9 The Law of Devolution

Let go at the top

The tightly linked nature of any economy, but especially the Network Economy’s ultraconnected constitution, makes it behave ecologically. The fate of individual organizations is not dependent entirely on their own merits, but also on the fate of their neighbors, their allies, their competitors, and, of course, on that of the immediate environment.

Some biomes in nature are shy of opportunities for life. In the Arctic there are only a couple of styles of living, and a species had better get good at one of them. Other biomes are chock full of opportunities, and those possibilities are in constant flux, appearing and retreating in biological time as species jockey toward maximum adaptability.

The rich, interactive, and highly plastic shape of the Network Economy resembles a biome seething with action. New niches pop up constantly and go away as fast. Competitors sprout beneath you and then gobble your spot up. One day you are king of the mountain, and the next day there is no mountain at all.

Biologists describe the struggle of an organism to adapt in this biome as a long climb uphill, where uphill means greater adaptation. In this visualization, an organism that is maximally adapted to the times is situated on a peak. It is easy to imagine a commercial organization substituted for the organism. A company expends great effort to move its butt uphill, or to evolve its product so that it is sitting on top, where it is maximally adapted to the consumer environment.

All organizations (profit and nonprofit alike) face two problems as they attempt to find their peak of optimal fit. Both are amplified by a Network Economy in which turbulence is the norm.

First, unlike the industrial arc’s relatively simple environment, where it was fairly clear what an optimal product looked like and where on the slow-moving horizon a company should place itself, it is increasingly difficult in the Network Economy to discern what hills are highest and what summits are false.

Big and small companies alike can relate to this problem. It’s unclear whether one should strive to be the world’s best hard disc manufacturer when the mountain beneath that particular peak may not be there in a few years. An organization can cheer itself silly on its way to becoming the world’s expert on a dead-end technology. In biology’s phrasing, it gets stuck on a local peak.

The harsh news is that getting stuck is a certainty in the new economy. Sooner, rather than later, a product will be eclipsed at its prime. While one product is at its peak, another will move the mountain by changing the rules.

There is only one way out. The organism must devolve. In order to go from one high peak to another, it must go downhill first and cross a valley before climbing uphill again. It must reverse itself and become less adapted, less fit, less optimal.

This brings us to the second problem. Organizations, like living beings, are hardwired to optimize what they know and to not throw success away. Companies find devolving a) unthinkable and b) impossible. There is simply no room in the enterprise for the concept of letting go — let alone the skill to let go — of something that is working, and trudge downhill toward chaos.

And it will be chaotic and dangerous down below. The definition of lower adaptivity is that you are closer to extinction. Finding the next peak is suddenly the next life-or-death assignment. But there is no alternative (that we know of) to leaving behind perfectly good products, expensively developed technology, and wonderful brands and heading down to trouble in order to ascend again in hope. In the future, this forced march will become routine.

The biological nature of this era means that the sudden disintegration of established domains will be as certain as the sudden appearance of the new. Therefore, there can be no expertise in innovation unless there is also expertise in demolishing the ensconced.

In the Network Economy, the ability to relinquish a product or occupation or industry at its peak will be priceless. Let go at the top.

Рубрики: | Дата публикации: 12.07.2010

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