Unnatural Selection For Long Term Business Growth and Innovation

Unnatural Selection - Royal Institution Presentation

Being an innovator in technology and business myself, I focus on product, environmental and system innovations. Recently though I have found myself pulling more and more inspiration from my passion of the natural world, biology and ecological solutions. I have spent a great deal of time researching more about natural history, scientific theory and discoveries to inform my professional decisions. I now firmly believe patterns have formed and have existed for thousands of years  which elegantly solve most if not all the challenges we see in business today and a lot can be applied from this domain to avoid reinventing the wheel so to speak.

Exploring my passion further, over the past few weeks I have had the privilege of seeing Katrina Van Grouw presenting twice celebrating her latest publication release and Darwinian tribute ‘Unnatural Selection – evolution at the hand of man’, which is easily the most beautiful book I own and highly recommend. Her first presentation was at the historic Linnean Society and the second at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, which were apt environments steeped in evolution history and scientific discovery, which drew a combined diverse audience from biologists, zoologists, natural historians to those of a general interest.

During the presentation which covered just some of the findings and arguments proposed in her new book, some key points resonated with me. Challenges that we encounter regularly in innovation whether these are restrictions are due to the inapt structure and form of organisations and systems, or the observable demise of companies subjected to radical environmental changes, are similar to those of the natural world. This is where more attention and learning could be had on how Natural and Unnatural selection as a systemic approach to design could lead to improved outcomes for businesses longevity and prosperity. It may well be that sitting next to us on this unknown journey of prosperity and success are a thousand potential solutions and advantages.

If we consider that products are themselves a consequence of organisational culture and it’s intent to succeed in an a hostile ever changing environment, then objective design could improve our chances of success. By objective design in this context I mean designing the system of business to innovate by many small, but deliberate changes and differences to better survive and succeed in variable environments where change is constant and competitors are somewhat predatory.

Exploring this further I have extracted a few notable arguments which were triggered by Katrina Van Grouw’s book and presentation which I feel resonated with business and technology challenges.

The Fallacy Of Survival Of The Fittest

Katrina passionately challenged the old evolutionary statement of ‘Survival Of The Fittest’, stating this is one of the most grossly inaccurate and misunderstood phrases on the scientific world. Survival in this context simply meaning that one must exist for a period of time and that in itself is not enough to be defined as success. This phrase which is commonly attributed to Darwinian theory, but was first coined by Herbert Spencer in 1864 in his publication of Principles Of Biology in reference to Darwin’s origin of species has certainly done it’s rounds in the business management world.

There is a lot wrong this statement and it’s grossly misunderstood in both the natural world and the world of business. In later editions of Origin of The Species, Darwin linked Natural Selection and Survival Of The Fittest to being “better adapted for the immediate, local environment”, not the common modern meaning of “in the best physical shape”. Similarly in the business world, this dominant definition has been challenged as being archaic and inapt for a globalised economy which has seen many of the largest by definition ‘fittest’ companies fall from grace.

A more apt definition for success over the Survival Of The Fittest was proposed to be  “Reproductive success for individuals best fitted to their environment”. I believe this suggests that continuous evolutionary difference and form, from reproduction which yields the best fitting design for the environment at that given time is a pattern of evolutionary success. In fact this was followed with the bold statement, failure to reproduce to the above is failure itself.

Applying this definition to innovation and business has parallel affect. Organisations with value based offerings such as products and services in exchange for monetary reward are all very temporary when considering the environment is constantly changing. Therefore in order for any organisation to ‘Survive’ which is to continue its existence as an entity, it needs to rapidly change and evolve it’s products and services to best serve to a constantly changing and sometimes aggressively evolving environment. You could therefore apply this definition in an adjacent fashion to the business world to be :

Business Survival or Success is : “Innovation Success for businesses best fitted to their environment”

Spread Betting Design

Exploring the definition of survival success further it’s worth considering such a success also depends upon diversity. If we look at a single pattern or design whether in the natural world or that of business it’s dominance is considered temporary and somewhat dangerous for survival. In business we tend to consider products as the individual Species, but should consider diversity in the portfolio to be more like the Genus.

Consider specialist island species such as the Kiwi, a flightless bird native to New Zealand. These birds which are believe to have ancestors who were able to fly when they first reached the islands, evolved to best fit their environment. With no indigenous ground predators, they were able to lose their wings without consequence and reduce the energy investment in their creation and maintenance, to evolve and improve other senses and traits to succeed. This has worked well for a long period of time until explorers inadvertently and instantly introduced predators such as cats and rats which have now contributed to the it’s vulnerable status today.

