Darwin’s survival of the fittest is the essence of evolution and humankind has become top dog on our planet not so much because we are the most physically fit but because we have opposable thumbs and are capable of reasoning. Those attributes make us superior to all other species. It doesn’t necessarily make us smart and since we’ve developed the weapons we have, it also doesn’t mean that the best of us or even the most fit of us survive. Nevertheless, here we are.
Barnard (The Functions of the Executive) wrote extensively about the characteristics of organizations, likening them to living beings and concluding that, like living beings, they have to adjust and adapt in order to survive. The theory of evolution as applied to organizations is Social Darwinism, and unfortunately, once organizations succumb to the notion that only the fittest of them survive, they cease being the organization they were created for. In business, where profit is the ultimate end and bottom line determines survival, bottom line is the goal and the original reasons for the organization’s creation become secondary. They become byproducts.
Apply this to widgets. Widget company A sells its widgets to the navy. As long as there is no competition and no real hassle over the cost, the company can concentrate solely on its widgets making them the best they can. The company can take pride in its product and everyone is happy.
But along comes widget company B. Initially company B makes a comparable widget and then it undercuts company A’s price and bids for the contract with the Navy. It wins with the same product produced less expensively. Company A is now at risk of extinction. It must get new customers, maybe advertise, hire another salesman or two. This costs money and drives up the price of the widgets. Greater expenses cause concerns and suddenly making the best widget is no longer company A’s primary concern. Staying alive has usurped making the best widgets as the primary directive for company A.
Company A has some key choices to make. One, of course, is to make a new and better widget to sell to the Navy. A second choice is to skimp on the original widgets and undercut Company B’ s price, hoping it will not be found out. A third choice is to sabotage company B by screwing up their shipments or manufacturing a malfunction report, etc.
The point is clear. Making the best widget so naval ships do not have any widget-related malfunctions should be the prime directive of both widget companies. Once company A enters the survival mode, its moves will force company B to do the same and both companies will have lost their direction. They will adapt and adjust repeatedly in their quest for survival and making a great widget is no longer their prime directive, which of course it should be.
Sometimes social Darwinism is good. When a company’s adaptations cause adjustments that bring forth technological advancements, like Kodak, for example, who moved into digital imaging, this is a good thing. Mostly, though, company A or company B puts the other out of business and then spends its efforts making sure the same thing doesn’t happen to itself.
Honest competition is healthy. Theoretically, competition should spur better products at better rates. But more often than not, by far, organizations are forced into survival of the fittest mode, and once they succumb to the demands of social Darwinism, they no longer function as they were meant to. They lose their way, abandon their purpose, and while they may survive, they no longer are what they set out to be, nor generally are their products.
Upcoming: Social Darwinism and public service unions