The Malevolent Imagination

 Business, ethics, society  Comments Off on The Malevolent Imagination
Mar 072023

Why are good ideas perverted, leaving an ineradicable bad condition?

This is an update to the post only to serve as a pointer to a genuine journalist who is on the same track and published very soon after this was posted. Ezra Klein’s Times piece, “This Changes Everything” (NYT 12/3/23) is well worth the read.

Name one “wonder” technology that wasn’t brought into the world on the crest of great promise of only good things that wasn’t quickly exploited for much less glorious purposes. It’s hard.

Imagination gets perverted

The printing press certainly opened knowledge to the masses, yet it was but a small hop to printed propaganda. Firearms probably were sold as the defensive equalizer, and … (Oh who’s kidding whom: firearms always had only one purpose: maybe noble, even necessary, but rarely “for good.”) What about social media? (cellular) telephony? the Internet itself? All wonders. Or crypto-currency? No, forget it. Again, there is really one purpose and value—and it’s not any sort of societal, human advance.

All were sold based on how they would enhance society or address unscratched itches, blah, blah, blah. To a one, each is non-trivially corrosive. They are technology lye: useful but will eat the skin right from your bones.

Wonders or not, the genie’s out of the bottle. So there’s no point in pretending it could be otherwise. More than that, it would never be otherwise. We are an imaginative and creative species. We will explore, discover, invent, and innovate. All of which will always be sold on the basis of the great good they can do because we are generally an acquisitive and ambitious species.

I’ve been talking to (smart) people about this for a while. What is almost never given adequate attention is the “malevolent imagination.” That is, the highly creative counterpoint to beneficent creativity. It exists. We see examples in every movie, novel, or other story featuring an evil mastermind. Some of us, within the fantasy of the story, admire the way the author has taken what we know as good and turned it to something bad. (It’s like how I admire a good burglar.) Even if it comes dangerously close to the loopier territory of conspiracy and conspiracy theory.

Malevolent imagination is the dark side of creativity
Image by Alvaro Zabala, ArtStation

Why isn’t such innate creative talent put to better use at the birth of these wonderous technologies? Why isn’t there considerably more open evaluation and understanding of new technology exploitation? At the very least it would create a richer appreciation for the technology and its potential—a boon for the innovator and promoter.

More important here, it would identify where caution should be taken and attention paid for the general good. For example, why is it that only with AI have many of the brightest minds come forward to say, “Hey, slow down. This could be really dangerous…?” Were they the only once primed by Terminator 2?

I am in no way suggesting that technology innovation should stop or even be curtailed (mostly). I am saying that there are an awful lot of stupid people that will amplify and push a technology because they are not clever enough to see the hazards. Even more people may see it but, frankly, don’t care because in the short term anyway, it’s valuable (to them).

So it’s incumbent on the relatively few remaining—so vastly outnumbered—to sway the rules of the game to account for these contingencies and risks. Even if they do not succeed in the short run, wouldn’t it be great to be aware of what could happen? What the warning signs might be, and what correctives could be applied? As in everything: forewarned is forearmed.

This thought is about the malevolent imagination. It exists and like the technologies identified, is neither good nor bad. In some circumstances, coupled to a IGNOBLE heart, it lends itself to the “evil mastermind.”

But what of the malevolent imagination attached a NOBLE heart? (It’s probably easier to think of this as partners rather than an individual; though it makes more sense in an individual.) In its most virtuous sense, the noble heart might ensure a dangerous technology were stillborn because of the terrible future the malevolent imagination sketched. Probably that only delays the inevitable. But having bought only some time, the noble heart could prepare countermeasures.

What if Oppenheimer’s later regrets were manifest globally prior to the atomic bomb’s development? More proximately, what if one saw the blindingly obvious eventuality of the attack/defense arms race of cybercrime or how “freedom of speech” becomes license to anonymous libel and extreme incivility in a global town square? Would the Internet or social media never happen? Would that particular path be erased?

Not in the least. But it is possible that we all might have given clearer thought to prophylactic measures viz. cybersecurity or time to take action to ford up civil connection at every level as a vaccine to the coming decadent societal impacts.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do that thing. Fording up social trust, reinvigorating morality or some other ethic may have been the bulwark. It may have worked. It may have had ripple effects. But these are different times.

Still, as a red team or by whatever name you choose, going dark early could be the only way to preserve the light.

