Almost a year ago, I finished reading Spying on Whales. The book was super rich both in meaning and emotion: emotion, because I bought it during my only visit to Oxford (where I visited my friend Aaron, who brought me to booklover’s Mecca i.e. Oxford’s Blackwell’s…) But it was really the contents of the book which provoked a lot of thoughts for me.
The book is written by a paleontologist at the Smithsonian, so he takes an evolutionary lens, but also a very long-time-scale perspective, far beyond our usual human time-scales. This results in a few observations that we don’t often see in our day-to-day lives:
- the phenomenon of convergent evolution. This means that when you have similar conditions, you can have organisms or entities that originate from completely different ancestry ending up with almost identical features.
- The fossil record of whales is extremely thought provoking, in just how diverse it is. We only see the large mammals in their current state, and their current ‘design’ thus seems to ‘make sense’. However, looking at the fossil record, it is clear that evolution has been a LOT more aggressive in tinkering and experimentation: the fossil record shows a much greater diversity of whale-types. For example, consider the Basilosaurus, which is an early whale with huge crocodile-like teeth: it fed exclusively on fish and large sharks!
- The huge concentration of fossil whales at [Cerro Ballena] (https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/factsheets/cerro-ballena-fact-sheet) in Chile, over four geological strata (indicating that these whale carcasses were over four separate events) indicating that these whales might have died from repeated harmful algal blooms (which, in more recent times, have also killed whales, dolphins, even dogs that swam through the algal bloom waters). The Cerro Ballena site seems to provide evidence that algal blooms go back a very, very long time, and that it isn’t just caused by human pollution (though our pollution most probably do not help!) While humans have had a huge impact on the earth, this phenomenon and also Covid 19 serve as reminders that we humans are not fully in control of our own future, but are part of a larger nature with its own driving forces…
Coming back to more mundane human realities, the first two points in the book (of convergent evolution and the greater diversity of species shown in the fossil record ) are very relevant to the topic of corporate innovation.
- Convergent evolution means that contextual and environmental factors have a huge role in shaping species, more than the species’ original genes & traits: dolphins and sharks, for example, have completely different origins, but have the same tear-drop hydrodynamic shape caused by selection for survival in water.
- Interestingly enough, corporate history has similar stories of how companies have evolved, sometimes dramatically diverging from their origins. For example, Du Pont started out as an explosives manufacturer; Oneida Silversmith started out as a communal living group, which ended up making silverware.
- This means that origins matter a lot less, than exposure to an environment & responding to environmental feedback. This makes me quite cautious and skeptical about innovation dogmas that I have seen percolating around, e.g.
- I hope more Singaporeans visit Silicon Valley, so that they can learn the spirit of innovation there (actual words someone told me before)
- we need to use agile/Scrum/XP/etc.
- we should listen to the customer
- we need an innovation lab
- let’s use ‘startup’ methods etc.
It is probably more accurate to just say “it depends…”
- It also means that the critical piece is less about whether a company is currently in what sector, or their current expertise: what matters more might be, how good is the company’s feedback mechanism with the market (or more specifically, their customers). So we should be very skeptical of the arguments that “company XYZ would succeed because of (something to do with their existing traits)”. This probably counts for a lot less in the longer term.
The second point about the large diversity of evolved species in the fossil record means that, we have to be careful about survivorship bias: that tends to anchor us in thinking about what the current (end) state, which causes us to ignore/forget the fact that getting to the current state required a lot of trial-and-error, with many discarded errors which are often much more extreme and divergent than we think. We then focus on the end-state, and create ‘derivative but plausible-sounding crap”, like we are going to be the [Uber of X] (https://blog.ycombinator.com/read-this-before-you-build-uber-for-x/) or Superhuman of X
I tend to see this thinking a lot from ‘execution focused’ folks, who frequently have an MBA. The most frequent accompanying question tends to be ‘can we skip steps and get to the end outcome more quickly?’ The key thing to realise is that innovation is path dependent: getting to the end-state required going through the intermediate discovery stage. So copying-and-pasting something that worked in another domain (Uber) does not mean it’s going to work in another domain (X, where X is logistics, food delivery, etc.)
- However, I am not being all puritan: Rocket Internet’s model might actually work in some cases: the key work happens after you have copied the model, and that key work probably involves learning as quickly as possible about the market needs.
- The other big take-away is that, you are probably best-off if you really generate as many divergent bets as possible, but to realistically note that 99% of your bets will fail. So if you are doing an “Uber/Superhuman of X” or copying a model a-la-Rocket-Internet, then you probably need to be much more aggressive in trying different angles/things.
- My last takeaway is: rapid, frequent feedback >> ‘planning’