While it is freezing cold outside, the 46 attendees at Buitenplaats Vaeshartelt are taking care of a warm ambiance. They have been asked to leave spring early to attend the 2017 Winter Edition of the Breakfast Booster, organised by Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (SBE).
One of the first attendees is the speaker: evolutionary biologist Dr. Roy Erkens, who you can see is very excited about it. Also present is the Director of Postgraduate Education, Prof. dr. Mariëlle Heijltjes. Like the others, they are treating themselves to the large breakfast buffet.
Kick-off a special meeting
Diana Berdún Mingo, Marketing and Communications Officer at the business school, kicks off this special meeting. Why special? Because biology is not a common topic in the world of business and economics.
Erkens takes the floor and immediately asks the question that will be the focus of this Breakfast Booster: what can organisations learn from evolution? Evolution, the change in inherited traits within a population, is a traditional domain of biologists, however there are many parallels with business. “Evolution is a powerful tool that can serve as a reference for other areas” says Erkens, who wishes to emphasise that analogies do not always stand.
Evolution does not anticipate
Erkens uses the example that low back pain, a typical problem of our time, can be explained. The lumbar spine is not made to carry the burden of the (heavy) upper body because it is not too long ago that we were still walking on all fours. Economy also lends itself to such an evolutionary approach.
Change is an eternal constant in nature. To see that, you often have to take a step back because not everything is changing just as quickly. Take the ginkgo (Japanese nut tree), for example. In all honesty, it is a living fossil because that tree has not changed in millions of years. Viruses however, like the flu, mutate so rapidly that the immune system and vaccinologists are always running behind. This also counts for evolution in general. “Evolution does not anticipate,” Erkens puts aptly.
Survival of the fittest
Species – more like populations because species can develop independently of one another – change because their environment is changing. Whoever is best able to adapt will be the one to survive: the principle of Survival of the Fittest, created by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) who was looking for parallels between Darwin’s biologic theory and his own economic theories. Therein “fittest” cannot be translated as “strongest” but better as “most adapted,” emphasises Erkens.
Variation as a source of change
Natural selection and variation are key concepts in the evolution of species. Within a population exists genetic diversity, or variation: the source of every change. Individuals have different genetic characteristics. Individuals with particular, let’s call them more successful, characteristics will survive more often and reproduce and thereby pass those characteristics on to the next generation. This is how a successful characteristic becomes more useful and evolves a species. “This selection method is actually a form of trial-and-error in nature,” explains Erkens. Nature tries out some variants, and those that work the best will survive.
Which animal resembles your organisation?
Change can take place slowly or quickly, gradually or suddenly. “How does it work within your organisation?” Erkens asks those present, who table by table must answer his question. “And with what animal would you compare your organisation, given the characteristics of that animal?” comes the follow-up question. At one table, Maastricht University gets compared to an elephant and at another to a lion because of her social and caring character.
Perfection does not exist
It is a mistake to think that evolution strives for perfection or even a higher purpose. Just because you can see a particular pattern in evolution does not mean that nature had a preconceived plan. And “successful” is a relative concept in evolution. How good are you in relation to others? That is what it is ultimately all about.
So cat, so mouse
Take a household wherein the mouse population has been able to thrive because of a lazy house cat. What happens when you introduce a fast cat into the household? The slow mice will fall prey to the cat. Only the faster mice will survive and reproduce. This is how you create a faster species of mice. Natural selection on a micro level.
On a similar note, when two men are being chased by a lion in the savanna, they don’t need to get ahead of the lion but just each other. That also counts for organisations. In a difficult and dynamic market, it is sometimes more important to stay ahead of the competition than to strive for perfection.
How flexible is your organisation?
How good a species (or organisation) does, always depends on their match with their surroundings. If the environment changes rapidly, a once successful species can quickly become extinct. Consider the dodo who watched its environment change too quickly. You can expect something similar to happen to organisations that continue to do the same things despite a changing environment.
Look at the DNA of your organisation. Why did your organisation become this way? Do you still function optimally in your current environment? Which threats are lurking and how are you going to deal with them as an organisation? With those types of (let’s call them existential) questions, attendees will go home. Or better said, to work. The workday has yet to begin!
Tuesday May 30th, Maastricht University School of Business and Economics will organise the Seminar on Personal Effectiveness – What can we learn from evolution? The seminar will be provided by Roy Erkens and Martin Lammers. More information can be found at: www.um-seminar.nl.