If you’re intrigued, there’s plenty more to make you think about creativity and other things in my oeuvre.

Fusing together the greener future

 Climate, Uncategorized  Comments Off on Fusing together the greener future
Dec 132022
So apparently scientists at Lawrence Livermore Lab, in California, managed a fusion reaction that generated net energy–that is, more energy than went into generating the reaction. There was 3.15 megajoules energy output from the 2.05 megajoules that were input by the laser to fuse the atoms. Of course, the laser drew 300 megajoules to initiate the process. Still, it’s an huge development with the potential—in 30-50 years—to provide unlimited, non-carbon energy.

I’m of two minds on this.

On the one hand, I am amazed by the creativity and persistence that led to this. It may be a solution to our carbon-created climate problem. Which leads me to the second hand…

Way more climate change resisters were not denying the problem and maybe not even the unfortunate end-state to which it would inevitably lead than there were denying the situation. (Our focus has mainly been on the deniers. This is, in retrospect stupid because they are idiots.) And this only lends strength to their underlying belief that science will solve the problem. In other words, the vast majority of those opposed to the “climate change movement” were not denying it so much as they were blithely ignoring it because (a) any climate remedying action would negatively impact their economics or comfort or both, and (b) somebody (aka science) would come to the rescue.

My issue with this is that it’s kind of a weak argument and not a guarantee. Maybe this path of fusion energy will help us dodge this bullet. (Maybe. Jury’s still out. And there’s that little unknown about the timing of the solution…) But eventually there will, in fact, be a problem that science will NOT be able to come riding to the rescue like a white night to our civilizational damsel in distress.

“Whom the gods want to destroy, they send 50 years of good luck.” Your mileage may vary.

Red pills and blue pills

 stupidity  Comments Off on Red pills and blue pills
Nov 302022
Something prompted me yesterday to dig into the “red pill” phenomenon that is at the root of just about all social upheaval in (at least) North America. In my imagination, I was going to deconstruct the ridiculousness and inconsistency of those who use this shorthand to justify their antisocial positions. I was going to spend some time considering how it is decontextualized even from the movie universe in which it arose.
It doesn’t matter how much one points out the flaws in raise it–even as shorthand for some kind of awakening and realization–it will remain a useful tool in the hands of idiots.
That was it: “idiots.”
And I moved on to another stream of thought.

Contributing to the cyber security conversation

 Business, Canada, IT Security, politics  Comments Off on Contributing to the cyber security conversation
Oct 162016

My firm, Institute X, responded and provided a paper to the Canadian Government’s Consultation on Cyber Security. It’s a considered white paper that assumes government should do what it’s supposed to do (public safety and security; and support Canadian industry). We suggest that an “unreasonably” high standard for cyber security and directed support toward the Canadian cyber security industry (e.g., national security-protected procurement) will benefit Canada on multiple fronts.

Download it here: institute-x-cyber-security-consultation-submission-oct-2016.

Friends, colleagues, countrymen… do you suppose you could call back?

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on Friends, colleagues, countrymen… do you suppose you could call back?
Sep 092016

Somebody should do a PhD thesis on the (negative) impact, let alone debasement of friendship wrought by social media. It’s impossible not to be right, though it would be restricted to academic circles because everyone who is “social” on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc., would not merely deny it but viciously counter-attack. Still…

Maybe I’m off-put by nostalgic remembrance of how things never actually were. Or worse, perhaps the recognition of how NOT central—Hell, questionably peripheral—I am to my friends and business colleagues is weighing on my meagre self-esteem. In any case, here it is.

Not that long ago I read a few of articles. A couple were in the WaPo and were essentially about why smart people have fewer friends and why if you’re smart you will have fewer friends. I worked the logic backward: I have few friends and I seem relatively happy—at least at the moment, so I must be smart. Awesome. The last article was from HBR. It’s title: You Have Fewer Friends Than You Think. It WAS in keeping with the other two, so I instantly felt satisfied.


I thought about those articles recently, having notice of how many people I know are simply rude. It’s rampant and everywhere. But I was thinking specifically about how few people respond to communication. For instance, the business colleagues—people I was working with and helping—and friends(!) who can’t be bothered to respond to phone calls, emails, and texts. Who detach and go radio silent in the middle of an exchange. It’s outrageous.

Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about people met only in passing or those “friended” or “contacted” in social media. These are people with whom I have a fifteen year of history; people I’m paid to collaborate with to address a client’s needs (and they’re the client!!).

For a long time, even though I personally choose to respond to everyone within a seemly time, rarely more than 24-hours, I cut these people a lot of slack. “Everyone’s really busy…,” “There’s lots of priorities…,” and so on I would say to myself to excuse their behaviour.

I no longer feel so charitable.

First, you’re not that important. Not to me or anyone else.

Second, you’re common. Apparently like everyone else doing what’s good for you only as long as it’s good for you. That’s not special. And adults, never mind the menschen do what the have to do in their social group particularly when it doesn’t immediately benefit or satisfy them.


Or maybe I’m just coming to terms with the fact that I, too, have fewer friends than I think I do.

Capitalism as religion: a thesis

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on Capitalism as religion: a thesis
Aug 162016

Those who know me are aware of a hobby horse I’ve ridden for at least the past decade. My contention is that someplace along the way between Adam Smith and now, Capitalism evolved from an explanation and theory to a cult and a broader philosophy to a full blown religion with its own dogmas, catechisms, and so on.

The idea is not meant to denigrate or debase the economic value and general force for (economic) progress that Capitalism provides. I am a supporter. I don’t think it needs to be torn down and replaced. (By what?) Like anything and everything else, all the good it affords comes with ugly costs that have to be bourne… by someone. Besides, to appropriate Churchill: it’s the worst economic system around, except all the others.

No. When I jump on my hobby horse and ride through the Western frontier of this notion, my point is only to expose what should be obvious. Unfortunately, those who dislike and have a grudge Capitalism and its effects use the argument and corrupt my intent by forming lynch mobs. Equally unfortunate, those who are acolytes refuse to accept any of these otherwise obvious conditions and deny the argument entirely, unthinkingly–like any religiously observant follower ought, I might add.

This post is not to get into the foundations or substance of this argument. That will come later. It’s to seek genuine insights for validation or refutation from the one or two people that read these posts. Why? I’m burnishing the idea into a thesis to propose for graduate work.

“Oh great,” you say, “Another useless bit of academic crapping on capitalism.”

Not so much. I would hope that like pointing out to the 280-lb, 165cm person that perhaps approach to food (Straight, direct, and unimpeded… as a psychological crutch for feelings of exclusion…) as observed from outside might be the something to internalize and act upon, the take-away from such a thesis and study would be a recognition that there is a way to make and use, or direct capitalisms tendencies toward greater things. Not toward the inevitabilities of religious fervor.

If you have any thoughts or directions toward published works: books, monographs, journal articles from any specialty study area, feel free to send them my way.


 Posted by on 16 Aug 2016


 Uncategorized  Comments Off on Intrapreneurshit
Jul 132016

Like long forgotten songs on a K-Tel compilation, Intrapreneurship, the notion that employees of large organizations can hustle and scramble like entrepreneurs to create innovation and radical growth, is back! Of course, its day in the 1980s sun was a failure. But today’s promise is the success of Silicon Valley’s disrupting wunderkind.

Should intrapreneurship actually catch on, again… it will fail. Again. Smart executives of targeted enterprises and government departments ought to remember why it failed before and take a pass this time. The flawed assumption is that entrepreneurs thrive in any environment. Except, everything that makes entrepreneurship admirable is suffocated in the low oxygen atmosphere of the large organization.

The entrepreneurship allure is palpable: a dream of agility, disruption, and outsized growth leading to dominion over new and even undiscovered frontiers. With unicorns on every horizon, it’s hard to ignore. But for large organizations, it’s a mirage that will squander resources and frustrate everyone.

The larger the organization, the more its strength weighs upon it. It can no more be an entrepreneurial entity than the growth business is a colossus bestriding the world. The pitch to turn an eighteen wheeler into a Tesla is ridiculous and counter-productive.

Large organizations need not ogle enviously at the upstart entrepreneurial organizations rapid, often false growth that captures market and media attention. Appreciate your own qualities. Large organizations are mostly slow and steady. They have to be. Oscillating around opportunistic pivots would rend the behemoth from seam to seam. A material mistake by a small business constantly changing anyway is bad but recoverable. A material mistake for a large organization could prove mortal (without government intervention). Demands of governance and responsibility befitting its stature command the organization to be circumspect. One role of large organization is to stabilize tempestuous seas.

