In his 2003 HBR article Tihamer von Ghyczy discussed the use of metaphors in strategic planning. (Full disclosure in 2003 I took his course at Darden.) Specifically he is most interested in the use of evolutionary metaphors. One overarching point he makes is that you shouldn’t seek to find metaphors that are correct. Metaphors are never precisely correct and trying to shoehorn the world into the metaphor is only going to fail. Selection in business isn’t the same as natural selection and so treating the two as identical is problematic. That said we may benefit from using selection as a source of ideas about how business works.
My personal favourite difference between evolution in business and the natural world is the problem of acquired characteristics. Nineteenth, and even early twentieth, century evolutionary thought often used the idea that animals inherited the characteristics that their parents acquired during their lifetimes. The classic case of this was the Giraffe. Adult giraffes were thought to stretch their necks reaching for food. Evolutionary theorists then assumed the adults could pass the usefully stretched necks onto their baby giraffes. Though inheriting acquired characteristics is an interesting idea this is isn’t how biological evolution works.
The point here is that even though biological evolution doesn’t work that way it doesn’t mean acquired charatertistics can’t be used when thinking about how business works. As von Ghyczy says (2003, page 93) “…in a well-run insurance company, one must assume that individual agents and offices are pefectly capable of adopting beneficial characteristics and sharing them with other offices.” Using this idea in business thinking doesn’t mean we have to think biology works like this because the idea of evolutionary processes is but a metaphor used in business. It is not a literal assertion that markets are exactly the same as biological processes.
This idea means we can use sports metaphors to illustrate our points about competition even if they aren’t perfect. The test isn’t whether they precisely explain the world it is whether they help develop useful ideas.
Read: Tihamer von Ghyczy (2003) The Fruitful Flaws of Strategy Metaphors, Harvard Business Review, September, page 86-94