“The tragedy of life is not found in failure but complacency. Not in you doing too much, but doing too little. Not in you living above your means, but below your capacity. It’s not failure but aiming too low, that is life’s greatest tragedy.” – Benjamin E. Mays
“Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” – Andy Grove
In 1995, a truck approached Yellowstone, the oldest, one of the largest, and probably the best-known national park in the United States. The truck was like a modern-day Noah’s Ark, inside was a precious cargo of eight grey wolves. Their mission? To hunt prey, to reproduce and recalibrate the ecosystem. They became the first wolves to roam Yellowstone since the 1920s when the last pack was exterminated. Which makes one ponder, why were they culled in the first place and why were they reintroduced?
To put the extermination of wolves in context, we must consider that in the early 1900s few people, including biologists, understood the concepts of ecosystem and the interconnectedness of things.
Humans In: Wolves Out
As agriculture flourished, wolves’ natural prey declined, because their habitat was replaced by farmland. Instinctively, wolves sourced new prey and agricultural livestock and chickens met their needs nicely. For our part, humans saw the wolf as an enemy and poisoning and killing wolves on sight. By the mid-1900s, wolves had been almost entirely eliminated from the 48 states.
Trophic Cascades: Wolves In
(Trophic Cascade by TaksArt)
Trophic cascades are indirect interactions that can control entire ecosystems. These chaotic phenomena are akin to the “butterfly effect” in which the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil leads to a hurricane in Florida. Trophic cascades occur when predators limit the density and/or behaviour of their prey and thereby enhance survival of the next lower trophic level. A trophic cascade is triggered by the addition or removal of top predators. This interference triggers a cascade of changes all the way down the food chain, culminating in dramatic changes in the entire ecosystem.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
I am simplifying the cascade here for brevity, but when apex predators like the wolves were eliminated from Yellowstone, their absence took predatory pressure off the elk population. The thriving elk now overgrazed the entire park causing an imbalance to the delicate ecosystem. The mice and rabbits no longer had thick shrubs in which to hide from foxes, the birds had fewer trees in which to build nests and bears suffered from fewer berries because the elk had eaten up most of their supply. The most unforeseen and devastating effect was the elk’s impact on the Yellowstone rivers.
In the company of wolves, elk would only spend a short time drinking by the river for fear of ambush. In the absence of wolves, they basked by the riverbeds and gathered in herds. Their collective presence compacted and disturbed the riverbed for beavers who could no longer build damns and for fish and other lotic (flowing water) species.
All from removing predatory pressure!
Organisational Elk and External Innovation
(Kelpie by www.artstation.com/akreon)
“Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.” – Napoleon Hill
And now to the point of this Thursday Thought. Like the elk of Yellowstone, many organisations allow their victories to defeat them. If businesses do not experience any continuous struggle, they can become complacent. This complacency leads to stagnation and stagnation leads to decline. This is one of the great challenges of governmental organisations, there is no “external predatory pressure”, their predators come from within the pack, with other envious elk vying for power within the herd.
As for commercial organisations, once they bask in the glory of success, they too can fall prey to legacy mindsets. After all – they believe – in the absence of predatory pressure, why evolve? This mistaken belief leaves them vulnerable to displacement by superior disruptive technologies or innovative business models. A new wolfpack arrives and they are caught off guard while basking in the riverbed of success. Their ecosystem erodes gradually, the best people leave, their products lose out gradually and they are ambushed by evolution.
In all aspects of life, we are liable to similar stagnation. I am quoting directly from my book, “Undisruptable” here: “our successes often blind us to the possibility of failure, our victories can lead to our defeat. When organisations are at their most profitable, they are also at their most fragile. When individuals are at their most successful, we are also at our most vulnerable. We become so preoccupied with optimising, enjoying and defending the competitive advantage that made us successful today that we neglect to prepare for tomorrow. Business and careers, like life itself, are about a perpetual becoming, a permanent reinvention.”
While we don’t frame it this way (and it is difficult at the moment), we all need friction to force us to take action. The presence of a predator motivates us to try something new, reinvent something old and ultimately innovate.
The predator provides positive pressure, don’t be a lazy elk!