Not quite what Darwin said…

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

 Charles Darwin – or perhaps not quite

 A further version of this is etched into the floor at the California Academy of Science:

It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

In fact, as Nicholas J. Matzke, has discovered, (as you can read on Nick’s blog), the source is one Dr Leon C. Megginson at Louisana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1963. Megginson actually wrote:

According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.’ (Megginson, ‘Lessons from Europe for American Business’, Southwestern Social Science Quarterly (1963) 44(1): 3-13, at p. 4.)

Does this matter? After all, we all know what Darwin meant, don’t we? And for organizational studies and mangement science, an apt quotation is just what is needed.

Well, it really does matter. The first quotation suggests that adaptability is beneficial and the more responsive you are the better, whereas the full Megginson paraphrase makes it clear that it is not adaptability per se that makes the difference but the ability to adapt to the specific changes in the environment in which the organization operates.

Just because you have established a way of dealing with a variety of changing circumstances (routines for changing routines in the jargon) does not mean that you will automatically perceive the exact nature of change and successfully adapt to it. Indeed, it’s more likely that, when a significant change comes along, rather than a version of somethingyou have seen before, you and your firm will likely finds yourself trapped in your habits and dispositions for making change – a sort of routines prison.

Can’t happen to you? Well just consider just how much ‘groupthink’ already goes on in your business.  You have never made a faulty decision because group pressures led to a deterioration of reality testing and judgment?  A management team in which its members are similar in background, insulated from outside opinions and when there are no clear rules for decision making is especially vulnerable.

And I am sure you have never heard anyone on the team say something like “we’ve never done that before”, words almost guaranteed to kill an innovative idea stone dead. Further more, whether you like it or not, too many on the team are probably scared to say what they really think, deferring to the senior person or the owner or the one who argues with vigorous assertion.

Indeed, firms can fail not because of bad management but because managers have been successful in the past and so managing the inertia in the prison of routines involves trade-offs to the key survivability markers of accountability and reliability in a way that better management cannot actually deal with the structural problem.

But there must be a straight, textbook or best-seller management handbook way out of the dilemma? Again, not necessarily. But you’ll have a better chance of survival if you recognise the genuine realities of your internal situation as well as the external changes. Doing what the book says could be a recipe for certain death.  

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