5 perspectives on how to harness the power of evolution within competitive environments to improve our organisations.  Kevin Kelly is a kind of techno-elder, and I often enjoy his musings, such as this interview with Noah Smith that references ‘What Technology Wants’, where Kelly argues that technological evolution has always been a sub-set of human evolution – and a key driver of its progress – from fire and the wheel through to Chat-GPT:

The technium, like nature, excels at both meanings of growth. It can produce more, rapidly, and it can produce better, slowly. Individually, corporately and socially, we’ve tended to favor functions that produce more. For instance, to measure (and thus increase) productivity we count up the number of refrigerators manufactured and sold each year. More is generally better. But this counting tends to overlook the fact that refrigerators have gotten better over time. In addition to making cold, they now dispense ice cubes, or self-defrost, and use less energy. And they may cost less in real dollars. This betterment is truly real value, but is not accounted for in the “more” column. Indeed a tremendous amount of the betterment in our lives that is brought about by new technology is difficult to measure, even though it feels evident. This “betterment surplus” is often slow moving, wrapped up with new problems, and usually appears in intangibles, such as increased options, safety, choices, new categories, and self actualization — which like most intangibles, are very hard to pin down. The benefits only become more obvious when we look back in retrospect to realize what we have gained. Part of our growth as a civilization is moving from a system that favors more barrels of wine, to one that favors the same barrels of better wine.

On the face of it this is one reason why GDP measurement is such a poor and blunt measure for economic progress, but it is also testament to the immense power of evolution within a highly competitive ecosystem to create spectacular, often beautiful, results.

The Power of Co-opetition

It is easy to forget how far we have come, and how much progress we have made thanks to the hard grind of iterative improvement, and tend to remember the past through rose-tinted glasses:

Continuous iterative improvement within a highly competitive environment, and subject to tight feedback loops, will always produce better outcomes than a top-down ‘intelligent design’ approach led by people in authority. And yet, this is still not how organisational ecosystems are governed and run for the most part.

Sonja Blignaut recently wrote about cultivating her wild garden, and the management approach this demands, with some lessons for organisational development. This resonated with me as we inherited a perfect ‘English garden’ in a climate not suited to it, and I have watched my significant other gradually re-wild the space over the past few years.

In creating this garden, there were some things we had control over to shape what emerged, but we couldn’t manufacture or control a specific outcome. We really wanted a garden with diverse wildlife. However, there was no way we could force specific bird or insect species to come. We couldn’t catch a hawk or mongoose, release it in the garden and expect it to stay. All we could do was create the conditions for emergence and foster an environment that they might find attractive. The same is true in human systems like companies. You cannot design a culture the way you create an office layout. You can’t force talented people to work for you. You can’t mandate psychological safety, innovation, or well-being. You can, however, create the conditions or containers where it is more likely that these things will emerge.

Evolution Needs Predators

Beautiful as the garden might seem, it is also the scene of many unseen battles and competition for resources. For it is competition in an open environment that produces many of the wonderful emergent qualities we admire.

Google is a fascinating company right now, because its previous out-sized success has created a false sense of security and, crucially, it has lacked the predators needed to help it evolve. Evolution is driven as much by predation as by adaptation. Without predators, we become the Dodo. At least Microsoft had Apple, and vice versa. Ex-Googlers like Praveen Seshadri are popping up to lament the internal, bureaucratic lack of focus that having no predators can produce. HIs recent post ‘The Maze is in the Mouse’ highlights many of the pitfalls that people working in large organisations will recognise:

The way I see it, Google has four core cultural problems. They are all the natural consequences of having a money-printing machine called “Ads” that has kept growing relentlessly every year, hiding all other sins. (1) no mission, (2) no urgency, (3) delusions of exceptionalism, (4) mismanagement.

This is the trap that so many successful companies fail into, unless they embrace the vigilant paranoia that Larry Ellison used to boast about. Perhaps in Google’s case, Chat-GPT is the burning platform it needs to change, but the cultural decay inherent in being part of the corrupt, manipulative Ad-tech world might prove too much to turn it around.

Towards Business Ecosystem Design

This is not just an issue at the level of inter-company competition. It is also a pattern that produces complacency at the micro level within ‘comfortable’ bureaucracies.

In teaching senior leaders about digital organisations and the business-as-a-platform model as an alternative to vertically-divided hierarchies, it is hard to avoid the case study of Haier, which has been so extensively written about in recent org design literature. The health warning I always provide to European executive teams is that, while the Rendanheyi model is an excellent way to cultivate an ecosystem that stimulates emergent outcomes, it is also brutally competitive compared to their own experience of corporate life in the past. It might sound trite, but this tradeoff is not to be under-estimated. HBR recently showcased this model in an article entitled How Chinese Companies Are Reinventing Management by Mark J. Greeven, Katherine Xin, and George S. Yip:

Many Western companies have spent millions of dollars trying to turn themselves into agile organizations. By contrast, thanks to DEDA, many Chinese companies have management approaches that make them inherently agile. In fact, when consultants introduce lean and agile approaches to Chinese executives, the typical response is “We have always done that.” Moreover, most Chinese companies lack the hardwired legacy processes that the agile movement is now trying to overcome. Don’t be misled by memories of slow-moving state-owned enterprises. Many of today’s Chinese companies, especially non-state-owned ones, are lean and mean and going for global markets.

Paradoxically, although this model demands greater focus on collectivism and collaborative -rather than just individual – performance, it is also a less comfortable model for anybody not fulfilling their commitments to their peers. But the overall philosophy has great potential for both improving business performance and also architecting more connected firms that can evolve more rapidly and effectively. Our colleagues at Boundaryless in Italy are among those who are studying and learning from this model, and their newsletter is a recommended read for practical ideas on how to put it into practice, such as this recent piece on looking at organizational capabilities and strategies from a portfolio and systems perspective, rather than taking a big ‘single bet’ approach to innovation.

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash