by Adam L. Stanley

Do IT like Darwin

Sep 01, 2017
CIOInnovationIT Leadership

What’s Darwin going to teach us about business in 2017?rn

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. –Charles Darwin (misattributed)

So it turns out most people think that Darwin never really wrote this or said it, though if you read his other works it clearly seems to fit within the realm of his general thinking.[1]

What’s Darwin going to teach us about business in 2017?

Darwin died in 1882. He was deceased before the Wright Brothers, Henry Ford, and some of the initial titans of industry came along with their landmark inventions. And yet, if you read Darwin’s writings and follow his broader patterns of thinking, there are a lot of lessons you could adopt for business in a very different time.

Adaptability is a misunderstood term

Adaptability is very important to the human condition, yes, but it’s misunderstood in a broader business context because of how we associate it with the word “agile.” A lot — A LOT! — is written about agile these days. True fact you need to embrace: absolutely no one in your business units cares about “agile methodology.” This is what they care about: how do you aggregate demand, prototype rapidly to meet that demand, and make sure you are always determining what your clients need? No one cares if you’re adaptable, agile, waterfall, or straight 1950s hierarchy style. They care about whether you’re doing those three things and generating revenue as a result.

Don’t be a wuss

I’ve seen so many CIOs just take orders in meetings. They don’t get that “seat at the table.” Technology should absolutely be driving the innovation process in companies right now, not (a) enabling it or (b) restricting it, with path (b) being all too common. Step up and say what your side of the house can do. You may be in a room of legacy thinkers who won’t get it, so make them get it. It’ll take more than one meeting or interaction, but so much money (savings/generated) is on the table, it needs to click.

The paradox of becoming obsolete

Andy Grove, a founder of Intel, used to say that you know someone is a good manager when they make themselves obsolete in the role. (It’s true if you think about it, but that’s not what this post is about.) The same concept goes for processes. If you love the system you built like a first-born child, that’s great. It’s now time to make it obsolete. If you don’t find the holes, break it down, and build it better — someone external to your company will. That’s when the crap truly hits the fan. Figure out how to kill your systems, then build a version you’ll love even more. (And then kill that one.)

Be Archer

I love Archer. Whenever he talks about “the danger zone,” I laugh out loud. Why? Because I’d much rather talk about “the danger zone” at work than have another presentation about agile methodology. You need to live on the edge a little bit. Not in terms of professionalism — keep it real there — but in terms of, don’t stop being scared. Fear drives a lot of business, so fly that plane right into the danger zone and see how you come out of it.

Find your meerkat sentries

To look out for predators, one or more meerkats stand guard completely still. They keep watch, ready to warn others of approaching dangers. When a predator is spotted, the meerkat performing as sentry gives a warning sound, and everyone splits. When you build out the right team, they help you survive the bad times — and if you permit naysayers (you should), they will even bring up the threats before you see them. You need more meerkats.

Big doesn’t mean best

An elephant can dance but it is hard as hell to do so and there can be tons of collateral damage. The reality is the biggest players in most industries stifle competition — and thus stifle innovation. The meteoric or volcanic activity that ended Tyrannosaurus Rex’s reign opened the door for mammals to rapidly diversify and evolve into newly opened niches.[2] If you are small, be ready to pounce when the big guys start to fall. If you are big, think like a small guy. You know how Instagram beat all the existing photo giants to the digital sharing punch? They asked the right questions, solved the right problems, and had the product ready. What did the big photo companies — who were already developing tech similar to what Instagram was doing — do? They did what they always do: thought like a big company, which means an over-focus on hierarchy and checking boxes instead of solving problems and iterating. The small guy won. The ecosystem changed. It happens all the time. Be ready.

Do it like Darwin

Clearly some disagree with many of Darwin’s principles on evolution and I won’t go there. But that one “quote” of his, really more of a paraphrase, can be highly instructive if applied to your environment. Whether you are a CIO/CTO, a sales and marketing leader, in product design or even Human Resources, you can and should Do It Like Darwin. Adapt. Stand firm. Find your guards. And don’t be a victim of size.

 Be well. Lead On.


[1] ‘According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.’ (Megginson, ‘Lessons from Europe for American Business’, Southwestern Social Science Quarterly (1963) 44(1): 3-13, at p. 4.)