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

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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.