Strategy lessons from the Serengeti

Cheetahs, hyenas, and warthogs are among today's global strategy experts. Here's how their insights can apply to your business.
Strategy lessons from the Serengeti

The animals of the Serengeti have been honing their survival strategies for ages. Their habitat is constantly shifting, and there is much we can learn from them about resilience and adaptability, essential qualities in today's rapidly changing business environment.

Here are three of these wild strategists and the lessons they can teach us about business.

The cheetah

Cheetahs are built for speed and can run almost 70 mph (113 km/h), giving them an impressive chase-to-kill ratio. The cheetah teaches us that sacrifices have to be made for rapidity.

Their light musculoskeletal structure means other predators, such as the hyena, can push cheetahs off the kill and enjoy the feast themselves. Even so, the cheetah will make its kill and eat what it can before the hyenas get there, knowing that it can move on and make another kill.

In business terms, that's the mindset of the entrepreneur — accept that others will come into the market, and you've got to move faster than they do.

If you want to get a new idea to market quickly, you cannot do it with the cumbersome infrastructure that many large organisations have. Each layer of hierarchical decision-making adds a layer of delay. Just as a cheetah might be happy to make the kill and move on, don't be afraid to abandon ideas that don't work.

Cheetah-like entrepreneurs get inspiration for new products from all kinds of sources, including their frustrations with existing products that don't meet their needs or expectations. Finance professionals should treasure such frustrations as they can lead to improvements. Make a note of any processes that really annoy you, and resolve to do something about them.

The hyena

Although they are successful predators in their own right, hyenas not only benefit from the efforts of other predators, but also from what they have rejected. Hyenas eat every part of an animal except its hooves and horns. Whereas most other animals discard the bones of their prey, hyenas get nutrients from them. To enable them to do this, a hyena's jaw is among the strongest in the animal kingdom.

In business terms, hyenas scan the horizon to see what cheetah organisations are doing. They keep tabs on innovative ideas and learn from the mistakes of first movers. Far from being a first mover, Google was at least the 21st search engine to be launched, and had learnt from observing its predecessors.

As well as looking at what the cheetahs are doing, look at what they are leaving behind. Where are the bones? For example, in the product development process, a scientist at 3M produced a very weak adhesive that was rejected as unfit for the intended purpose. Its advantage was that it didn't leave a residue. This seemingly superfluous property gave another 3M employee, Art Fry, the solution to a problem. As a church organist, he had often wondered how to mark pages in his hymnbook without damaging the pages. The rejected weak adhesive led to the birth of the Post-it note.

The warthog

Warthogs are natural risk managers. Aware that they taste nice and that plenty of predators want to eat them, they diligently prepare for that threat.

A sounder of warthogs digs several burrows all around their territory, and all of them know the locations of the burrows. When a predator such as a lion or a leopard comes prowling, all of the warthogs head for the safety of the burrow. The last one reverses into the burrow, leaving predators to deal with sharp tusks and teeth.

The lesson the warthog teaches us is to prepare in advance. Don't wait for a threat, such as a recession or an increase in raw materials prices, to materialise. By then it's too late to create a sound response plan. Ask, for instance, what the signs of a slowdown are in your sector. In the construction trade, fit-out companies generally start work on a development site 18 months after the demolition crews have been there. If you see signs that demolition work is drying up, fit-out work will be hit in 18 months' time, so create a plan for tackling that eventuality now.

When developing a strategy for your business, keep it simple and easy to understand, and communicate it widely throughout the organisation. A strategy should always be flexible. One common mistake businesses make is failing to monitor the strategy and assess whether it is achieving the desired results.

Evaluating the progress being made should be a major part of board meetings.

Stephen Berry ( is an executive coach who draws on his background as a CFO and international MBA lecturer to advise companies. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Samantha White, an FM magazine senior editor, at