Similarly in business the once dominant Kodak met its demise when it failed to react to the environmental change of digital photography having heavily bet the company on film based technologies. If however Kodak had spread it’s portfolio to be more diverse and had an improved propensity to respond to environmental changes in a deliberate and similar fashion to proponents of natural selection, it may have survived. Yes the Species may have died, but the Genus would have survived. Moreover the dying product could have better informed or revealed weaknesses and thus opportunities for its successors.  This brings us back to “Reproductive success for individuals best fitted to their environment” and we could add to this the benefit of reproductive speed.

Unnatural Selection And Innovation

Reflecting on the above, a question arises in the natural world and world of business which is around the hand of Unnatural selection. As with the domestication of animals has seen how potent selective breeding can accelerate evolutionary design traits (especially considering agriculture); creating many derivative traits and therefore new species can improve the chances of success.

As well stated by Katrina Van Grouw, it’s commonly expressed that people believe domestic species are deemed unfit because they wouldn’t survive alone in the wild, but in a world dominated by Man is that a bad thing? It’s far more likely that dogs will outlive wolves as a result so the Unnatural selective process of breeding dogs to better fit this world improves the chance of success for the Genus and Species.

Taking this back to management, by applying some of the conscious practices of unnatural selection in the domestication of species, innovation would be more deliberate and would accelerate design. Moreover if we could depart further from the mythical notion of Survival Of The Fittest.

How Companies Can Benefit From Unnatural Selection

The domestication of species through unnatural selection has without a doubt accelerated the observation of evolutionary design. In some cases such as agriculture and farming much of this design has been deliberate in the sense that selective breeding was aimed to improve certain traits. Such traits to yield more wool or meat has changed the biological properties of a species in many cases forming new species in the process. These traits have protected the species further, resulting in significant human investment to nurture and protect the species for these desired yields.

Conversely if you consider unnatural selection or selective breeding for other needs such as passionate curiosities other than yields, such as those exhibited by pigeon fanciers, these have produced equally accelerated and diverse results. These results have created genetic properties which were not seeked, but when observed have been maintained and exploited further by these keepers and pioneers.

In reflection of the observations above, innovation management can be applied following a similar approach. If we consider that unnatural selection is product development and change, then selective breeders seek properties to improve yields. Companies seek to incrementally or adjacently innovate to improve market share or revenue by applying the same or less effort. Taking existing products and refining areas to improve yield could produce higher value rewards for effort. However, I believe selective breeders don’t structure their approach in such a linear and administrative way that companies do, but do have a goal orientated drive and outcome approach.

Where selective breeding is more exploratory and observational until desired properties are noticed through inheritance such as domestication, corporate innovation could benefit immensely. For instance when Pigeon fanciers observe a new desired physical difference or trait, they attempt to exploit the trait through selective breeding inheritance to exaggerate that trait. How many times in your organisations do you recall observing a potential possitive trait and have the ability to accelerate it across the organisation ? These breeders are highly in tune with these changes and seek differences and presumably consciously and aggressively removing risks from their process and improving positive contributions, including maximising and minimising the environmental impacts. Some similar attempts have been made in the world of Lean management, but are still confined by efficiency benefits alone over potential diversity of new business models, products and services.

The companies of tomorrow are those today which recognise that the key to survival or better put future success is dependent on continuous innovation best fitted to their continuously evolving environment. This realisation could improve their likelihood by accelerating innovation through similar approach observed by Unnatural selection and the Natural selection process. Companies should better proportion investment and efforts in deliberately designing new generations of solutions which will be heavily influenced by natural selection process such as consumer choice and technology trend shifts. They should also significantly seek to diversify portfolios, improve products to expand the range of solutions offered today and invest and train their employees to be highly observant for the potential of new opportunities. When such is observed then be in a position to exploit these observations and quickly as possible.

Just like the Kiwi, where companies bet on a single design although in a stable and dominant environment, they will not be able to react to environmental shifts which are inevitable which could lead to their extinction. The biggest risk of all is to believe that a successful design today is all you need to survive tomorrow. Most species who look similar today to their ancient ancestors have changed significantly, despite appearances. By having a diverse Genus or portfolio, there is an improved chance of future success.

Author Ask : I hope to explore more parallels between the natural world with technology and business. This is one of my first attempts of combining my personal interests in Natural History and professional interests in Business, Technology and Innovation. I would really appreciate feedback to whether you think this post was of interest or not and whether you would like me to explore this route further and found the article useful. Please post comments below.

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