The quote above has been often misattributed to Charles Darwin. But according to the Darwin project, it is actually a quote from Leon Megginson* in the 1960s paraphrasing Darwin in a management journal.
Now that I have done my bit to put that meme to bed, it is worth considering whether there is value in the concept or whether it is a dangerous oversimplification. And the answer is…
.. It depends!
You didn’t really think there was a black or white answer to this. The facts, such as we have, are that there are very few companies around today which are in the same form. Indeed, Mark Perry’s in his excellent economics blog Carpe Diem presents a chilling picture comparing the US fortune 500 from 1955 and 2011.
Of the 500 companies on the list in 1955, fewer than one in seven are still on the list in 2012! Only 57 years later. I say only 57 years, because it is less than the lifespan of an average western person.
So what happened to the rest, the other 6 in 7? They have either gone bankrupt, been privatised, merged, or their fortunes have gone south to the point that they are under the Fortune 500.
The parallels between evolution and raw capitalism are hard to resist. Indeed, although this may be a bridge too far, there may even be a parallel between evolutionary eras such as the Cambrian Explosion and the current communications technology fuelled business environment. As such, the life expectancy of companies seems to be getting less as the speed of global communications increases. Steve Jobs is quoted in Forbes Magazine suggesting “why decline happens” at great companies: “The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues.” So salesmen are put in charge, and product engineers and designers feel demoted: Their efforts are no longer at the white-hot center of the company’s daily life. They “turn off.”
Maybe another way to say this is that all organisations must have purpose, whether that is a government agency or a company. The widgets (for want of a better description) might be policy or law in the case of a government agency; cars in the case of a car company; or services in the case of a services organisation. If the organisation maintains its focus on why it exists, then it can maybe adapt and survive beyond the average – however, this is hard work and most will end up like trilobites, ubiquitous one day, fossils the next.
*Megginson, L. C. (1964). “Key to Competition is Management.” Petroleum Management, 36(1): 91-95.