Biodiversity, periodic disturbances and our creativity

In the 1950s, Biologist Joseph Connell ventured from California to Australia to understand what causes the biodiversity in coral reefs and rainforests. In particular, he wanted to understand why some landscapes exhibited vast biodiversity, with hundreds of species living side by side, while other landscapes only a few miles away exhibited homogeneity, with a few species dominating.

It seemed as if nature’s creative capacities depended on some kind of periodic disturbance  –  like a tree fall or an occasional storm  – that temporarily upset the natural environment. But, the disturbance couldn’t be too small or too big. It had to be just the right size. ‘Intermediate disturbances are critical,’ said Connell to Charles Duhigg when he interviewed him for his book “Smarter, Faster, Better.”

Within biology, this has become known as the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, which holds that ‘local species diversity is maximized when ecological disturbance is neither too rare nor too frequent.’”

This has lots of interesting parallels. For example, during the ideation process at Disney/Pixar, they make sure they create small disturbances within the team (e.g. changing the team leader) when there’s a feeling that everyone is stuck. Similarly, brainstorming sessions work well when you change things up a bit – move to a different location, use a different format, etc.

There’s a wonderful life lesson in here as well – a little bit of disruption every once a while keeps us fresh and creative. So, if you’re not looking forward to an upcoming disruption of your usual weekly or weekend routine, just remember that it is likely better in the long run.