What Would Darwin Do?: Musings on his 200th Birthday

Reading the above title you might think that I'm going to advocate a laissez-faire approach to management in which the Chief Executive encourages ruthless competition and the survival of the fittest.  Instead, I believe that every executive should be inspired by Darwin's relentless curiosity for truth and willingness to apply rigorous analysis to the most important questions.  Today, we have access to more information and knowledge than ever before, but few leaders create a learning organization to take advantage of these resources - to their competitive detriment. I had the good fortune of meeting Prof. Steve Spear yesterday.  In the mid 1990s, he became fascinated with the question: Why did Toyota, which started far behind its global competitors, catch them, surpass them, and continue to outpace them?  After years of careful study he came to the conclusion, well documented in his wonderful new book Chasing the Rabbit, that those companies who skillfully manage "complex internal systems" to generate constant self improvement at faster, longer, and broader rates than their competition, pull farther and father ahead.

Furthermore, he notes that the best CEOs are "chief learners," and they model learning behavior for their followers.  Steve recounted a wonderful story of Admiral Rickover, widely regarded the father of the Nuclear Navy.  Rickover, a captain at the time, was the ranking officer at a physics class, and had his hand up almost constantly with questions.  Finally the exasperated professor asked the Captain if he wanted a tutorial so he could catch up, and Rickover readily agreed.  When the professor had the tutorial, the entire class showed up with Rickover.  That humility - even in a man as headstrong and tough as the legendary Admiral -- sets a tone for the entire organization; a tone of inquiry, learning, and a passion for knowledge.  Dr. Toyota has a similar reputation.

Most interestingly Steve said that the great firms have a humble but optimistic attitude.  They believe that they only know a fraction of what they could know, and that their current performance is puny when compared to their potential.  This powerful combination of humility and optimism is the substrate upon which constant improve rides.  Constant improvement is driven by curiosity, data, analysis and a thirst for the truth.  Darwin had a similar optimism, passion, and intellectual toughness to seek knowledge.  A recent New York Times article notes that Darwin said, "the sight of the feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick."  It made him sick because it did not make sense within his theory of natural selection.  Darwin had the courage to confront those things which did not match his theory of natural selection - exasperating as they were.  By having this patient persistence, he eventually crafted his theory of sexual selection which explains why a male peacock puts so much biological energy into his ornaments!

In contrast to this constant curiosity, Steve characterizes the Big 3 auto companies as believing that their management practices were close to optimal and only marginal improvements were possible - which Steve feels is fundamentally zero sum and pessimistic.  Lesser scientists, and lesser executives ignore the peacock, and in the process of assuming it away, abandon the opportunity to improve, and to set their organization on a competitive trajectory for success.

So on this 200th anniversary of the great man, think of all the data and theory available to today's executive.  Take the lowly call center in which you can know each and every call, its resolution, root cause of the problem, customer satisfaction, and behavior or your product or service.  The question is, do you use this information to your advantage?  Is your organization humble, mentally tough, and optimistic?  As leaders, if we can be 10% as brilliant as Darwin, we can win the day in the marketplace and craft organizations whose trajectory will lead long after we retire.

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