by Peter B. Nichol

Darwinian insights on innovation and competition

Jan 20, 2017
IDG EventsInnovationIT Leadership

Variation, selection and competition are the challenges of navigating today's digital ecosystem of value. Identify the struggle between individuals and competitors to discover tomorrow's game-changers. Innovation is the modern struggle for existence. Will your organization survive?

Consumers buy your products, services and interactions for reliability. Partners sought your alignment for greater stability. Employees joined your company for predictable results. Disruptive innovation can be identified when best practices no longer produce predictable results. Our modern knowledge-intensive economy depends on organizational capabilities. Is your organization having trouble identifying why the margin is eroding? Disruption in disguise may be the answer.

Struggle for existence

Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species is unquestionably one of the greatest works in human intellectual history. In this seminal book, Darwin develops the argument of why the theory of special selection is incorrect and why the theory of natural selection is more favorable. Eventually, reputable scientists arrived to acknowledge that evolution, the transformation of species over time, had in fact occurred. Darwin elaborated that variance is not an anomaly but rather an inevitable result of orchestrated processes. Causes of variability and the difficulty in distinguishing between varieties and species were not only challenges for Darwin. Today, a complex ecosystem of offerings makes the identification of value-based innovations difficult to delineate in markets with multiple offerings.

Buried under the struggle for existence, many innovators incorrectly assume that natural selection requires competition among individuals. Darwin defines this struggle not between individuals as competitors but in a metaphorical sense where predation, parasitism or environmental conditions dictate a new struggle. Natural selection eliminates competition. All modern innovation organizations should pay attention to lessons of selection in the struggle for existence — a modern struggle for variability through innovation and predictable results. Industries are looking less to their neighbors and more toward unrelated industries for innovation insights. You’re not competing with your business neighbor.

Natural selection redefining the rules

Industry leaders are searching to discover tomorrow’s game-changers. Will a new technology improve efficiency? Is the current business model changing? How do we compete tomorrow in this explosive sharing economy? There are multiple methods to ensure corporate survival. The accepted method favors players that evolve and adapt. The winners define new rules and establish new games.

This year will unlock opportunities — ones that were not afforded last year. The dawning of the new year also will bring challenges previously unseen. Start with these questions before you set your organizational agenda.

  1. Is your organization creating and capturing value?
  2. Does your organization not only find the right strategies but make good decisions when selecting future strategies?
  3. Is your organization in competition or cooperation? For example, is your organization building walls for the competition or establishing relationships with unlikely allies?
  4. Are you playing an old game, or are you redefining a new game?
  5. Has your organization clearly identified complimentors (the situation in which customers and suppliers play symmetric roles)?

Natural selection may preserve favorable variations and reject injurious variations. Like the natural selection of animals, all inferior businesses are not immediately destroyed; they evolve out of existence. Darwin suggestedthat natural selection is “the daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, [of] every variation, even the slightest, rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good.” Isn’t this happening in business — every hour of every day? The change we experience in business is natural selection. Consider the value your organization adds, as environmental conditions change. Is your organization evolving out of existence?

The evolution of disruption

Several mistletoe plants growing on the same branch of a host tree may struggle for existence. It might be truer that the struggle for existence is not against the thousands of seeds of the same kind, or against other fruit-bearing plants, but against any attempt to devour the seeds and thus prevent dissemination. Disruption is not an event; it’s evolution, a transformation of convenience. Aspects of your business are transforming as did cloud computing, consumerism and mobile — focus beyond the seeds of your company and observe the broader struggle for existence.