The Darwin principle

Darwin observed: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” This profound observation is poorly understood and usually ignored by institutions and organizations.

In the corporate world, neither size nor scope guarantee survival. Profitability is a measure of current success, not a predictor of one’s market share in a year - let alone a decade. Efficiency represents one’s fitness for the current reality, but is ephemeral. Reputations come and go.  Fortune 500 companies are not immune to obsolescence:  Only 71 of the original 500 in 1955 were still on the list in 2008, and  two thirds of the original Fortune 500 (in 1955) companies are now gone. Many of these companies vanished not because of incompetence, but exactly because they followed best practices of the business world. (See Clayton Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation .)

Why is this? To large degree it is because the static world of the 19th Century was replaced first by a world of linear but partially predictable change and then by our current emergent world where change is unpredictable and its pace is breathtaking. Unlike Darwin’s biologic evolution, the results of corporate and social rigidity are easily seen during one’s lifetime. In fact, it takes effort to avoid seeing it. 

The evolutionary model of adaptation that so entranced Darwin (and generated us) is dependent upon a huge number of variations, mostly small, deployed in real world settings and extinguished or selected based on the impact they have on survival. Think of this as pilot projects or tests of concept. It is analogous to what management science calls ‘innovation at the margin’ and stands in stark contrast to central planning and deployment of change (whose evolutionary equivalent is Creationism).

Unfortunately, as organizations grow in size and complexity (and in their sense of self-worth), they increasingly fear failure. They forget that failure is THE key ingredient in innovation, creativity, adaptation and growth. At least 95% of newly introduce products fail, but since it is impossible to predict success, massive failure is necessary in order to get the 5% that are of value. Jeff Immelt commented that when interviewing, he was not interested in hearing about success. He wanted to hear about failures because those who couldn’t discuss their failures had either not tried or had not learned. 

Fear, including fear of failure, serves a purpose. That purpose is not to inhibit experimentation. It shouldn’t (but often does) lead to systems of prolonged debate and planning resulting in a big new change (which rarely works). It should instead motivate us to decide how much to risk and force us to pay attention to our real and potential losses. The trick is clearly to fail often, fail early, and fail cheaply.

I have heard leadership and management object, citing Apple (known for introducing innovative products that Just Work) in support of careful testing before release. These critics understand neither innovation nor Apple. Apple did not create One Big Project and then release it when they developed the iPhone or iPad. They tried thousands of small pieces and bits, each with thousands of variations. Of course, they did this behind one of the most effective walls of secrecy in the modern industrial world, allowing the false impression that the iPad emerged as a product fully formed, almost magically, from a concept and some work by engineers. In fact, these were products of a huge and broad iterative experimentation process. That is what innovation and creativity are. Thedevelopment of human powered flight is a fantastic example. 

The message from Darwin, from MacCready and human powered flight, from Steve Jobs, from Christensen, and from countless others is simple. Don’t be afraid to solution jump. Try as many things as you can - but try them at small scale and with careful observation. Expect lots of failures, but consider these just as important as the successes and learn from them. Find out why they failed and what changes might make a difference. Don’t let leadership and management own (and stifle) the innovation process. Creative innovation is inherently disruptive and cannot start at the center and be distributed outwards. (Note: Christensen draws an important distinction between sustaining and disruptive innovation.) It must start at the margins. The job of management and leadership is to support the margins in their experiments, and maintain a connectivity that lets successful change spread.

As Nike would say: Just Do It.



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