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Darwin’s Finches and the importance of strategic adaptation

The Galapagos Islands are a wonder of the natural world with over 19 islands surrounded by hundreds of islets that straddle the equator of the coast of Ecuador. They are famous for having an amazing range of unique animal species, giant tortoises, iguanas (or dragons), fur seals, sea-lions, sharks, rays, and nearly 30 different species of birds.

They are also famous for the influence and thought patterns of the great Charles Darwin. His discoveries in Galapagos ultimately changed our perceptions and beliefs around humankind, and they provided lessons which can still be thought about, today. On his visit to the islands, Darwin discovered several species of finches (amongst other things), that varied from island to island, and this helped him develop his theory of natural selection and evolution. He found that the finches were each fundamentally the same, but with variation in the size, beaks, claws, and song. Darwin’s conclusion, that as the islands were distant from the mainland, the birds had arrived there in the past and adapted to suit their surroundings. There need for survival drives the need for adaptation, and this improves the likelihood of surviving.

One conclusion from the Galapagos Islands is that adaptation is thus critical for survival. It is what creates the space for species to flourish and survive. When you consider how evolution and adaptation works, it does outwardly seem quite easy, (even though as a non-scientist I really have no idea).

From an organisation’s perspective, adaptation is also critical for survival. The world is constantly changing, and so fast that organisations simply need to adapt (or die). From the outside, perspective, it is effortless to critique Blockbuster or Nokia and say they didn’t adapt quick enough. However, in reality, very few organisations actually do adapt quickly enough, despite a brilliant strategic plan that no doubt sets out all the key trends such as the changing market; the impact of technology, the influence of data and the digitisation of the consumer journey.

So, my question is, why can’t organisations and their leaders adapt and survive, like the animals on Galapagos Islands?   I think there are three key reasons this can happen.

Firstly, it is a failure in the strategy process. I am quite sure most good strategy documents identify key trends and developments impacting an organisation. Indeed, the response is most often in a three-year strategy document (or similar) with detailed annual plans.

However, the failure to understand, comprehend, and adapt to the key trends creates a situation where in the end, it is too late to adapt- the end is nigh! Surely this inevitable, given that the technology cycles outpace planning cycles?

Secondly, organisations dumb down strategic problems. I think this is natural and is how organisations and leaders can rationalise their lack of response or the lack of speed to respond. It is a natural reaction to make a strategic challenge less daunting by turning it into a problem that can be solved with tried and tested tools and mindsets. You can imagine a giant strategy deck, with an investment plan underpinned by a financial budget that stretches in the future.

Given the pace of change, this is a truly terrible way to make strategy, even if it gives a sense of confidence.

Finally, in times of pressure and dramatic change, organisations look inward and look to maintain profit and margin by cutting costs and becoming more efficient. Indeed, this makes sense, not only from a maintenance of margin perspective, but from a control perspective. This is important, as cost is within an organisation’s control and can be managed with relative precision using technology or six-sigma. However, at the very time, an organisation should be looking to adapt, their actions are more inward focused, while the real conversation is outward focused.

To be successful at strategic adaptation organisation should:

  • Understand that strategy is not about perfection; it automatically comes with ambiguity. Strategy is not about expense control, it is about revenue and growth, and to achieve that organisations need to accept ambiguity.
  • Focus on the real metrics that matter which should be outward focused, looking at customer satisfaction, listening to the customer journey.
  • Understand the strategy is not a three-year PowerPoint deck; it is about having an always on strategic mindset.

The Galapagos Island’s can teach organisations a lot, because ultimately a Finch, a simple little bird, finds it easier to adapt to change, than most organisations. You would think the desire to survive, would be just as strong.


Tags : Disruption;mindsetstrategy

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