You have to forget the old before you can learn the new

One of the difficulties that companies face in adopting new ways of doing things is that it takes an effort to forget how to do things, often as much as it takes to learn new ones. I think this is the case in the adoption of social tools and in many other disruptive innovations.

The notion of fitness landscape from evolutionary biology (the work of Sewall Wright) can help us think about this graphically.

A fitness landscape can be thought of as a mountainous terrain, with peaks and valleys. A company (or an animal, in the natural world)  may find itself at the top of a certain peak of fitness (A). This is perhaps only a local maximum, meaning that other peaks nearby could be taller, representing the possibility of greater growth, innovation, or profits. Alternatively, the fitness landscape may be undergoing change, such that new peaks may be growing, and the company’s position is becoming relatively less fit.

Figure 1: Sketch of a fitness landscape. The arrows indicate the preferred flow of a population on the landscape, and the points A and C are local optima. The red ball indicates a population that moves from a very low fitness value to the top of a peak. [from wikipedia]

The management at company A may understand that it is time to head for B — for example, they may have decided that 2013 is the year to roll out comprehensive social tool use across the company, and that will help the company greatly. Or, in biological terms, they believe it will increase their evolutionary fitness in a changing world.

However, to get to B, they first have to move down the fitness slope into the valley between the two peaks. And this is where things get dicey, because people in the company have to start leaving behind established practices and patterns. For example, before the benefits of work media are evident —  because people are still unsure of exactly how to use it, many projects haven’t been set up, few experts have emerged, etc. — people have to decrease their reliance on older techniques, like email cc lists, weekly status updates, and personal instant messaging. And this can lead to decreased productivity, frustration, and discouragement.

This is where a lot of companies flounder, and often for a long time. It’s perhaps an obvious thing but worth saying again: most social tools require nearly unanimous adoption for the greatest benefits to be realized, and can have very low pay back if even a small minority defect, especially if the minority are powerful or influential, like senior managers.

It also may come as no surprise that there is a strong, but not absolute, correlation of age and reluctance to change. And the combination of a resistant cadre of powerful managers is the fastest way to find a company climbing back up A, and waving off the premise of B.

There are any number of evolutionary dead ends in the fossil record, organisms that could not evolve fast enough to a changing world. Just so in human history, where civilizations like the Maya and Anasozi failed to heed the evidence of self-induced environmental damage and climate change collapsed before making substantive cultural changes.

In the final analysis, many companies will find their way through the valleys by putting aside old practices and adopting new ones. But it may not be easy, and sometimes — as Ray Lane once said — you have to wait for a generation to die (or retire) before it can happen.