“It is not the strongest of the species that survives,
not the most intelligent that survives.
It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

― Charles Darwin

Darwin was mostly concerned about the origin and survival of species. We are species and our organizations – businesses particularly – are likely subject to Darwin’s survival observations. If so, what does this mean in practice?

Not the strongest

By “strongest”, we generally refer to the biggest – those businesses with enough size and diversity to weather pretty much anything that comes along. Relying upon strength alone, or even primarily, tends to encourage organizational stasis. Resistance to significant change. Why change when what you are doing seems to be working quite well, thank you. Until it doesn’t …

Every business, and organism generally, has a certain range of environments for which it is best fitted and can most easily survive. But when the environment moves beyond this range, and especially if it becomes uncertain and unpredictable as well, the “strongest” often hit the wall.

Just look at the number of failures of major retailers so far in 2020. RetailDive lists 27 major retailers filing for bankruptcy through early September, compared with 17 major failures in all of 2019. Even though “strongest” and “biggest” may differ quite a bit in detail, the death-count is much too high to include only weaker big firms. At one point in their existence, virtually all would have been strong.

Not the most intelligent but definitely strongest

Not the most intelligent

Much to the great distress of academia, smarts don’t do any better – and probably much worse – when it comes to survival during big change. There may be no organizations on earth as hidebound and change-resistant as academia generally. No shortage of intelligence, or so they claim, but this very “strength” often blinds a person to what is actually happening out there in reality. Tenure especially breeds fatal complacency when big changes occur.

There are of course many highly intelligent people in business, government, and professions but Darwin’s observation can apply here as well. Being smart is a major contributor to success. Otherwise, it’s all just hard work and toughness.

Academia unfortunately seems to be becoming the poster child for an inability to address the recent changes effectively. The “re-opening” of schools and campuses appears to be heading into a complete disaster. Such an outcome would cause many to fail and to flood the job markets with highly intelligent but fatally rigid faculty and teachers. Administrators also.

So, here we are: Strongest doesn’t work reliably. Smartest seems to be proving equally bad. What’s left?

Most intelligent

The one most adaptable to change

Darwin nailed it exactly. Big changes require big (and smart) adaptations. You have to be nimble, creative, and tough in most cases to survive and even thrive. Adaptation is all about effective, timely change.

You may argue that businesses also have limits to their ability to change. Very true. The changes may simply overwhelm the imagination and energy of managers and key people. How does this fit into Darwin’s dictum?

Inability to adapt may arise from structural conditions such as being maxed out in terms of financial extensions. Long-term contracts may also limit the ability to adapt quickly enough to matter.

Unwillingness to adapt is largely behavioral. It is rigidity. You may be able to adapt in theory but you may not be willing to do what it takes to actually change. Sometimes the unwillingness is forced into the background by desperate circumstances. Being forced to change is not often successful in terms of outcomes.

Apple is probably the poster child for successful adaptation to fast-changing consumer markets. Starting as a small business making user-friendly computers that appealed strongly to design professionals, it created desktop publishing but then nearly died until Steve Jobs came back and led development of the now-iconic iPhone. Creative adaptation first to survive and then to massively thrive.

Most adaptable – Apple

The world always changes but just not this much and fast

Change is part of life in virtually every aspect. We all deal with change daily. So the problem may be more one of change magnitude and rapidity that reaches the limits of our effective ability or willingness to adapt. Inside these limits, which are of course different for everybody, we mostly adapt successfully. Relatively few people have such strong but narrow ranges of adaptability that virtually any change is too much.

Put another way, we all have limits to our ability and willingness to adapt. We adapt within these limits but struggle as the world moves beyond them.

Today’s changes are way outside most of our adaptability ranges

Even if we understand that successful adaptation to whatever may be happening is critical in a Darwinian sense, this does not mean that many of us are actually able to adapt beyond our limits. So, are most of us doomed to the whims of luck, destiny, or fate?

The good news is that our ability to adapt in practice is often limited by internal, self-imposed constraints rather than anything external and actual. Adapting is usually difficult, painful, and just plain nasty. Definitely something to avoid if possible. Avoidance today may well be fatal.

Most businesses are going to be forced to adapt to whatever may be happening beneath what we can see and understand.

Collaborate and Improvise

Darwin wasn’t finished on advising us from his mid-1800’s perspective:

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

— Charles Darwin

Here, he seems to elaborate a bit on the “adapt is what works best for survival”. The key seems to be a combination of collaboration and improvisation. When you think about the practical mechanics of adapting, these two are probably right on target.

Collaboration brings several minds into the effort. This seems to be so important since almost no one person can figure out what might actually be going on or what might we do about it.

Improvisation – creativity, innovation – can be done by individuals but, having worked with many groups over the years, the best practical ideas mostly seem to flow from a group. It was a considerable surprise to me that some truly valuable and creative ideas developed from group interactions.

This might have been due to the much greater range of knowledge, experience, and insight available from the group. Some quite lame starting ideas from an individual were often fleshed out and refined by the back-and-forth discussion. Outcomes that I saw were routinely better than any one of us could have generated alone.

I especially like the “improvisation” term over “creativity” since the latter is in my mind a product of individual thought. We improvise to reconcile a diversity of ideas. Starting points are readily transformed into very practical and even powerful solutions and approaches.

