Monday, May 18, 2009

Change and biology.

Last week, I gave a presentation on managing change to a group of local business owners. This triggered a thought that it would be instructive to explore theories of evolution and change from a biologist's point of view. After all, “We learn nothing from the things we know” according to the American composer, John Cage, and I've never formally studied the biological sciences. So let's see where this takes us......

University of Michigan business professor Karl Weick reminds us, “Adaptation precludes adaptivity.” The better we are at something, the harder it is to adjust when circumstances change. Firemen are most likely to be killed or injured in their 10th year on the job. By then, they think they’ve seen everything there is to see about fires so they become less open to new information. All organisms act to defeat natural selection, to escape from evolution.

When natural selection is continuous, evolution begins only when individuals in a population can't adjust to environmental stresses with their existing abilities. Mutations whose effect can be overridden by the normal abilities of individual organisms spread randomly and eventually become part of the genetic load of the species. We expect genetic change to be rare and when it does occur, it’s proof of incompetence, of extinction barely avoided. Successful life forms don’t evolve noticeably because they’re competent in dealing with environmental change. To be a “living fossil” is the hallmark of biological success.

The problem with Darwinian evolution, where death eliminates the ineffective, is that change takes evolutionary time, often millions of years. The theory of “punctuated equilibria” popularized by Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard, suggests that instead of changing gradually, species remain unaltered for long periods of time and then evolve very rapidly. Speed is the revolution in evolution. Evolution can be speeded up significantly when we add the capability to learn.

Many companies today are being overrun by a fast moving forest fire. Leading-edge companies experience dramatic transformational changes that make them obsolete almost overnight. They think they have their world under control, but it suddenly explodes and they have to go into a totally different mode to cope with it. In this kind of world, linear models of cause and effect don't work any more. Tomorrow, I'll examine the alternative - using non-linear systems.

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