Wednesday, 10 September 2014

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“Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy. I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize…
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“To begin with, for you to be here now, trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncompromisingly engage in all the billions of deft, co-operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally under appreciated state known as existence”.

“For all their devoted attention, your atoms don’t actually care about you – indeed, don’t even know that you are there. They don’t even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive”.  

That is Brill Bryson inviting you to his A Short History of Nearly Everything Yes, we are here (wherever we are) today as a result of evolution.

Tim Harford wonders if biological evolution is not important in human organizations also, in his well-researched and fascinating book Adapt. The core of evolution is adapting. Our organizations can survive only by adapting, like living organisms survived the process of evolution by adapting.

According to Harford organizations are designed to fail. The very idea of limited liability corporations is to limit losses to the pooled capital in case of failures. Organizations provide the safe space in which an entrepreneur can fail. “They are developed to encourage people to experiment, to innovate, to adapt – safe in the knowledge that if their venture collapsed, it would merely be the abstract legal entity that was ruined, not them personally”. Therefore, like in biological evolution where failure is a possibility, adapting will enable the survival of the organization. This is akin to the survival of the species by adapting or even by mutation.

 Let us take a step forward in this line of thinking: In biological evolution it is the entire species which evolves, not individual members of the species. Similarly, if organizations have to succeed, it is not enough that individuals succeed. Harford says that individual “managers can provide the space for innovation, but it is peers who provide most of the time and energy”.

How do we adapt? There are three steps which Harford calls the Palchinsky principles after a brilliant Russian engineer who was persecuted and eventually executed for being a maverick, innovator, dissenter, and an upright engineer. These principles are –
(1) Seek out new idea and   try new things (call it ‘variation’);
(2) When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable (call it ‘survivability’), and
(3) Seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along (call it ‘selection’).

Biological evolution is not a conscious process. As Bryson says in the opening quote, neither we who are colonized by the devoted atoms nor the atoms themselves are aware of what they are doing. Yet, as individuals in groups we have the ability to adapt. We can successfully adapt if we (a) look for variation, the innovative idea, (b) try it in a scale which is survivable, that is even in the event of the initial (say pilot) study, the organization or the group survives the loss, and (c) finally look for feedback from its success or failure. When we learn from our mistakes, we start the cycle over and over again.   

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Adaptation in Organizations
We really are not sure if the atoms in our body work to a plan or work randomly. Nevertheless, what they so devotedly do keeps us as individuals. Similarly, an individual (a Leader) in the organization thinks on the lines of the Palchinsky principles and influences or impacts others in the organization to think alike. That is how adaptation in organizations takes place. It may not be a biological process; but it is, indeed, a process akin to that. It is the leader who creates and nurtures the organizational culture where individuals have the sense of security to innovate, adapt and often fail. Yet, when they succeed, the organization takes a great leap forward. As Harford says, “The ability to adapt requires this sense of security, an inner confidence that the cost of failure is a cost we will be able to beat. Sometimes that takes real courage; at other times all that is needed is the happy self-delusion of a lost three-year old. Whatever its source, we need that willingness to risk failure. Without it, we will never truly succeed”.  


“The course is not the narrow way ‘which leadeth unto life – and few there be that find it’. Although the few that find this way are precisely the those creative personalities who set a civilization in motion and carry it forward, they cannot simply lay aside every weight and run the race that is set before them, because, being ‘social animals’, they cannot go on moving forward themselves unless they can contrive to carry their fellows with them in their advance; and the uncreative rank-and-file of Mankind, which in every known society has always been in an overwhelming majority, cannot be transfigured en masse in the twinkling of an eye”. -    Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History



What is true for civilizations is true for organizations, though in a smaller scale.


By V.K.Talithaya (vktalithaya@managementmasala.com)
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On 9/10/2014

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