Lesson #2: Adaptation, Not Strength, is Key to Long-Term Success

By Denny Royal

August 8, 2017

This is the second in a series of 26 Business Lessons Taken from Nature.

“Evolve to survive” is one of the primary lessons (known as Life’s Principles) of biomimicry. It’s also one that’s sometimes misunderstood.

When people think of Darwin’s theory of evolution, they often think of the maxim: survival of the fittest. With this maxim, “fittest” is sometimes misinterpreted to mean strength. That interpretation leads to another maxim: the strong survive.

But Darwin meant something quite different. What he actually said was, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, it is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

In evolution, being “fit” doesn’t mean being strong. Rather, it means to be well-matched to one’s environment or context—like a piece of a puzzle. To maintain that kind of fit, a species (or business) must adapt as its environment changes.

What Makes a Business Fit?

In biomimicry, the full description of the principle is: “Evolve to survive; continually incorporate and embody information to ensure enduring performance.” In other words, be aware of what’s happening right in front of you and adapt accordingly.

In the context of businesses, it’s easy to point to examples of companies that failed to adapt to changing markets and disappeared. Take Blockbuster Video for example.

Blockbuster operated under the premise that customers just wanted to watch new release movies. They also clung to a business model that charged ridiculous late fees to even their most loyal customers. Then Netflix came along.

Netflix allowed customers to keep rentals for as long as they wanted with no extra fees. They also offered a deeper selection of films and a convenient delivery system. If I wanted to binge-watch all of the Planet of the Apes movies without leaving home, I could.

Did Blockbuster see what Netflix was doing? Sure. Did they incorporate and embody that information to adapt to the disruption in the marketplace? Nope. And now they are gone—extinct in just a few short years.

What Hedgehog’s Know About Evolve to Survive

In nature, species adapt to the pressures in their environments, or they die out. They reorder information through DNA to allow adaptations and instinctive strategies to move forward from generation to generation, thus allowing them to “stay fit” and survive.

The hedgehog is an interesting example of evolutionary success that’s not built on strength.

The hedgehog’s most distinctive adaptation is spines. The average hedgehog has around 5,000 spines that are actually hairs that have evolved into a unique defense mechanism. Each spine is made up of many tiny air chambers separated by plates. The design and shape of the spines minimize weight and helps to deflect energy from any blows a hedgehog may receive so that it doesn’t drive the spines back into its body.

The hedgehog has developed two primary strategies for using its spines. One is to simply erect the spines and wait for the danger to pass. When erected, the spines poke out at different angles supporting each other to form a nearly impenetrable barrier.

Another strategy is to roll into a ball. Hedgehogs evolved to have more skin than is necessary to cover its body. This unique combination of extra skin and the muscles to control it acts like a spiny bag with a drawstring the animal can close up when under attack.

This incredible defense system works against just about anything (except automobiles). And it’s the result of adaptation, not strength.

National Geographic’s Evolutionary Success

A great example of a company that’s continually adapted to new information is National Geographic.

The National Geographic Society published its first magazine in 1888. It incorporated a major adaptation in 1914 by embracing the new medium of color photography. Fast forward 75 years and the company was still changing with the times. First, it reinventing itself on the web when subscription levels began to drop in the 1990s. Then it made the leap into television in 2001.

With the growth and success of the National Geographic Channel the organization continues to evaluate and adjust it content programming while actively experimenting with how they produce and distribute through social media channels.

Other organizations would do well to follow both the example of National Geographic and the hedgehog because, in a globalized market that’s continually changing, adaptation is a strategic advantage and the key to long-term business success.

To learn more about the application of biomimicry to business strategy, please contact us.

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