by Elsa Perushek, Strategist
Without variation, there is no change.
There’s no evolution.
And, in the end, there’s no survival.
It’s as true in your personal cultural viewpoint as it is in business as it is in biology. So, to understand how they all work together, and why variation is essential to the growth of us all - as humans, as citizens, and as businesspeople - let’s start way back at the beginning. (This post is going to have sex in it. So get excited. 🐣🐝💬)
Part 1: Applying Biology Lessons to Business
When the earliest forms of life developed, they had one goal: to avoid extinction.
Evolutionary biologists posit that, at one time, all life avoided extinction by reproducing through replication – which was mostly asexual cloning. Asexual cloning is pretty effective against the villain of extinction: it has zero cost (each cell can replicate on its own) and it’s efficient (it can scale rapidly). But, at some point, at least two of those single-celled protozoans stopped cloning and started replicating through recombination with other protozoans. This was the first dual-cell sexual recombination. Why? Why weren’t low cost and hyper-efficient growth enough? What can recombination do that cloning can’t?
The biggest advantage of sexual reproduction is that it provides variation. While costly – only half of cells can actually “give birth” – and slow – gestation takes much longer than cloning – the fact that most complex organisms on this planet reproduce via sexual recombination is proof that variance is an effective way to combat extinction.
So what does sex have to do with ideas? With companies? With business?
Well, look at what happens when you try to scale just one idea rather than generating lots of ideas and picking the best one to move forward. With lots of ideas, you can ask questions and make choices based on their answers: Which is most effective? Which lives the longest? But with one idea, you’re stuck with something that was created to fill a single niche and may not ever be able to evolve in the ways you need it to.
Let’s use an example to make things clearer:
What do you do when you have a problem that needs a solution? You look out into the world and find what works and what doesn’t. After sorting through lots of information and concepts, perhaps there are three existing ideas that look promising to you.
Now you have some options:
- You can take one and copy it.
You can combine two of the ideas, or all three, into new solutions.
- You can deconstruct each existing idea and then recombine the parts into new solutions.
When we look at it this way, it’s a pretty compelling set of results.
A ) With the cloning method, you get one idea that you can scale easily, and you know it’s been proven to work.
B) With variation method 1, you get a middle ground, which gives you a few ideas constructed by combining multiple proven ideas.
C ) With variation method 2, you get lots of new ideas constructed from pieces of proven ideas.
I’ve never really been into the middle ground – I’m more of a go-big-or-go-home type of woman (plus it doesn’t help us understand this problem very well) – so let’s toss option B. (Trust me, you won’t miss it).
Ok, so Option A definitely has some positives: higher control, quicker proliferation, ease of understanding, and high likelihood of short-term success. But it also has a major, major negative: if there’s an idea-killer out there, then it’s going to die. Fast. (This is the business equivalent of an extinction event. If you can’t adapt, you’re history.) 💀
On the surface, Option C seems to have only negatives: many variables to manage, low control, and slow proliferation. But don’t judge this book by its cover; when you have lots of ideas, you can plan for both variance and long-term success. And when that idea-killer comes along, some of those ideas will be ready to out-maneuver and outlast it.
Part 2: A Practical Example of Variation in Business
Nice in theory. But does it work in the real world?
Damn straight it does.
It doesn’t get much realer than clean water, so let’s use that as a concrete example. Clean water is one of our most important resources, and we simply don’t have enough of it. There are a lot options out there for supplying large populations with clean water (and for the sake of curtailing my already loquacious self, we’ll focus on three): 💧
- There’s plastic-bottled water, which is easy and efficient, but wasteful of materials and shipping.
There are personal filtration tools, which are expensive and inefficient, but last a long time and empower individuals to provide for themselves.
- And, finally, there are large-scale desalination systems, which are energy-intensive, but provide permanent solutions for whole communities.
So, while these are viable options in and of themselves, let’s see what happens when we apply recombination:
Sweet. So there a bunch of ways to solve access to clean water by simply recombining options that are already available.