Sounds banal compared to the romantic entrepreneur. But, this gummy stateliness belies vast virtue. Large organizations have the power to change markets and industries. That they may choose not to because they’re comfortable has nothing to do with intrapreneuring. The taxi industry did not have to actively ignore its suzerain being upended while focusing on rigging regulation. Moreover, a start-up did not succeed in digitizing music nor create the consumer smart phone industry. Apple did. Ultimately, large organizations control innovation and disruptive change.

Your favourite innovation guru will have written that when industries heave with revolution, some venture-backed entrepreneur has used a technology or method to disrupt a cozy environment. But even where that is the case, it’s because the large incumbents were sleeping. As often as not, industries are turned inside out because competitive, large organizations acquire or introduce changes to the competitive environment and evolve the marketplace. In effect, they reinvent themselves and their worlds.

This has little to do with being entrepreneurial. It has everything to do with being observant, smart, and courageous. These mark the entrepreneurial character but are not exclusive to it. Most organizations require innovation of some sort, not all need the peculiar and destabilizing qualities of the entrepreneur.

This intrapreneurship fad is but a means to a desirable end: innovation, which in turn leads to growth (and maybe reinvention). A large organization does not have to weaken its chances pretending to be something it is not and cannot be. Of course, large organizations should do things to remain vital and purposeful. But they should play to strengths.

Large organizations should get and be strong at anticipating changes to their world as has Royal Dutch Shell. They should strive to innovate. That will necessarily keep them apprised of near and distant (technology) innovations around them. Large organizations have the resources to do something better than be entrepreneurs: they can buy entrepreneurs—at the right time.

Large organizations have been known to get fat and lazy, ferreting out challengers, buying them, and burying their technologies to maintain control of their worlds. The world no longer allows that. Enterprises need to tack: don’t buy the start-up or growth company to shelve it; buy it to grow it and, maybe later, internalize it. I say maybe because the choice could be to shape the smaller organization to benefit from and provide benefits to the large organization. This is a different skill, but one a large organization could more probably create.

Many enterprise organizations would be better off creating a farm system of minor investments and expertise at observing real entrepreneurial action. Supporting and keeping them alive, all the while creating the internal conditions to ingest entrepreneurial output and do what enterprise organizations do best: serve scale.

Large organizations have to be stable, not ossified. An aircraft carrier is no PT boat. It is built for stability in even the roughest waters. To be the indispensible centre of many critical operations, ths largest of naval vessels must be stable. Necessarily, it doesn’t move nimbly. It would be absurd to expect it to operate like a frigate. But even with the responsibility to provide a dependable platform, the aircraft carrier and its personnel are always prepared and vigilant for stormy seas or competitive attack from the sky or under the waves—from other navies or even pirate flotillas.

Think about that. Maybe the idea of a carrier group fleet would serve large organizations well in structuring themselves to do battle in their own corporate oceans.

Innovation Nation? More like Pontificate State

 Business, Canada  Comments Off on Innovation Nation? More like Pontificate State
Jul 132016

Innovation will not get better in Canada. Sorry Minister Bains, we will not become “Innovation Nation” because we are not a start-up nation. Not that being a start-up nation is necessary. But without start-ups, innovation has to come from the enterprise level. In Canada, it will not, except from a few egoless businesses still run by the originator that ignore and avoid “professional” managers/consultants in important leadership roles.

Sadly, the rest of enterprise size organizations will not be helpful though essential. It will not be for a want of desire and intensity. It will not be for want of noise. It’s because the biggest fraud and disservice the media and management gurus have perpetrated on gullible MBA-class and younger business executives weaned on two rounds of Internet unicorns, is to make it seem like innovation is easy and immediately accessible to those that want it.

Enterprises can put attention and resources to the challenge. And yet it doesn’t happen. So, what’s wrong? Obviously, it must be misguided tax (incentives) and industrial policy. No, there is a brain drain. No, it has to be inadequate support and early-stage financing. That’s not right. There’s a scaling capability shortfall. Or we need an entrepreneurial startup culture. Or maybe, everybody’s just not wishing hard enough.

Certainly, based on prevailing problem identification and solutions, it couldn’t be because real, noticeable innovation is hard, infrequent, and more demoralizing than cold call door-to-door sales. More than that, it’s not simple. In fact, innovation is typically complicated and complex (and if you don’t know the difference, perhaps that’s part of the issue…). None of which sits well with enterprise executives of the sort described.

