Entrepreneurship is Evolution not Architecture
There is one rule above all — adapt or die
Plan, plan, plan. It is drilled into the head of every business student. Write business plans, addressable market analyses, go-to-market strategies.
The idea is that a business is a structure and you are the architect. You can write a business into reality. You can tame the chaos. Every line will be translated into a living part of a vibrant business like the meticulous drafting notes on a building elevation. Every spreadsheet cell will blossom into a revenue stream or product line. Uncertainty can be tackled with contingency plans.
If only things were so simple.
Now to be clear, I’m not a graduate of business school, which leaves my challenge wide open to criticism. Rather, I have years’ of experience founding and leading innovative companies, from an educational foundation in biochemistry.
Perhaps that is why my perspective on business runs counter to the conventional wisdom. At university I studied the complex chemistry that is fundamental to biological function. And that became the basis from which I approached innovation and entrepreneurship.
Through that lens, I view business as more biology than building. Instead of drawing up plans, measuring down to the fraction of an inch and laying out product lines like floorplans, I view business as organic, dynamic and adaptable.
Biological evolution is perhaps the greatest example of continual improvement, process refinement and dynamic innovation we have in the world today. It constantly pushes the limits of what is biologically possible — testing and adapting, failing fast and trying again, until the results are stunningly successful.
The creativity and capability produced by natural evolution are breathtaking. Hummingbirds that beat their wings an incomprehensible 80 times per second. Pistol shrimp that send super-heated sonic shock waves through water by snapping their claws shut, stunning prey from a distance. A certain jellyfish that is biologically immortal, reverting to polyp form and re-starting its life cycle when it reaches a certain level of maturity.
How does biological evolution reach such heights of innovation and creative problem solving? It’s certainly not a result of rigid planning and heads-down execution. It is the product of continual adaptation, refinement and creativity.
It is organic experimentation where the results are immediately tested and the experiment that passes the test goes on to replicate and then refine that capability over and over again.
Now let’s return to architecture for reference. There is this conventional idea that architecture and business planning are order, and organic innovation and biological adaptation is messy, like some drunkard stumbling about aimlessly. But this, I believe, is a false divide.
Nature exhibits a higher level of complexity and an order that is more intricate. Many people don’t recognize it as order because of its complexity, dynamism and powerful fluidity. But it is order just the same.
As the author Gary Snyder said, “Nature is orderly. That which appears to be chaotic in nature is only a more complex kind of order.”
If we take this a step further, we see that businesses that tend toward the more complex adaptability of biological evolution develop intensely creative solutions, adapt to new market demands fluidly, and mature into resilient and durable companies. Companies built on static business models can be perfectly suitable for certain situations, but struggle to keep pace in highly dynamic markets where adaptation and continuous improvement are fundamental to business success.
So, how can a company apply the model of biological evolution to its business? First, recognize that for many companies focused on true innovation, the business plan is an outdated tool. At the inception of one of my first companies, an industry-leading Internet research agency that worked with some of Europe’s leading brands, I spent countless hours writing a brilliant business plan. Every assumption was backed up with a reference. Industry research filled the pages. It was a thing of great beauty.
By the time I had raised money and sat down to look at the business plan again, I realized it was completely obsolete. We had already moved past the plan in this rapidly evolving digital field, where flexibility and action outweighed meticulous planning. And particularly in pioneering fields, where you’re attempting to break new ground and commercialize ideas that have never been put into action before, there is little point in the infinitely detailed plan.
This is not a treatise against planning. Planning has its place. It can be an effective guide for processing ideas, formulating strategy and providing a blueprint for execution. Just don’t put too much emphasis on the plan.
True entrepreneurship is a lesson in dynamic problem solving, creativity, adaptability and flexibility. If you want your business to find the best capabilities, refine them, pass them on, and then refine them again, look to the biological advancement of nature as a guide, not the rigidity of spreadsheets and business plans.
This will build a dynamic DNA into the core of your company. And believe me — as anyone who has been in business for any time can attest — there will be plenty of time for spreadsheets and business plans as the company matures. Yet you should look past the plans and strategies to get back to the core — the living, breathing, dynamic heart of your organization that knows, even in the business world, there is one rule above all else — adapt or die.
~ Roy Lipski is the founder and CEO of Creo, a California-based biomanufacturing product company. He is a Cambridge–educated entrepreneur who has founded and grown innovative technology companies from startup through IPO to successful merger / exit in fields ranging from Artificial Intelligence to chemical engineering and renewable fuels.