What Business Leaders Can Learn From Charles Darwin

2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work, On The Origin Of The Species. His theory is now associated with business through the concept of ‘Darwinian Economics’, namely that it is organisations that are best able to adapt that are most likely to survive.

But what else can you, as a business leader, learn from Charles Darwin? Here are three more lessons.

  1. Use the power of observation. Many managers are so busy making decisions, analysing problems and seeking answers that they pay no attention to simply observing. Darwin, on the other hand, spent much of his career observing. He spent six years, for example, dissecting and describing – in eye-watering detail – the structure of barnacles!
  2. If you are observing you cannot be analysing, and vice versa, and it was Darwin’s observations that formed the basis of his idea that changed the world. His five years on the Beagle trip, for example, involved him taking thousands of samples of various species.

    Observation requires getting out there, suspending your beliefs and simply taking note. It cannot be done from behind a desk through reports.

    For example, a retail client of mine grew sales of a complex product range by developing prototypes of many packaging variations, putting them on the shelf in a single store and observing how customers interacted with the product. He believes that he saved months of time by eschewing normal customer research and simply observing, in real time, actual customer behaviour.

    How much time do you spend on the front-line observing your team or your customers rather than analysing second or third-hand data?

  3. Looking to the past for innovation breakthroughs. Darwin was not the first person to have thought of the concept for evolution: he was not even the first person in his own family to have the idea! His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had promulgated the idea that all animals had a common origin before Charles was born.
  4. Similarly you can see the process of recombining ideas in other major breakthroughs and innovations. For example, Lou Gerstener refocused IBM away from hardware to service and consultancy support by connecting his prior (negative) experience as an IBM customer with his McKinsey consultancy experience and with the existence of a highly-active sales support unit within the company.

    This change in strategic direction transformed IBM from a company delivering record losses in the early 1990’s to multi-billion dollar profits by the end of the century.

    What are you doing to make new connections that lead to new, breakthrough concepts? (Note: If you would like practial approaches to creating breakthrough ideas download the pdf document, Breakthrough!, on the right)

  5. You can only change the world through action, not thinking. Darwin sat on his theory for 17 years before he published On The Origin Of The Species. He held back publication in order to ensure that he had irrevocable evidence to support his theory (hence his interest in barnacles!). Darwin’s hand was only forced when a rival publication was developed and his desire to be seen as the originator of the idea of evolution overcame his need to be 100% certain of his ideas.
  6. Likewise, taking action and prudent risks is the cornerstone of business growth and an offensive, rather than defensive strategy, is critical for ongoing survival and success. For example, Gillette has established market leadership by a stream of innovations that make their existing ranges obsolete. As a senior Gillette executive once said, “We have never launched a major new product without having its successor in development. You have to steer the market.”

The bottom line

Observation, creativity and an action-focus are essential elements of any successful organisation’s DNA. How can you use these lessons, from one of the greatest Britons that ever lived, to drive great results for your business in 2009?


To find out more contact Stuart by clicking here or call +44-(0)1636-526111.