What can evolution teach us about strategy?

25 November

Minimalism verse growthism

This hackneyed phrase, or variations of it, reverberate so frequently around the echo chamber of business that many accept the relentless pursuit of growth as an incontrovertible ideal. Here is a typical proclamation:

"The growth culture isn't a component of a company's strategy; it is the company's strategy. Growth is a framework that needs to drive all operational tasks, projects and initiatives of a company. The DNA of the company needs to be growth. Opportunities for growth are endless and should always be seized."1

If you thought the phrase, 'when you stop growing, you start dying', is a lurid rendering of the circle of life, was originally coined by an esteemed business figure, then you'd be wrong. It was injected into popular culture by the writer, beat poet, and occultist William S. Burroughs in the prologue of his book, Junkie. He was talking about the 'benefits' of narcotics addiction:

“When you stop growing, you start dying. An addict never stops growing. Most users periodically kick the habit, which involves shrinking of the organism and replacement of the junk-dependent cells. A user is in a continual state of shrinking and growing in his daily cycle of shot-need for shot completed. Most addicts look younger than they are. Scientists recently experimented with a worm that they were able to shrink by withholding food. By periodically shrinking the worm so that it was in continual growth, the worm’s life was prolonged indefinitely. Perhaps if a junky could keep himself in a constant state of kicking, he would live to a phenomenal age.”

A meme that helps fuel addiction to growth was kicked off by a drug addict. You can’t make this stuff up!

While young companies certainly need growth to reach a sustainable point, is baking growth into the ‘DNA’ of a company really such a wise move? At what point does a growth culture become counterproductive?

The problem with such a culture is that it can establish a pattern of behaviour that treats every adaptive challenge as something to be attacked through growth.

The company needs greater output, so armies of people and layers of bureaucracy are piled on. Gary Hamel colourfully refers to this as ‘Bureausclerosis’. He estimates that it costs OECD countries $9 Trillion per annum in wasted productivity.

The product needs greater market share, so more features are piled on. We have all been sufferers of feature bloat. Microsoft Word achieved peak bloat with over 1,500 commands and 31 toolbars!

If evolution worked like this, then species and their genomes would get bigger and bigger with each generation. Fortunately, evolution does not work like this.


Spiegelman's Little Monster

In 1965, the great molecular biologist Sol Spiegelman conducted a landmark experiment. He was interested in determining the minimum size of a virus’s genome that enables replication.

He put some Q-Beta Phage, an RNA virus, into some test tubes to study its replication patterns. He tricked the virus by placing the enzyme RNA Replicase, the catalyst for biological replication, into the solution.2

Normally, the virus would need to encode the enzyme itself, carrying the instructions inside its genome in the form of nucleotide bases. But inside Spiegelman’s test tubes, there were plenty of free-floating Replicase enzymes, so the virus started jettisoning redundant genes. With each cycle of replication, the virus got smaller and smaller. After 74 generations, the virus’s genome shrank from 4,500 nucleotide bases to just 218.3

For the virus, in the highly certain environment of Spiegelman’s test tubes, growth was no longer the optimum strategy; minimalism was. A smaller virus replicates quicker. If it can obtain all the materials that it needs to complete its lifecycle from the environment, then why burden itself with redundant infrastructure?

Of course, there is a direct parallel in business: outsourcing. If a business can obtain what it needs to perform some of its functions externally, with a high degree of certainty, then why carry the overhead of those functions?


Minimality verse autonomy

Learning from evolution, can we formulate a general principle about when to grow something — a business unit, a department, or a product feature set — and when to shrink it?

We can model Spiegelman’s experiment quite simply using set theory.4



In the Venn diagram above, we can represent the available genetic material as existing wholly within the species, wholly within the environment (e.g., the virus’s host), or shared between both.

In an environment of high certainty, where there is a high probability of obtaining the genes from outside itself, Spiegelman discovered that his viruses will minimise themselves. They will dispense with the genes they no longer need, a process called compression selection.5 It is a strategy of minimality (or minimalism).

In environments of high uncertainty, the opposite strategy is optimal. For example, the giant parasitic ‘corpse flowers’ (Rafflesiaceae) of South East Asia rely on sparsely distributed vines as hosts. They are highly accomplished gene thieves and have assembled a complex genome that is nearly as large as ours. Theirs is a strategy of autonomy.6

The optimum adaptive strategy for a species lies somewhere on the spectrum between minimality and autonomy, delineated by the certainty or uncertainty of the environment.

Perhaps the same is true for organisations?

Rather than automatically enacting a strategy of continuous growth, a ‘constant state of kicking’ to use Burroughs’ words, why not instead look to the environment to see what it has to offer? Why not first explore what partnerships and mutual relationships are available to sustain the organisation instead of just building more bureaucracy, more infrastructure, and more overhead? When designing products, why not settle with smaller feature sets and connect with other products in the ecosystem to provide symbiotic functions? 

Minimalism seems a more elegant strategy when the certainty of obtaining resources is high. Conversely, when the supply of essential skills, knowledge, or technologies are uncertain, then building autonomy seems the rational approach.


Posted by John Dobbin.
Post Bureaucracy




  1. From the Forbes article, In Business, You're Either Growing Or You're Dying
  2. The short video, What is Spiegelman's monster?, provides a nice overview of the experiment.
  3. Spiegelman, S., et al. 1965, The synthesis of a self-propagating and infectious nucleic acid with a purifed enzyme Proc. Natl Acad. Sc
  4. See Origins of Life: Astrobiology & General Theories for Life - The Multiple Origins of Life - Part 4 for an expanded description of this example
  5. Ofria, C. Adami, C. and Collier, T. C. 2003, Selective pressures on genomes in molecular evolution J. Theo. Biol.
  6. They also need resources from their host in order to live, but share great many genes with their environments. See: DNA of Giant ‘Corpse Flower’ Parasite Surprises Biologists

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