But what happens when the idea-killer comes along? In this case, what happens when plastic use is a bigger issue? Our clone is completely defeated, vanquished in one fell swoop. But while our variation column loses three ideas, four remain, alive and kicking.
Simply put, variation makes ideas harder to kill. And while they may take longer to grow into their adult forms, if they do take hold, they’re more likely to represent true evolution.
I understand why companies are reluctant to explore the options that variation offers. Corporations are built to grow efficiently without investing in expensive innovation – and ossify efficiently into shells, half of which end up dead within 10 years of going public. And whether that death happens at the hands of bankruptcy, acquisition, or re-privatization, it happens for one simple reason: they won’t spend money on change.
Part 3: Variation, Heuristics, and Polarization
So what does this have to do with people and the cultures we create together?
Well, it should be easy to introduce the benefits of variation into your own individual life. But, as it turns out, the lives we lead are often built on routines and efficiencies, and the cultural context we exist in is actually a severe impediment to living a life that embraces variation.
Here’s why. In the modern world, we’re inundated with inputs, and there’s no way to process all of them. So, in order to exist, we adapted to build heuristics. Heuristics are assumptions and biases that help us parse vast amounts of information and create a more palatable subset of inputs.
When we evolved to create heuristics, it was because it was important to filter out things like wind rustling in the leaves and focus on the sound of a lion padding through the grass instead. But, in the modern world, heuristics create false standards for what’s important and unimportant. Immediate threats and inputs are unlikely to be the most important elements of our survival, whereas long-term information is much more important. But we’re not evolved to think that way, so we’re stuck interpreting the world of today with the brains of our pre-historic selves.
And what does that end up looking like? Well, we invent tools that can do the job of parsing information for us – tools like the internet, with platforms that can hold innumerable pieces of content and points of view that can, in theory, allow us to see past bias and expose us to new ideas. But those tools are designed by humans. And humans are still controlled by our desires and our physiology – our humanity. And that means that the institutions capable of helping us overcome the inherent flaws in our thinking are often doing the exact opposite. 😱
The faux personalization that is “your” Netflix algorithm or “your” Facebook feed is a set of heuristics that feed directly into your biases. It’s a system designed not to expand our thinking past the filters we all instinctively need in order to process the world around us, but rather to reinforce those filters and paint us into smaller and smaller corners. In the name of comfort and efficiency – by designing tools that echo our evolutionary limitations and focus on our immediate needs rather than our long-term survival – we limit our view of the world. We limit the experiences that would allow us to evolve and reinforce the ones that keep us stagnant. It is, in fact, a vicious cycle. 😫
It’s no wonder that polarization continues to entrench itself further and further in our culture.
This kind of ever-tightening, purposefully inward-looking trajectory creates a cultural context where vast segments of the population are unable even to understand each other’s basic humanity. And, in the end, it creates massive ruptures in culture itself [see 2016 election and subsequent fallout].
The point is, socially we’re ignoring what biology has taught us. We’re not working to introduce variation into how we think, and act, and change. We’re simply building on one clear idea of who we are, and digging further and further into the niche we’ve created for ourselves. It’s easy. It’s comfortable. It feels safe, especially for the near future. But it won’t give us the adaptability to respond when things change. It won’t give us the tools we need to respond to a world that suddenly looks completely different. And it won’t help us survive.
But hope is not lost. We may not have evolved, but adaptation is our most powerful tool. Those brains we developed thousands of years ago are insanely big for a reason – and they’re why we’re the dominant species (apologies to beetles and bacteria – you guys are rad, but we invented space travel). 🚀
If we go into solving problems, whether they’re personal, business, or cultural, with our limitations in mind, and with the will and the intention to overcome them, we can take our evolution into our own hands. Where biology is too slow to introduce variation into our thinking, we can purposefully, continuously, and logically introduce it ourselves. It’s what makes us human.