We appear to have been convinced that everything at every stage should be simple. And some things are—at some well-trod, detail-defying level of description. Innovations, by definition, are not that. Even when, under the adoring glow of market success, the essence of the innovation is ridiculously over-simplified (think Über or iPod or Amazon) for broad consumption, the true measure of non-simplicity is easily scratched out of the polished surface.

Simple is fine. So long as you, behind the wheel of your car understand start (with biometric voice command), engage (GPS-enabled destination command), and let the car do its thing, you’re good. We’ve described simply the innovation of the self-driving automobile. Of course, it’s absurd. Such a “simple” innovation is unattainable without somebody—the business people purveying it perhaps—knowing the much less than simple (creative) thinking just beneath this placid surface.

Yet too many executives—with an unrelenting commitment to the latest whack-a-doodle pronouncements on professional management technique—have no real clue about innovation. If they did, they would know that asking for product concepts, business plans, and so on for innovations to be simple during that period between fanciful conception and practical realization is neither helpful nor valuable.

Focus not on the first part, but the last three words of what’s called Einstein’s Razor: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

There is skill and art in communicating the essence of innovation to different audiences at the appropriate level of complexity. Overwhelmingly that is where the thinking and difficult work falls into the “simplest possible description” trap never again to get back to the necessary level of difficulty that innovation demands. Too many of these professional managers are educationally and temperamentally unprepared to root in the not-simple, not-easy, muck of innovation from which the eventual simple story will eventually emerge.

An innovative idea starts with a simple proposition. But, if achieving it were that simple and straight-forward, it would be done already. That simple proposition, whether a business model innovation or technology development, meets the challenge created by the very recombination or change that makes the simple idea so appealing. Through a lot of trial and error, failure and heartbreak, a Eureka moment may happen. It is viable! Only then can the whole endeavor be once again regressed to an easy-to-consume PowerPoint graphic or 20-second elevator pitch or advertisement or what-have-you.

Those who haven’t or don’t work on innovations regularly have no idea. Until more enterprise (senior) leadership owns and understands (or grudgingly tolerates if not gets mucky themselves) the messy complexity of the process, and accepts that nothing gets simple without being very complex first, innovation will not be a strong suit of Canadian business. Our go-to move will remain able administration.

It doesn’t have to be this way. And it doesn’t have to be the future. Leaders, especially those phalanxes senior professional managers need to learn to love wallowing in the guts of their businesses—especially if their business is innovation.

Innovation advice… really?

 Business, Canada, politics  Comments Off on Innovation advice… really?
Dec 042015

It’s incomprehensible why a serious broadsheet exposes a 1000-word space to the maundering of a senior bank executive except to recall that the business broadsheet is a forum for recitations of faith. When a high priest needs a pulpit, a serious broadsheet provides one. How else to understand Victor Dodig’s contribution to the “innovation” echo-chamber in the November 27th edition of The Globe and Mail (“Canada must fill three gaps to reach its high-growth future”)?

“Innovation” is today’s incantation that serious people in management (and reporters) recite to prove their faith. So certain is its good, it is above question. That the talk of innovation suffocates all other sensible considerations, and lets (Canadian) executives off easily is beside the point. Mere invocation of innovation gets attention and, apparently, 1000 words in a serious broadsheet

In any case, Mr. Dodig’s ostensible objective is to reveal to the new Liberal government causes that inhibit Canada from achieving economic growth. His writers pick up Jim Balsillie’s tune and rehash au courant cocktail party clatter about the absolute national essentialness of innovation… as cover for another specific message. I choose to assume of Mr. Balsillie a pure-hearted intent, and so expect the larding of his noble clarion call with self-serving appropriations like a Bill working its way through Congress, weighs on him.

I ascribe unctuous malfeasance to the article if only because in 1000 words addressing three gaps, only about 150 address gap three: an innovation ecosystem, and a whopping 34 words speak to the second—something a banker would be credible with: innovation financing. The remainder of the essay (about 80% for those with post-secondary education yet remain innumerate) speaks to changing the public education system to alter the talent shortfall, and to innovative “emerging firms” being acquired by foreigners who take innovative Canadians elsewhere.

