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PM Lessons from the Wood Wide Web

by Rich Maltzman: February 26, 2017 05:26 PM | COMMENTS (0) | CATEGORIES: automotive, forest, forest for the trees |

Nope.  That's not a typo.  I'm going to talk about the Wood Wide Web, not the WWW you've come to know online.

In fact, you may never have heard of the Wood Wide Web - perhaps because you haven't been able to see the forest for the trees.

Yep, this blog post is a bit different from the rest.  It’s about lessons we can learn about stakeholders, sustainability, and communications – all key project management concepts – from, of all things, a combination of beagles, fungi, trees, and little critters called springtails.

The inspiration for this post came from Radiolab, my favorite podcast.  If you don’t listen to this podcast and you have even a remote interest in science and/or comedy, you are missing out.

Check it out here: http://www.radiolab.org/series/podcasts/

The particular episode that caught my attention was called “From Tree to Shining Tree”.  The story begins with a beagle (Jigs) that falls into a waste pit while their family is camping.  The beagle happens to belong to Suzanne Simard, a Forestry Professor at the University of British Columbia.  During the rescue, the digging to reach the dog exposed a network of roots of the rainforest (yes, British Columbia has a temperate rainforest!).  This stimulated Susanne to research how trees may share nutrients in this underground network of roots.

The story gets more complicated and intricate when the research indicates that the roots are further intertwined and interconnected by the mycelium (root structure) of fungi – a webwork of threads that looks like a combination of vermicelli and neurons (see photo below) but in which the threads are hollow – meaning that the white lines are actually fine capillary tubes.  These tubes carry nutrients – minerals, for example, between trees – even between different species of trees.

Photo Credit: Nigel Cattlin/Alamy

This is amazing because trees of different species usually compete for sunshine and nutrients.  But here, the trees were collaborating.  The trees were, in fact, healthier when they were mixed rather than homogeneous.

The trees – and this threading - are acting like a giant telecom network, with hubs, represented by the older trees.  This network actually has been given a nickname – the Wood Wide Web.

The fungus that makes up this capillary threads has been associated for eons with plants in a very symbiotic relationship.  The tree gets nutrients from the fungus.  The fungus gets sugar from the trees.  And here’s where it gets weird – almost science-fiction weird.  The fungus gets these minerals from the soil, of course, but also from animals, including, in some cases, live animals – particularly a hexapod called a springtail.  And the fungus has also developed a way to paralyze springtails and draw nitrogen from them.  In some cases, they do this (here’s the sci-fi part) while the springtails are still alive. 

Yeah.  We know.  That’s creepy.  And cruel.

Much of this discovery is new – the relationships between the fungus and the trees, the idea that the nitrogen from springtails was getting into the trees… this is all discovered within only the last few years.

You really should have a look at this TED (see below) talk by none other than beagle-owner Suzanne Simard.

 

The TED talk ends with some very strong messages about ecological sustainability that – of course – are also important to heed.

So what are the messages for project managers?

  1. Sometimes you need a beagle to help you understand an opportunity (or threat)
  2. Apparent competitors can (and should) be collaborators
  3. The behavior of a stakeholder may surprise you (fungus that hunts animals-wow!)
  4. Be aware of Stakeholder interaction.It’s okay to understand your Stakeholders, but it’s better to know that they may be working together in ways you don’t yet understand.
  5. New information becomes available as we go through our project (PMI calls this progressive elaboration)
  6. We can learn a great deal about behavior of teams (communications and stakeholders) from nature

Check out these links for more information on this fascinating natural phenomenon that has great lessons for us as project managers.

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/my-first-radiolab-interview-from-tree-to-shining-tree/

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/root-fungi-can-turn-pine-trees-into-carnivores-8212-or-at-least-accomplices/

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141111-plants-have-a-hidden-internet