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How penguins on a melting iceberg can inform a startup's change strategy

Posted by Ian Brookes on 19/06/17 06:32

Charles Darwin, the English naturalist, biologist and geologist, is best known for his contributions to the science of evolution, a process that he called ‘natural selection’ in the struggle for existence. He is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential figures in human history.

As every schoolchild knows, Darwin spent five years living on the Galapagos Islands as part of his voyage on HMS Beagle, and studied the finches. He was intrigued that each island had its own distinct species, and worked out that they shared descent from a common ancestor and were a product of evolution.

Puzzled by the geographical distribution of wildlife and fossils he collected on the voyage, Darwin began detailed investigations and he conceived his theory of natural selection. Although he discussed his ideas with several naturalists, he needed time for extensive research, and his geological work had priority.

Two decades on from his HMS Beagle voyage, he was writing up his theory in 1858 when Alfred Wallace sent him an essay that described the same idea, prompting immediate joint publication of both of their theories. Darwin's work established evolutionary descent with modification as the dominant scientific explanation of diversification in nature. Today, Darwin's scientific discovery is the unifying theory of the life sciences explaining the diversity of life.

His hypothesis in The Origin of Species was that man had descended from chimpanzees. Nature, red in tooth and claw, had used the survival of the fittest to weed out the imperfect and weak. Homo Sapiens at the top of the evolutionary tree had achieved her desired end: they had evolved and responded to the changing environment, something that the dinosaurs patently had not.

Racked by guilt at replacing the doctrines of the Church with a vision of man as a shaven primate in an amoral universe, Darwin retired into obscurity. He repented his blasphemy on his deathbed. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, where he still lies, trampled by tourists.

There are, however, a number of inaccuracies in the montage of Darwin’s legacy. The word ‘evolution’ does not appear in The Origin of Species, and the phrase the survival of the fittest is not his, but was coined by the philosopher Herbert Spencer to summarise the notion of natural selection, the central tenet of Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

However, Darwin’s visionary thinking was truly ground breaking, as much as any disruptive tech startup today, and has application to thinking about startup strategy, where the dimensions of change – competition, economics and pace of tech innovation - exhibits similar characteristics and potential impact to those outlined in Darwin’s evolution theory based on finches and humans.

For example, startups can be grouped in to sets (species), revolving around solving one problem, where the basis of competition is providing a different value proposition to get ahead of others in the market. In doing this, it becomes survival of the fittest to win customers and market share in a changing environment, a fierce competition where sharp elbows and minds are needed.

There’s no grand theory of startups, nothing comparable to the theory of relativity for physics or the theory of evolution for biology. Neoclassical economic theory is the only real contender, where from a few simple assumptions about self-interested rational actors, you can derive equations for everything from employment, inflation and money supply. For Darwin read Malthus, Mill, Smith and Ricardo.

However, the science of economics has fallen upon hard times and lost credibility as a result of its lacklustre inconsistency in predicting economic trends or informing policy – in fairness the thinking was forged in C18th and C19th, and C21st tech has ripped up the rulebook of supply and demand, and market equilibrium. Today, it’s a laundry list of paradoxes and anomalies that are difficult to relate to C21st markets.

But you can apply Darwin’s fundamental postulates to startups quite rationally: the strong do crush the weak; startups exhibit incremental ascent with modification as new ideas evolve; semi-random innovation occurs via trial and error to find product-market fit; tech creates market disruption which drives selective survival, and other evolutionary Darwinian features.

It’s his statement that It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change where Darwin has the most resonance for startups, and brings me to a story about penguins to illustrate this.

On the face of it, Harvard’s John Kotter’s seminal book Our iceberg is melting is a simple tale of a group of penguins who are scared about losing their home and lifestyle because their current habitat - their iceberg – is melting, and yes, even more scared of the changes that could entail.

The book narrates how the penguins discovered the problem, which highlights a need for change, and how they then go through a process to secure survival, captured in Kotter's eight principles of change. Through this simple allegory of their struggle for finding their new home, the story delivers a powerful message that is relevant for startups as they search for their isolated icebergs of opportunity that are sustainable.

In the story, Fred is an observant and curious penguin - maybe a data scientist in a penguin’s disguise? He observes that their iceberg home was melting. Not one to just wait for his daily quota of squid, he spoke to Alice.

Alice is one of the leaders of the colony, practical and mentally tough. Of course Alice initially wondered if Fred was suffering from a personal crisis or if he missed his morning fishmeal. But she gave him a patient hearing, which rapidly changed to alarm when she saw the cracks and fissures in their iceberg.

Alice brought Fred’s concern to the rest of the leadership team, and eventually the colony waddled their way to a miraculous solution in the book, enjoying quite a few squids on the way, showing that in order to achieve change, you need a vision, a process and a team that can drive that change.

