Nature has a thing or two to show us when it comes to working better. Them Big Oak Trees founder Mark Sears took on the tough job of telling business and individuals to disconnect everything and get out into the wild. He tells us how it pays off.
Sears regularly takes himself into the wilderness when he needs to think better. He’s always done it, finding that his time in the corporate world took him too far away from it. Sometimes he takes business people out in to the wilderness, too. He wants them to be inspired to shake up the way they do things by getting out there and reconnecting with nature.
“We want to explore what might happen if business went feral, embraced wildness and tackled its nature deficit disorder. We want to learn what might happen if we started to unlock new approaches to innovation and re-imagined how we might thrive in a world of uncertainty and constant change. We want to step outside of the boardroom to test new ideas and thinking away from the constraints of our everyday lives.”
Sears is passionate about the wild but also about challenger brands, companies that want to shake things up and work differently. As part of the first batch of environmental scientists to graduate in the late 90s, the job market didn’t have a degree-related post to offer him so he set about finding work where he could: answering customer complaint calls at the newly rebranded Virgin Trains.
He soon stepped into branding, taking on the daunting task of creating harmony in identity across the sprawling Virgin Group. But his love of nature burned through.
“We were due to do a big launch of Virgin mobile in France and at the last minute I cancelled my flight and drove to Rannoch Moor in Scotland, as far as you could get from humanity. When I returned to my desk at Virgin I was told I had made a career-limiting move. It was time for me to leave.”
That was two years ago. The result? He introduced his environmental scientist side to his inner entrepreneur.
“The genesis of Them Big Oak Trees is the idea that trees in woodland share a root system. When one tree is nutritionally deprived the other trees share nutrients to ensure the whole system remains healthy. I guess it dawned on me that this is a brilliantly collaborative and innovative way of working. These trees have many of the answers.
“With creativity in particular I have this view that in so many organisations people are so incredibly diarised, you can’t get into their diaries for weeks and weeks and weeks and it’s how I was at Virgin. Then somebody says we need to have an innovation session a week on Tuesday and you all need to bring your best ideas. So I started asking people where they had their best ideas and, apart from in the shower, all the answers were outdoors. I have my best ideas on the South Downs or in the sea.”
Persuading business people to get away from their desks and experience the wild is tough. Suits can be skeptical of ‘outdoor’ activity, which is at risk of being lumped in with hippy, alternative experiences.
Says Sears: “It’s still a work in progress convincing large and small organisations that this is right. I have to say it’s not an easy sell. I’m fighting quite a lot of the zeitgeists. It’s not anti tech but it could be seen as that by saying we are going to turn all of that off. It’s counter cultural.”
The transition is gradual. Natural, you might say.
“When we start, people tell me they will need to check their emails and phones in the breaks and you go with it. What you do find is that people very quickly lose the need for that.”
This is a wake-up call for many, similar to measuring your ‘time to screen’ each morning. How long is it before you check you phone, emails, messages after you wake up in the morning?
The companies who already know they need help tend to have stumbled on their purpose. Them Big Oak Tress helps these companies ask themselves the defining questions: how do we take a bigger picture view, how do we step back from the nitty gritty of trying to run things? Why do we do what we do?
Them Big Oak Trees has two man methods of working: Fieldwork, where companies are taken out to the woods or hills to explore a five-branch model of how to shake up their working, and Wild Camp (pictured below, with Sears on the right), where individuals and creative minds in particular sign up for a camping experience – they disconnect to reconnect, to reignite their creativity.
Making the step out of the office to let nature inspire can be a transformative experience. Sears remembers: “I took a relatively small IT company to an outdoor classroom on the south downs. Their excitement was like being on a school trip. When they arrived they were slightly on edge and didn’t know what was expected of them and they had a sense of ‘are we really allowed a day out of the office for this?’ Then they realised they could work here, they could do normal stuff in a different environment.”
Tables, chairs (if you’re lucky), a flip chart and an open fire in natural surroundings. It’s simple stuff, just far removed from the norm. The results he sees far outweigh the slog in convincing clients of its value.
“You get this reaction ‘Isn’t it just tree hugging?’ And no, it’s not. I might hug trees but it’s definitely not part of the pitch. You can use nature to transform a business by using it to see things differently.”