Species evolution has a lot to teach us when it comes to developing businesses, says Mark Price

We’ve seen a lot of retail anniversaries this year – Marks & Spencer, Jaeger, Selfridges, Sainsbury’s.

They’ve all used birthdays to create a welcome sense of celebration and perhaps to play to customers’ appetite for heritage and permanence in these testing times.

But the significant date I’ve been interested in is apparently far removed from the world of shopping.

Because this year is the 150th anniversary of The Origin of the Species – my pile of holiday reading books included Darwin’s Garden by Michael Boulter.

As usual, despite visions of getting through everything in the stack of volumes and my best intentions, I never got beyond the first, which happened to be Boulter’s. The book is part biography of Darwin and part explanation of his thoughts around The Origin of the Species. 

I had promised my wife that this year it would definitely be an away-from-it-all, relaxing holiday. But reading the book, the world of work found its insistent way back into my consciousness as I was struck by the similarities between species evolution and business development. Let me explain, using Tesco as a positive illustration.

Darwin’s first step to evolutionary species change is that of natural selection. He reasons that if by some chance a particular aspect of a species develops to make it stronger or better, that mutation will become dominant. For a business parallel one could look to Tesco Clubcard, a small adaptation but giving Tesco a winning competitive edge and now widely replicated across retail. 

Darwin’s next step is the impact of environment in helping adaptation. Here you might look at the fact that customers are shopping more frequently for fresh food because of changing lifestyles. Tesco’s response? Convenience shops, which they moved into about five years ahead of their main competitors. The convenience shop has many of the characteristics of its parents but is a new species – again bringing competitive advantages. 

The last component of Darwin’s change theory was migration. He plotted the spread of holly from the Canary Islands around the world over 100 million years and noted adaptations in each region, so much so that some species were almost unrecognisable from the original, but had the same DNA. 

In several hundred years’ time I wonder whether Tesco or Fresh & Easy will be the dominant brand? I suppose it depends on how well each adapts. 

What all this suggests to me is that to be a long-term business winner you first require operational excellence to set you apart, but this must then be coupled with strategic insight to adapt and ultimately the courage and flexibility to make large evolutionary steps. 

So as you can see, my holiday was a total break from work for me – I hope you all fared better.

➤ Mark Price is managing director of Waitrose

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