Let’s cut back to the reality of our startup world, where the tech market is the iceberg and is never solid, melting in a maelstrom of new, emerging paradigms, contradictions, red herrings (Alice’s second favourite food) and more twists and turns than a King Emperor swimming at 30mph in the Antarctic sea.

Facing a startup CEO is a plethora of data looming across channels from transaction information to marketing automation and digital marketing platforms. Then there are blogs, meet-ups and accelerators offering insights and ambiguities on trends, opinions and comments. Against this backdrop of constant change, she has to balance branding and positioning, innovation and selling, people and finance, to respond and grow both in the near and long term.

Let’s look at the eight steps for change outlined in Kotter’s book and the penguin’s situation, and see how they apply for a startup trying to survive, grow and evolve in a shifting, mutating market.

1. Set the scene

Create a sense of urgency – don’t wait until the iceberg starts to melt Fred discovered the iceberg where the colony lives is melting. He tells Alice, who is initially sceptical, but she sees how urgent the situation is. Alice tells the leading council of penguins, most of whom don't believe her. But Fred shows the penguins the urgency of the situation.

For startups, it’s a combination of instinct, hunches and data. But the message from the iceberg is that difficult problems won’t go away, and you need to help others see the need for change and the importance of acting immediately.

Pull together the guiding team A team of five penguins is put together to deal with the situation, they immediately start brainstorming ideas. This team has to focus on driving a balance between creativity and data driven decisions. Unexpectedly, their inspiration for a solution comes from a passing seagull, which happened to land on their iceberg.

For startups, the lesson is to ensure there are problem solving skills, not just creative thinking skills in the team, and to maintain a sense of balance around domain expertise and outward looking curiosity of your immediate environment for potential disruptive ideas. Never get complacent that you have all the questions – let alone the answers.

2. Decide what to do

Develop the change vision and strategy The inspiration from the seagull led to a solution, which would change the way the penguins lived. They would become a nomadic colony that moved to locations suitable for living, rather than being static. This would be a big change to the penguins, who had lived in one location for years, and were used to their current way of life.

The business learning here is to keep an open mind, and be prepared to pivot – in essence to start again. To find a sensible version of a better future, hold you vision – keep all the penguins together - but have a strategy that responds to the changing environment, and one that isn’t constrained by previous thinking.

Communicate for understanding and collaboration Though the team had now found a potential solution, they needed to get the buy-in of other penguins. There were penguins that were very sceptical and thought either the whole thing about the melting iceberg was nonsense, or it was too dangerous to move.

In a startup, avoid hierarchies and promote open communication at all times, change makes people nervous, and uncertain times combined with gaps in communication makes this worse. Ensure frequent and open communication with regular and personal attention.

3. Make it happen

Empower others to act The team found ways to include other penguins to become part of the solution, and because others felt part of the solution, the opposition decreased.

Opposition to change arises because of a lack of engagement and inclusion, and creates a feeling of not being valued. Remove as many these barriers as possible – a change of direction in a startup, as a result of the iceberg melting, needs everyone to be engaged, empowered and together.

Produce short-term wins When other penguins got involved they started achieving short-term goals, which were necessary on the way to the end result. This encouraged and motivated the penguins to keep working towards the solution.

Create some visible, unambiguous successes as soon as possible. Short-term wins create a positive atmosphere that everything will be ok, even if there are some tougher challenges ahead.

Don't let up The colony finally moved to a new iceberg, but they didn't stay there. They found a better one and moved again. They were not giving up but kept looking for better living situations for the colony.

The lesson for startups is to remain restless and ambitious, never resting on your laurels, adopting a culture of continuous learning, pressing harder and faster after the first successes. Be relentless with initiating change until the vision is a reality.

4. Make it stick

Create a new culture Actions were taken to cement the new culture in place, there was no going back to old ways of living. This ensured that the changes would not be eroded by stubborn, hard-to-die traditions or a lack of focus on the future.

It’s an oxymoron for startups, but innovation starts with their own business model and behaviours, constantly looking forward to new horizons and not getting stuck in a way of being that is successful in the market of today. Nothing is new forever, like Darwin’s statement, it’s those that respond to change who are the most successful in the face of uncertain conditions.

Ask yourself whether you are living on a potentially melting iceberg. Melting icebergs for startups come in many forms: aging products becoming irrelevant for new market needs; new, alternative offerings disrupting your market space; a growth strategy implementation that is slowing and getting stuck in pack ice.

The reality is that tech startups encounter constant changes as the pace of innovation quickens at a macro level, and scaling yields internal challenges. You maybe fit for purpose today but it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.

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