Evolution and business transformation

A brief notion of what it takes to actually evolve in the business world.

Geoff Wilson

“We need to transform” says the executive.

But what does that really mean?

To the dude with the MBA, it means driving margins higher, generating more cash flow, and establishing the efficient organization of the future. Only, it’s too often that such “transformations” are drafted on somebody else’s template. I grew up in an age where everybody wanted to “be like Mike,” and those same kids are now adults chasing the best in the business. Only instead of trying to dunk a basketball with their tongue sticking out, they are trying to implement the business system of their favorite high-flying company.

If you’re in an industrial company, that might mean you are emulating Danaher, or drawing on time-tested lessons from Toyota, or attempting to be like GE (not anymore, of course, because GE is passé).

If you’re in tech, then you are emulating Netflix, who creatively leaked a slide deck on culture years ago that seems to have inspired legions of management engineers. Or, maybe it’s Google parent Alphabet, Inc. that strikes your fancy.

You learn about these business systems at current or erstwhile world-class companies, and it all looks doable as you contemplate your transformation. But it’s not, and too many otherwise really bright managers don’t understand why.

So let me try to explain.

I just returned from a fascinating trip to the Galápagos Islands. The Galápagos are well-known for their unique and highly differentiated species, some of which have adapted over many generations to their own specific islands. Everybody knows about the Galápagos tortoise. Most people are aware of the marine iguana, and many people know about the legendary clumsiness of the blue-footed boobie. Finally, many people are aware of the many varieties of Darwin’s finches, with their many different beaks specially shaped for different food types.

These species all evolved through a course of natural selection from some primordial ancestors along their family tree: The marine iguana doubtless comes from iguana stock, the giant tortoise from tortoise stock, and the finches from a finch ancestor. And today they are competitively specialized to their specific environments, some of which are only miles apart in distance while being worlds apart in hospitality to non-local species.

Which brings me to the natural illustration: You wish to transform your company, and that’s fine, but you have to transform from your own template. If you have iguana DNA, don’t pine for the airborne life of the finch; if you’re a finch, forget about evolving to be a giant tortoise.

That’s not transformation, it’s a delusion.

The punchline is this: You must know your DNA, and once you know it, you must steer your transformation along it. Great things can happen to companies that take the best of their DNA and add or snip. Horrific things happen to companies that attempt to transform via somebody else’s DNA.

I, and probably you, have seen such mutant companies slogging along in confusion and demoralization while some “smart and worldly” senior executive tries to impose their iguana DNA onto a finch culture. That is not the way to evolve a corporate culture. You do it by knowing who you are.

What do you think? Can an iguana become a finch? Can your organization do the same?

 

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