After laying out the harms visited upon Canada’s economy by failing public education, Dodig poses the question, “So what do we do [about students ‘choosing an educational path geared toward acquiring credentials rather than skills acquisition and what the labour market needs’]?”

Had he stopped there and proposed specific actions to counter insufficient interest in STEM fields, and the terrible literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills in Canada, it would have been appropriate if not valuable. Mr. Dodig foreclosed that possibility by answering: “We need to promote education choices that match the needs of the job market.”

Like too many others, this commercial catechism appears sensible at first encounter and in certain narrow contexts. Its impotence as a broad response is usually dispatched quickly. An unnecessary act in this case because Dodig himself renders his recommendation pointless mere paragraphs later (without infringing at all on the space needed to argue for better financial support and an innovation ecosystem). As he transitions to raise—but not address—another innovation problem, Mr. Dodig seamlessly shifts our essential innovators from job market to entrepreneurial class. As such, the innovators he implicates won’t be employed by his or any other organization because they are those starting the “emerging firms” subsequently bought out for their developments and brain power then quickly whisked away to deprive the country of its economic future. Not that this isn’t a vexing problem, only that it is immaterial to job skills training (i.e., “meeting the needs of the job market”). Entrepreneurs not in the job market hardly need education to match the needs of the job market, you see.

A kernel of truth stabilizes Mr. Dodig’s recitation. But methinks the purpose is less about innovation than about redirecting public education toward a goal of finally, wholly eliminating the need for businesses to train for their own needs. The proposal is that Canadian society should fund employee education for (large) firms that employ—so they don’t have to.

Doubtlessly people should be employable, and a well-educated individual ought to be employable, which is to say literate, numerate, and able to solve problems by way of critical and creative thinking at one or both of theoretical and applied levels. But those qualities apply to software coders, managers, artists, entrepreneurs, electricians, and even hockey players. In other words: to everyone. Yet, rather than propose an overall higher national standard of such capacity, perhaps with incentives to pursue engineering instead of law, or cryptography rather than marketing, this counsel focuses on job-ready skills to benefit employers. What’s next: other factors of production underwritten by the public purse so they too are “ready” for business?

Mr. Dodig is right about the shortcomings he raises. Still, you can scratch deep and find no hint of the banks’ role in defunding manufacturing (i.e., finding Canadian manufacturing too risky to provide credit for operations or expansion or exporting…) or limiting cash for risky emerging firms. Mr. Dodig is silent on the notion of sharing risk with the innovators he’s so concerned about to help them create and then to keep them Canadian.

Finally, it would be cruel to ask the obvious question: If this bank(er) is so interested in numerate and literate and creative talent—of the STEM variety, particularly—rather than students who have merely “acquired credentials,” why continue demanding the MBA as an essential credential for its own innovative roles, such as they might be? To the extent these MBAs are scientists, technologists, engineers, or mathematicians with business finishing school certificates, fine. But we all know the majority have merely acquired the credential to make real money in consulting and banking, or to be marketers. (Oh, the irony.) And there is abundant evidence everywhere that they are not necessarily more numerate, literate, or able to genuinely solve problems critically let alone creatively. On these counts the bank fails. Before ostensibly providing counsel to the new government or even using that as cover to inject ideas into the public domain, Mr. Dodig’s bank ought to lead by example not faulty rhetoric… if he’s serious.

That grinding noise at Westminster Abbey? Charles Darwin rolling in his grave

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on That grinding noise at Westminster Abbey? Charles Darwin rolling in his grave
Feb 192015

A PowerPoint slide being “shared” and “liked” within LinkedIn says: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” This is a corrupted Darwinian notion I first saw first in a Globe and Mail op-ed piece entitled, Why leaders must take a different tack when managing change, contributed by Symantec Canadian General Manager, Sean Forkan. His first-person counsel is not especially enlightening. But there is that one sentence at the end: “As the saying goes, ‘it is not the strongest nor the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.'”

So people appropriate and massage powerful thoughts for their own purposes. Why quibble with variations on the theme? It’s just convenient and relevant cribbing of inspiring words.

How can I be so nasty—or petty? To start, the phrase has no greater provenance than some unnamed hack contributor to a Web quotations page or creator of a PowerPoint slide. Try to find anything remotely like this quotation in Darwin’s writings, especially in On the Origin of the Species. Even Herbert Spencer, who actually coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” never used this language. That smart people are willing to quote inspirational nonsense suggests a troubling lack of rigour. But I digress and, frankly, I don’t really care about that.

This plagiarism does, however, raise an idea that could rock what we, the chattering classes, hold dear about change (management) and innovation. If you read to the end, you might even re-evaluate what you’ve been told about innovation and innovators, such as Steve Jobs. Maybe you’ll just ignore it or malign me, which might be easier. Your call.

Start by really understanding the idea commandeered for this motivational meme. Darwin referred to evolutionary adaptation. In Darwin’s observation, species did not initiate change. “Fitness” was what best suited prevailing conditions through a process of selective adaption, admittedly over generations. And Darwin was silent on any propensity to or ability for managing the change required to adapt, as was Spencer.

This is critical because as we know them, the words “change management” or “fitness to change” or any other variation lend themselves to the opposite interpretation. The implication being that a good executive, or one following our published guidance and pursuing the motivational direction of the imitation Darwin, could positively conceive and purposefully direct change IF (s)he and the organization were fit to make such change.

That’s quite materially different.

To use this counterfeit quotation to give weight to change management “fitness” and still be true to Darwin’s brilliant idea, one is obliged to accept that change management is about adaptation. But adaptation is responsive not directive. In nature, those fit to survive are those that best adapt not those that are most fit to create change.

To recap, modelling on natural evolution via pseudo-Darwin is an excellent idea: evolution has about a billion years of successful experience. But it demands one appreciate that change management must be about adaptation, which is to say accommodation toward prevailing conditions. Prevailing conditions because nature does not evolve toward what doesn’t exist. It can only adapt to what does exist.

So, therefore, fitness or willingness or ability to change is nonsense at least as far as invoking quasi-Darwinian thought as support. These are a separate matter entirely and warrant a separate non-Darwin shrouded discussion. Of course, the premise for those discussions has to start with responsive adaptation instead of directive change.

That’s change management; but innovation compels change to a product, process, or people so it must be implicitly about change. We have to accept that. So the Darwinian notion of adaptation to prevailing conditions, as indicated above, has to hold for innovation as well. Buckle up. It means the innovation myth of your favourite business leader or guru may be in for some rough treatment.

Consider the evidence. IBM nearly went extinct until Gerstner’s adaptations made it fit to survive. Branson cannily adapts Virgin’s ethos to the conditions of various prevailing environments, experimenting to see where its adaptations best fit. For a long time, Nokia adapted successfully, transforming through industries and technologies. It stopped adapting and has all but gone extinct. Microsoft, which has prolonged some of Nokia’s “genes,” has a well-documented record of obstinately refused then aggressively conceding to adapt. Blockbuster is the archetypal non-adapter. The quality of the management of change or the willingness or ability to change in all of these instances was necessary—maybe—but not sufficient. The adaptations were the thing.

IF you’re still with me about fitness to survive being based on the success of adaptations to prevailing conditions, then we have to concede that an innovator does NOT create or step into some imagined future. The successful innovator actually adapts best to the prevailing market conditions. In other words, any start-up and Steve Jobs do nothing more(!) than adapt to conditions that already existing. Steve didn’t see the future; he saw the present whether that was Apple II, Mac, iPod, iPhone, or iPad. It is a present that everyone else simply can’t see the way that some people can’t see the symbolism or the theme in a book or movie, or the way that extinct species couldn’t “see” that they weren’t optimal for prevailing conditions.

For those that got this far, I apologize. Every metaphor fails at some point. Lesser people, and gurus, continue ramming home their notion as though it’s not happening. I won’t. Evolution and organizations changing or innovating are very different things that don’t track together at a certain point. But, my point is that the idea at the outset ought to be understood and followed. It can lead to fascinating revelations. Here are merely two:

  1. Adaptation is going on all the time. All people always adapt naturally. Those who don’t adapt are artificially denying nature. Adaptation is not a theory or a strategy or a plan. It is action. If it works, you succeed. If you don’t, you adapt again. If it still doesn’t work. You become petroleum eventually. Therefore, in the big picture, change management is about allowing prevailing conditions to cause pain, letting natural adaptation happen, then doubling-down on those that show the most fitness.
  2. If you want to innovate, and evolution is your model for survival, you must be rapidly responsive not creative. You must provide, for a price, a means for your customers to best adaptations to prevailing conditions—because they may not.