Marketing Thought

Evolutionary Metaphors

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. How we might describe business ideas in biological terms.

Evolutionary Metaphors Aren’t ‘Correct’

One overarching point he makes is that you won’t find metaphors that are correct. Metaphors are never precisely correct. Trying to shoehorn the world into the metaphor is only going to fail. Selection in business isn’t the same as natural selection. This means treating the two as identical is wrong. That said, we may benefit from using the concept of selection. This can be a great source of ideas about how business works.

My favorite 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 this idea. They suggested 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. Inheriting acquired characteristics is a really interesting idea. Unfortunately, for the metaphor, this isn’t how biological evolution works. It is cool but wrong. That is better than most ideas really.

Giraffe In Training For Its Ancestors: Photo By Todd Trapani From

But They Can Be Useful

The point here is that even though biological evolution doesn’t work one way it doesn’t mean the idea can’t be useful. The idea of acquired characteristics can 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 perfectly 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. The idea of evolutionary processes is but a metaphor used in business. It is not a literal assertion. Markets are never exactly the same as biological processes.

A similar logic means we can use sports metaphors to illustrate our points about competition. Even if they aren’t perfect they can help. The test isn’t whether they precisely explain the world it is whether they allow us to develop useful ideas.

For more on evolution and business see here, here, and here.

Read: Tihamer von Ghyczy (2003) The Fruitful Flaws of Strategy Metaphors, Harvard Business Review, September, page 86-94

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