Collaborative processes are also helpful in breaking down unwillingness to adapt among group members. This may result from the insights of others that are able to remove some of the internal reluctances.

Darwin’s great insights still apply

Pretty clearly, survival of the fittest, as Herbert Spencer termed Darwin’s theories are still fully operative. “Fittest” needs to be understood in terms of “most adaptable”, which in turn requires further definition into “collaboration and improvisation”.

Doing business-as-usual (BAU) is truly dead, assuming that it was ever actually alive. Change is with us forever, sometimes big and mostly not-so-big. BAU in practice means that we tend to stick with what works (or worked so far) until at some very inconvenient point, it just doesn’t.

Applied to scientific theories by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 who introduced the term “paradigm shift”, this occurs when there has been a profound change in how we understand and respond (our current paradigm) to situations. What gets broken is not so much the world but the applicability of how we think about it and develop appropriate actions. Our paradigm works until it doesn’t.

Paradigm shift is adaptation

Management practices embody a particular way of understanding and responding to an always-changing business world. Each business does this somewhat differently but there is a common core set of practices that constitutes each one’s paradigm. When this core paradigm no longer works, it must adapt.

Successful adaptation is nearly always difficult. There is no rule book to guide us despite the thousands of consultants and business gurus who make a living claiming otherwise. What works is highly specific to each business. What works is also highly dependent on the current business situation.

Formulaic approaches are often predestined to fail unless they fortunately fit both the specific business and its specific current situation. Most successes that I have seen are sharply and expertly tailored to the business. These are different for each business.

So, what to do to adapt without going through a Darwin process of failing in order to succeed? Going through some series of failures may well prove fatal.

Experiment to adapt

This nostrum will not surprise most business folks. They typically pilot new approaches and often use several parallel tests to discover what actually works best in practice. This is a true Darwinian process that involves killing off a bunch of weak adaptations before any serious harm can be done. The business itself survives.

The most innovative businesses experiment constantly – to the point that it becomes a core business practice. Failed approaches are treated as valuable lessons. They experiment to learn.

Business experiments are often designed more to gain knowledge than to actually develop a new business. The new business evolves from the results of some number of “failures” (learning experiences) and a few good outcomes.

Adaptation is achieved by changing continuously. Many small steps.

The big “gambles” are often grounded in learning from years of trying different approaches on small scales. These are in fact adaptation in which the essential learning steps are often forgotten.

You don’t have to know in detail what is going on in your business environment but only in enough detail to know what seems to work. Why it works may never be fully understood.

Acting to learn is a powerful business practice, especially in times of great change and uncertainty. What you learn is less about grand causes and processes and more about the specific impact of your own series of learning actions.

Bottom line:

Darwin had it right. Survival goes to those best able to adapt in whatever business conditions are present at any time. Your learn what works by a continuous process of testing. Failures are part of learning so long as they are of small scope.

Charles Darwin was an English naturalist, geologist, and biologist who lived between 1809 and 1882. He was best known for his contributions to the science of evolution, particularly with his seminal book On the Origin of Species (1859). For more information, see Wikipedia.

Charles Darwin

Entrepreneur magazine has a short but thought-provoking article on how “Innovation Is the Key To Survival In the #NewNormal“. There is a nice quote that offers a specific viewpoint on all of this:

Against this backdrop, conglomerates faced massive challenges to sustain, survive and adapt to the new world order. Many among them paused operations or invoked their business continuity plans. But those who managed to stay afloat, despite the sectoral doldrums, created a niche for themselves, by switching to digital-based models. They not only sustained but are now flourishing as operations and logistics ease around the world. “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward,” said Martin Luther King Jr., and is very today. 

Consultant McKinsey & Company in their article “The future is not what it used to be: Thoughts on the shape of the next normal” echo our key point that the future – the New Normal – will be very different from the past:

“For some organizations, near-term survival is the only agenda item. Others are peering through the fog of uncertainty, thinking about how to position themselves once the crisis has passed and things return to normal. The question is, ‘What will normal look like?’ While no one can say how long the crisis will last, what we find on the other side will not look like the normal of recent years. It is impossible to know what will happen. But it is possible to consider the lessons of the past, both distant and recent, and on that basis, to think constructively about the future.”

MIT’s Sloan Management Review affirms our view that anything “normal” will be a long way off: “A Long Time Until the Economic New Normal“. They offer four reasons for seeing a “long time”:

“But individuals and organizations must keep in mind that this view, as optimistic as it seems in the short term, is a potentially dangerous one when it comes to long-term planning, for four reasons. The first is that it overlooks the negative impacts on consumer sentiment and spending, which are likely to persist for many months, if not years. Second, the recent trend of governments trying to tilt the scales of the gig economy more toward worker rights is likely to continue in the coming months and years. Third, large segments of the economy are likely to be permanently disrupted as a result of the coronavirus’s impact on the travel, retail, and entertainment industries, among many others, requiring capital and labor to shift into new areas of economic activity on a massive scale. Finally, the industries that survive the downturn, including those that are vital to our economic system, will face a long period of adjustment to working and interacting virtually rather than face to face. In addition, industries and companies will have to prepare for future pandemics by building redundancies into their operations and supply chains — initiatives that will take years to develop and optimize.”