Accidents will happen, if you're shrewd enough

ON EXCELLENCE

February 01, 1993|By TOM PETERS

Accidents happen. In fact, accidents are what life is about. Ten thousand unpredictable factors spawn a Wal-Mart or an Apple Computer. Hold your applause for the planners: It simply turned out that the companies' schemes suited the market's unanticipated needs at that moment.

Suddenly, new firms build on the Wal-Mart or Apple model -- until a new, happy accident occurs. Yesterday's stars, slaves to the rituals that made them excellent originally, have little ability to change; many either die or become irrelevant.

Charles Darwin, of course, explained all this 134 years ago. His theory of natural selection is crystal clear: Until there's an accident (mutation), no progress occurs. Most accidents/mutations are useless (just as most start-ups fail), but a tiny handful succeed and are responsible for all progress.

Physics is managers' favored metaphor. Newton's sun and planets atomic model is attractive and predictable. (Most of today's execs didn't study quantum mechanics, which strikes a fatal blow at Newton's determinism.)

For those not schooled in biology, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan's book, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are," is a superb primer. Consider five statements from their chapter on DNA, mutation and progress:

* "Active mutators in placid . . . times tend to die off. They are selected against. Reluctant mutators in quickly changing times are also selected against."

Business application: In a calm market, slow-moving, orderly, methodical firms will thrive; crazies will perish. If you can count on your next generation of cookies, sweaters or software to last a dozen years, then you should patiently nurture it. Don't jeopardize a brand by introducing a flurry of line extensions, let alone new categories that might threaten today's winner.

Alternatively, in a turbulent market, "reluctant mutators" -- those afraid to challenge their cash cow with, say, an aggressively early release of an adventurous new product -- are headed for trouble.

As I see it, business problem No. 1 is that too many still follow the reluctant mutator strategy -- e.g., IBM's futile effort to control its major customers in a computational world gone bonkers.

* "Advantageous mutations occur so rarely that . . . it may be helpful to arrange for an increased mutation rate."

Business lesson: Pursue accidents! The trick, for an IBM, Sears or GM, is to create a Dell, Gap or Honda in its midst.

Body Shop boss Anita Roddick says she seeks out anarchists, another word for mutators. It's easier said than done. In-house renegades, following a lucky first success, are usually stifled by the company's time-honored practices.

* "It's as if, for every million dyed-in-the-wool conservative organisms, there's one radical who's out to change things. . . . And only one in a million [of the radicals] knows what it's talking about -- providing a significantly better survival plan than the one currently fashionable. And yet the evolution of life is determined by these revolutionaries."

Commercial message: I'd rather be secretary of the Treasury than a big-company CEO. Life is a numbers game. As Treasury honcho, my primary job is to create a fertile garden that supports enough radicals to up the odds of a successful few (Bob Swanson at Genentech, Bill Gates at Microsoft).

The trick is the same for corporate chiefs. Trouble is, they survey smaller fields and are stymied by a uniform culture that aims to stamp out deviants.

* "We understand enough about biology . . . to recognize a powerful stochastic component."

Practical translation: Einstein's contrary assertion notwithstanding, God probably did play dice in creating the universe. Chance determines success, and there's only one way to beat the odds: lots of statistically independent tries unconstrained by "the way we do things around here."

* "Natural selection . . . draws forth a complex set of molecular responses that may superficially look like . . . a master Molecular Biologist tinkering with the genes; but, in fact, all that is happening is mutation . . . interacting with a changing external environment."

Commit this last statement to memory -- and if you're the boss, pin it over your planner's desk. In retrospect, a 3M or Johnson & Johnson (among the best at spawning mutants) looks logical: Families of products fit neatly under certain headings -- e.g., 3M's relatively recent, multibillion-dollar success in medical products. But the truth is, these firms grew erratically, were pockmarked by failures, and were wise enough to capitalize on successful accidents. The story is not tidy. But, then, neither is life -- despite large corporations' continued efforts, futile in general and deadly these days, to try to make it so.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 839-5600.)

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