The dinosaurs get a hard press. ‘Don’t be such a dinosaur’, ‘you can’t afford to act like the dinosaurs whilst everyone evolves around you’, or ‘a business which doesn’t embrace change will go the way of the dinosaurs’. The poor dinosaurs didn’t have a lot of time to react. As far as they were concerned they were kings of the planet until a meteor brought about their very sudden demise.
There wasn’t a lot of time left for them to evolve themselves out of trouble. If a meteor impact today altered the climate, made the planet inhospitable for all but reptiles and we humans went extinct, we’d be upset to learn that descendants of today’s snakes and lizards sat in their offices telling anecdotes about how mammals should have evolved.
Evolution is a slow process. The textbook example is the mutation that gave a giraffe a slightly longer neck. Those with the longest necks were the most successful, reached the most leaves and survived to reproduce. The mutation was carried down their genetic line and longer necked giraffes bred with other longer necked giraffes. The result of millions of years of evolution is the incredibly long necked beast we see today: A great example of evolutionary progress and survival of the fittest.
However, we don’t live on the African Savanna; we live in the valley of the dinosaurs. The giraffes are evolving towards a stationary goal. Leaves are always on tall trees. In the 21st century, change comes at us like meteors. One day we are talking about ‘satellite navigation’ as a luxury feature in executive cars, the next it is a free app on everyone’s mobile phone. In business, the leaves are always moving – they can move off of the tree entirely and be found somewhere different. Years of evolving a long neck comes to nothing if the savanna has changed shape.
Disruptive ideas, technology and companies hit us like meteors. We don’t have a giraffe’s luxury, we are much closer to the unenviable situation of the dinosaurs… and things didn’t go well for them. So can nature provide us with any hope or inspiration? Fortunately, yes. We have rapidly altered the planet ourselves and nature has provided examples of micro-evolutions in its attempts to deal with the sudden changes.
Love them or loathe them, urban foxes have adapted their diet and lifestyle to the modern city and thrive. London pigeons and stray Moscow dogs have been spotted using public transport to follow the crowds (and their free food) by travelling between tourist locations in the day and popular nightspots after dark. Birds in Mexico City have started using cigarette butts in their nest construction. The butts are freely available, have good insulating properties and contain chemicals which act as insect repellent – the birds have used the modern world to improve their lives.
In a rapidly changing world it is possible to make rapid adjustments and prevent business extinction. This may mean thinking about the way you work, the way you travel or the technology you employ. It’s important to have long term plans, but these plans need to be adaptable. Deforestation and urbanisation didn’t change the Mexican birds’ long term nest building plans – they were able to adapt and continue to thrive (and model upcycling while they were doing it). It is still survival of the fittest, but mental agility and the ability to think up innovative solutions plays a much more significant role in the fitness of a modern business.