First published November 21, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
The Páramos are remarkable places: grasslands that sit above the tree lines in the Andes, some 10,000 feet above sea level. What makes them remarkable are the things that grow and live there — like Espeletia uribei,which looks like a huge palm tree, but is actually an overgrown member of the daisy family.
The Páramos just happen to be the place on earth where evolution happens the fastest. There are other places where species evolve quickly, including Darwin’s Galápagos Islands, but scientists believe the Páramos are the hottest of the evolutionary hot spots.
The reason for this supercharged speciation is the climate, which makes them a very tough place to call home. They’re located at the equator, so they get sunshine year round. But the elevation introduces harsh temperatures and extreme ultraviolet exposure. Also, the weather can change in a heartbeat. A few minutes can mark the difference between sunshine, mist and full-on storms. This constant adaptive stress has resulted in biodiversity not seen anywhere else on the planet.
In biology, evolution is measured by the rate of mutation. In the business world, mutation equates to innovation. A new idea introduces a wild card into the competitive environment, just as a genetic mutation introduces a wild card into nature. It disrupts the status quo, either positively or negatively. That’s why it’s important for organizations to embrace failure. Openness to error encourages innovation, driving the competitive evolution of the company. Successful innovations can be game-changers, as long as you create a framework to identify unsuccessful innovations before they do irreparable damage.
So if we accept that corporate evolution is a good thing, and we want to increase our mutation/innovation rate, then it makes sense to seek our own organizational “Páramos.” These will be departments or divisions where volatility is the norm, rather than the exception. Stability is the enemy of innovation. Typically, these will be areas that require rapid reaction to external forces and adaption to new environmental factors. Much as we like to mythologize the lone genius toiling away in an ivory tower or R&D lab, the history of innovation shows that it most often comes from far messier, more organic sources.
In the Páramos, it’s the harsh, unpredictable climate that drives evolution. In a company, it’s the instability of the competitive marketplace that drives the forces of innovation. So it makes sense that the hotspots will be those areas of the organization that have the most exposure to that marketplace. Front-line touch points with customers, head to head contact with competitors and real world usage of your products or services are the externalities you’ll be looking for. That makes sales, marketing and customer service prime candidates for becoming your own Páramos.
The challenge is to enable innovation at this level. Typically, innovation in an organization is constrained (and unfortunately, often choked to death) by bureaucratic frameworks that build in “top-down” governance from executives who are traditionally miles away from the “Páramos” in the org chart. This is exactly the wrong approach. Mechanisms should be developed to encourage “bottom-up” innovation in these identified hotspots, with appropriate guidelines for identifying successful opportunities as quickly as possible, allowing organizations to fast-track the winners and cut their losses on the losers. These hotspots can become the strategic radar of the organization.
Darwin’s “dangerous idea” has completely changed biology. Currently, it’s causing everyone from psychologists to economists to rethink their respective fields. In the future, don’t be surprised if it has a similar impact on marketing and corporate strategy.