Think:Act Magazine "Digital Darwinism"
Being unique is more important than strength alone
BBC host Kat Arney explains why diversity is critical to survival in the era of Digital Darwinism
by Kat Arney
photos by Matt Farrowz
Evolutionary theory is often misunderstood. Rather than fighting to be the strongest, focus on what makes you unique instead.
In the fast-moving business world "survival of the fittest" is usually assumed to mean that only the strongest, quickest, leanest or meanest companies will succeed. It implies you should survive at all costs. In evolutionary theory, this phrase actually means that organisms which are the best fit for their particular niche are more likely to survive and thrive in a changing world, often favoring quirks and peculiarities over conventional notions of fitness.
As Charles Darwin and his fellow 19th century naturalists combed the world in search of species to study, they built a deep understanding of how each might have come to occupy its branch in the tree of life. Similarly, a more nuanced view of the power and process of evolution holds valuable lessons for companies looking to assert their position and thrive in an ever-changing business environment. It may sound like a cringeworthy cliché for a company to talk about something being in its DNA – whether that's people, ideas, infrastructure or anything else – but it all adds up to a kind of corporate genetic makeup. And where there are genes, there are variations and mutations.
In the same way that we each inherit our own set of genetic idiosyncrasies from our parents, each company is born with its own unique mix of traits. From the personalities and peccadilloes of the founders and the C-suite to the ideas underpinning products or services and geographical location, no two businesses are the same. By way of example, the environmental values and adventurous nature of Patagonia's founders Yvon and Malinda Chouinard are woven deep into the fabric of the outdoor clothing brand, shaping its mission as a business that focuses on sustainability and social responsibility as much as the high-spec properties of its products.
Then there are mutations – the chance events that create new differences. For a company, this could be as simple as stumbling on a great new supplier or the CEO making an unexpectedly useful connection with a fellow passenger on a plane. Perhaps there's a server outage or loss of a key employee just ahead of a major launch. Or something with unknown potential, something from the R&D department which you don't quite understand yet how it might fit in with your business plan. Just as genetic differences drive evolution in the natural world, it's the inherited variations and random mutations that become fuel for adaptation in a rapidly shifting business landscape.
If everybody looks the same, that's fine in a constant environment as there's no pressure to change. But shake things up and a lack of diversity can become critical. For example, global dependence on one type of banana – the bright yellow Cavendish – has left the industry teetering on the brink of collapse as a devastating fungus threatens to wipe out the world's crops. Ironically, exactly the same situation happened in the 1960s with a banana species called Gros Michel, which is virtually extinct today. Growers are now desperately sifting through unfamiliar local varieties in search of resistant alternatives – something that should have happened decades ago.
A business that understands and then embraces its unique characteristics to exploit an emerging niche has a better chance of thriving in the face of change than one that tries to survive by copying everyone else. Actively mapping out the distinctive traits within your organization could reveal key insights about the best direction in which to pivot in changing circumstances. When Twitter first started, nobody could see the point of an SMS-based public messaging service. But as the world became ever more connected, the leadership realized that the platform was uniquely placed to feed a growing hunger for instant information rather than social connection. Other players may have had the idea before – and there are plenty of imitators since – but none had the unique mix of people, technology and timing that Twitter has capitalized on during its rise to online dominance in that niche.
Evolution is exploitative by positively selecting for characteristics that provide a competitive advantage. It's also ruthless in getting rid of unnecessary traits. Cave fish have lost their eyes after millions of years of living in the dark, relying on other senses to survive in a murky habitat. The ancient predecessors of whales swapped out legs for fins after returning to the ocean, while we humans lost our stabilizing prehensile tails when our primate ancestors moved out of their treetop homes an estimated three or four million years ago.
A more recent example comes from stickleback fish living in the predator-packed sea, which are equipped with sharp defensive belly spines attached to a large, bony pelvis. But while these spikes are essential in the dangerous marine environment, they are unnecessary in predator-free inland waters. Their lake-dwelling relatives look almost identical yet have evolved to live without these protective features in just a few thousand years – the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.
Kat Arney is an award-winning science writer and BBC radio host. She has written two books about genetics, "Herding Hemingway’s Cats" and "How to Code a Human".
Equally, there may be features in an organization that seem to be essential – the business equivalent of eyes, legs or tails – but are an unnecessary expenditure of resources, money and effort. The obvious examples are low-cost airlines, which have dispensed with the frills, but other companies also shun conventional views of a successful business in their field. Software company Basecamp, for example, famously ignores the conventional rules of expansive growth in the tech sector, preferring to stay small and nimble instead.
Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species 160 years ago, but his insights are still as relevant for business as for biology in today's changing world. And here's the vital Darwin takeaway you need. It's not to be the fittest. Or to survive at all costs. It is: celebrate your uniqueness, exploit your niche and thrive.
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