Time to Adapt: What Darwin Teaches Us About Innovation


Think Darwinism doesn't apply to your business? Think again.

David Fries

7 min read

Over the century and a half since Darwin published On the Origin of Species, businesspeople have become fond of talking about the “Darwinian competition” for talent, capital, management bandwidth, and corporate survival. Yet the business application of Darwin's theory often ignores its two most important lessons:

1.  Change is constant, unrestricted, and random. Genetic mutations happen all the time. Most of them have no effect. Some may kill the organism. Some may help it survive.

2. Natural selection preserves the mutations that help an organism survive in a given environment. When the environment changes, it selects for different mutations. An organism that was perfectly evolved for the old environment might die in the new one--unless it evolves some more.

How do these principles apply to a business? First, everything must be in play, always. Nothing is too important to change, or too trivial. And second, companies that cannot adapt to shifting market conditions and customer demands will die.

What lessons does Darwin teach us?

Lesson one: Don't limit where you innovate

The first organisms were sightless. A mutation in an early animal (possibly the hydra, a relation of the jellyfish) caused the growth of a single cell or small patch of cells containing a light-sensitive protein.  These cells gave the animal a rudimentary ability to distinguish light--an ability that proved useful for survival. The mutation occurred in one of the billion base pairs of genetic information. While mutation in any given base pair is unlikely, the sheer number of base pairs guarantees that mutations will occur somewhere, and over time some of them will prove significant.  

Likewise, the more places in your business where innovation can occur, the more likely it is that it will occur, and the more innovations there are, the more likely it becomes that one of them will be a game-changing innovation like the ability to sense light. 

If a company thinks it doesn't have the organizational bandwidth to accommodate innovations everywhere, employees will learn to stick to their job descriptions and not try to improve on them. This mistake may partly account for Gallup’s 2015 finding that 69 percent of workers were either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” from their jobs.

Lesson two: Innovate small and select often

A single photosensitive cell started the evolutionary path toward vision. Billions of mutations later, we and other animals have improbably complex eyes that no one could have predicted from studying that first cell. 

Similarly, if you dramatically increase your company’s output of micro-innovations, you can line a path to your industry’s next great idea without having any idea what it's going to be. Get input early and often, from internal and external sources, and be prepared to “double down or abandon” based on the feedback that you receive.

Lesson three:  Any idea can be improved

In nature, a mutation that provides a competitive advantage for its organism will survive to be passed along. It will proliferate in the population. It can mutate again, and the new version may prosper or disappear. Across generations, genetic advantages may amplify one another, leading to cumulative progress.

When a new idea proves (or even promises) to be successful, that is the time to ask—what would make it better?  What random direction could it take that might lead to surprising outcomes? What is the cheapest and lowest risk path to a proof point? What previous failures or “never trieds” could be resurrected now, and coupled with this innovation?

Lesson four: Embrace uncertainty

Evolution is mindless. It works through continuous trial and error. That first photo-sensitive cell was just one of many mutations, most of which never had any result. It was not part of a plan.

Many humans can't handle this mindlessness and uncertainty because we do anticipate, predict, and innovate with intention. As a result, our innovations can be realized in a matter of years as opposed to millions of years.

But anticipating and planning only go so far.  After conducting due diligence on the known, companies should resist the temptation to overanalyze the unknown. Embrace uncertainty by trying multiple alternatives and allowing the market to select the winner. Seize every opportunity to pivot. Twitter began as a service to subscribe to podcasts. Fledging companies that pivot one or two times in their early days raise 2.5 times more money and generate 3.6 times more user growth, according to the Startup Genome Report. The same can be true for startup ideas within mature companies.

Lesson five: Hard-wire innovation into your company

Random mutations occur constantly. No organism can opt out, or even slow down the pace of these small changes.  

Companies should heed that lesson. Most “carve out time for innovation rather than living and breathing it,” laments Dartmouth professor Sydney Finkelstein. Innovation must be a fundamental part of normal work that is continuously promoted and rewarded.

Companies that hard-wire innovation into every aspect of their business become better and better at innovating. Companies that relegate innovation to one department or a few days a year become better and better at not innovating. When the time comes to adapt or die, which one do you want your company to be?

  • David Fries