How to speed up evolution

by Kristofer Mencák on December 1, 2008

These are some first thoughts on the subject, so feel free to comment and contribute with your own thinking. It is something I have been thinking about for some time. I have tried to formulate it in my mind, and finally, having a bit of time during the weekend, put it in writing. What follows of course has a close resemblance to the concept of a Meme, but I wanted to use to the original ideas on evolution here, as it is more well known. However, it might not be entirely clear yet. So, bear with me! And please comment and contribute! =)

To get started, we need to take a quick look at evolution – from wikipedia. If you feel you already have a good grasp of it, please continue.

“In biology, evolution is change in the inherited traits of a population of organisms from one generation to the next. These changes are caused by a combination of three main processes: variation, reproduction, and selection. Genes that are passed on to an organism’s offspring produce the inherited traits that are the basis of evolution. These traits vary within populations, with organisms showing heritable differences in their traits. When organisms reproduce, their offspring may have new or altered traits. These new traits arise in two main ways: either from mutations in genes, or from the transfer of genes between populations and between species. In species that reproduce sexually, new combinations of genes are also produced by genetic recombination, which can increase variation between organisms. Evolution occurs when these heritable differences become more common or rare in a population.

Two major mechanisms drive evolution. The first is natural selection, a process causing heritable traits that are helpful for survival and reproduction to become more common in a population, and harmful traits to become more rare. This occurs because individuals with advantageous traits are more likely to reproduce, so that more individuals in the next generation inherit these traits. Over many generations, adaptations occur through a combination of successive, small, random changes in traits, and natural selection of those variants best-suited for their environment. The second major mechanism is genetic drift, an independent process that produces random changes in the frequency of traits in a population. Genetic drift results from the role probability plays in whether a given trait will be passed on as individuals survive and reproduce. Though the changes produced in any one generation by drift and selection are small, differences accumulate with each subsequent generation and can, over time, cause substantial changes in the organisms. This process can culminate in the emergence of new species”

Of course, a business isn’t exactly comparable to a specie. A business has the advantage of being able to change within its own lifetime. However, change within a business is often slow, and over the years, we have seen thousands of businesses that do not cope with the changes fail.

The problem is that the business environment changes even faster now, and it continues to increase. So, how are businesses going to be able to survive? I mean, sometimes businesses take years or even decades to develop new offerings, depending on the complexity of products/services in their industry. The cycles are often long, starting with a product idea and development, going through focus groups and being test marketed, until finally fully launched. And the sad truth is that even though they go through this long, elaborate process, most products fail.

Social media is part of the development, and part of the speeding up of things. Word of mouth, making or breaking a business, is faster now, able to spread to more people faster, and without geographical boundaries. So, it is part of the threat. But it is also part of the solution.

As mentioned, businesses have the advantage of being able to change (mutate) within their own lifetime, and they do that all the time, although sometimes a bit slow.

The trick is to speed evolution up. And speeding it up requires two things:

  1. There has to be more change created. Opening up to the world is a solution. Getting rid of the closed lab doors where product ideas have been generated, development has been carried out and focus groups have given their (often flawed) opinion.

    Getting ideas from both inside and outside the business creates more genetic recombination. The ideas will be more interesting, and new perspectives and combinations will be put forth. Besides getting more genetic recombination, the shere number of mutations (sometimes like happy accidents, like the history of the post-it notes)will be a lot bigger. So, there will be a lot of change and a lot of new ideas. Some of them will be very far out, not very beneficial, or just plain stupid. But some will probably also be brilliant. The trick is how to sort it out. That’s where the second one comes in.

  2. There has to be a faster natural selection. Going through the standard cycle doesn’t work as well as it used to. The solution to this also rides the wave of opening up. Consumers can evaluate ideas very early in the process, and the ones too far out, or with too small potential can quickly be weeded out. The brilliant ones will be well received, and maybe improved, or even created by the consumers.

    One great example of this is Threadless, letting their users create t-shirt designs and then voting which ones to produce.

Some of the advantages for any business using this model are:

  • Lower costs för development
  • Reduced risk of product failure (eliminated even?)
  • Consumer participation, which increases loyalty

And, with any business that needs to develop new products/services in mind, once again quoting wikipedia:

“Though the changes produced in any one generation by drift and selection are small, differences accumulate with each subsequent generation and can, over time, cause substantial changes in the organisms. This process can culminate in the emergence of new species.”

So, speeding up business evolution through actively engaging consumers using social media, just like Dell has done with DellIdeastorm or Starbucks with MyStarbucksIdea, a business might get a very positive result. Something all managers probably dream to achieve.

The competition is left behind.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanus December 6, 2008 at 4:08 pm

“…Consumers can evaluate ideas very early in the process, and the ones too far out, or with too small potential can quickly be weeded out..”

Other than noting that ideas were weeded out how
was their small potentiality measured? For the answer see the Tautology entry on Wikipedia to which I have made extensive edits which were accepted by the community.


Kristofer Mencák December 6, 2008 at 6:20 pm


i would say the small potential of the ideas was measured by acceptance by the consumer community. I know there are some problems with this. For example, in cases such as DellIdeastorm and MyStarbucksIdea, the ideas on top get more exposure, and that leads to even more votes probably. It is a “rich get richer”-phenomenon.

I have a hard time finding exactly what you are referring to, as there are two entries on wikipedia – Tautology (rhetoric) and Tautology (logic). Which one should I take a look at, and what part of it?



Thomas December 9, 2015 at 2:40 am

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