planning meetings among themselves. They don’t attempt to predict the future or analyze what has happened in the past. Yet they not only survive, but thrive. This paradigm is useful for humans. Sagarin writes, “The major threats society faces today are ominous and complex interplays of human behavior and environmental change, global politics and local acts of cruelty or carelessness, historical accidents and long-simmering tensions. Some of these threats have plagued us as long as we have been human, and yet we’ve still made little progress against them; others are becoming more dangerous in synergy with rapid climatic and political changes; and still others are just now emerging. Yet the responses we have been offered or forced to accept by the experts we’ve trusted to solve these problems often seem frustratingly ineffective, naïve, or just plain ridiculous.”

He adds, “Life on Earth has a lot to show us about how to create more adaptable systems than these, but with the doors to this vast pool of expertise on adaptability blown open, a daunting new question emerges: Where to begin?  If you want to learn about security and adaptability from nature, I can think of no better place to start than to stare into the eye of an octopus.”

To survive and thrive, all organisms must adapt to the conditions around them, and no organism seems better at this fundamental task than the octopus. In a 2003 article in Foreign Policy, “Adapt or Die,” ( Sagarin offered several things to keep in mind when coping with the unpredictable stuff life and work throws at us.

Form good relationships. Symbiotic relationships can take a multitude of forms,” Sagarin writes. Clown fish live among anemone tentacles, bioluminescent bacteria live in the guts of big fish, and octopi live with marine biologists, even as they make fun of their keepers.

Never stop adapting. Biological organisms constantly change in response to new environmental threats. That’s the key to drug-resistant insects and diseases, making malaria control an ever-changing battle. On a practical level, Sagarin notes, “Screening in identical fashion the cars that enter a military base every day presents an unchanging target, making it easier for terrorists to launch a successful strike.”

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. This hoary advice may not resonate in today’s urban world as much as it did in an agrarian past, but it still makes sense. “An organism that puts all its energy into acquiring mates may be woefully unprepared for an attack by a skilled enemy,” says Sagarin. “A male peacock with his feathers fully extended might set female hearts fluttering, but the flashy display also leaves him dangerously exposed.”

Be redundant. This is a lesson the power industry should not need to learn. Redundancy is one of the keys to reliability, so don’t downplay the “department of redundancy department.” Just ask Washington, D.C.’s electric company, Pepco, what the price of a lack of redundancy can be.

Be flexible. Sagarin takes a well-earned shot at government here, targeting the Department of Homeland Security, a bipartisan response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S. “Putting homeland security in the hands of a massive, plodding bureaucracy hardly represents evolutionary advancement,” he writes.

Sagarin concludes his book by observing that “even a partial understanding of biology yields surprising insights, especially in an era when we’ve largely forgotten about nature’s power to expand our minds.” But nature’s lessons for our lives in and out of the job site “are still free for the taking, completely open source and unclassified. It’s time to feel the cactus spine, listen to the marmot’s shrill call, and stare deep into the eye of an octopus.”

—Kennedy Maize (@kennedymaize) is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor.

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