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Articles and information on Clem Sunter

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Survival of the adapted

By Clem Sunter

Google the phrase 'Survival of the Adapted' and you will find that it is the phrase that Charles Darwin used in the first edition of Origin of the Species. In later editions, he changed the phrase to 'Survival of the Fittest' which is the one we all know. Now until this fact was pointed out to me, I - like most others - thought that survival of the fittest meant survival of the strongest (i.e. the most lean and mean). Actually, Charles Darwin's intended meaning was that those species which most fit in with the changes in Nature are the most likely to survive.

The crucial difference between the popular interpretation and Charles Darwin's own meaning is around the concept of control. For adaptation presupposes that you have limited power and influence, and you therefore have to adapt to things beyond your control. You are certainly not the strongest on the planet. This neatly ties in with the analogy of hedgehogs and foxes first proposed by an Ancient Greek poet called Archilocus and expanded on by British philosopher Isaiah Berlin in a celebrated essay in the middle of the last century. Chantell Ilbury and I subsequently decided to continue the tradition with our 'fox trilogy' on scenario planning.

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Hedgehogs are people who have one big idea; they simplify the whole universe around that idea; they disregard information that is not relevant to that idea; if they are leaders, they attempt to align all their followers in pursuit of that one idea; and then they go for it. Passionately and absolutely. Crucially, hedgehogs presume that they have sufficient control to implement their idea and their influence will always prevail. Know any political hedgehogs?

Switching to the world of business, hedgehog CEOs formulate a vision which they do not allow to be challenged. After all, it is the truth. Moreover, they only entertain possible futures that are consistent with their vision. Conflicting ones are not on their radar screen. Most of the world's top business schools teach the hedgehog philosophy as part of their MBA programme. The current management bible, Good to Great by Jim Collins, even contains a chapter called 'The Hedgehog Concept'.

Foxes, on the other hand, believe that life revolves around different ideas. You juggle them, compare them and above all you are prepared to switch to new ideas when the environment changes. Socrates was the foxiest philosopher who ever lived because he said you can never arrive at the truth. That was over 2 400 years ago. Athenians were so entranced with his teachings that the Authorities jealously made him take his own life. But he left a legacy: the Socratic Method of enquiry whereby you get closer to truth by constantly asking questions and seeking answers to which there are more questions and so the cycle continues.

Clem Sunter article continued:

The essential point, though, about foxes is that they assume that most of the events that take place around them are beyond their control and in many cases unpredictable. They keep several alternative futures in mind all the time - some good, some bad - and continuously assess their probabilities. To their way of thinking, the critical quality to possess is the ability to adapt speedily and successfully to change when it happens - as Darwin suggested. Indeed, modern foxes (the animal that is) have adapted to living in cities and towns by scavenging from rubbish bins. In a business context, foxes may well subscribe to a vision but they don't treat it like a religious creed. It can be altered.

Our conclusion is that Darwin would definitely have backed the foxes against the hedgehogs in surviving the recession we are in. Interestingly, military leaders have always been more willing to pursue the foxy approach because they know the tactics of the enemy are beyond their control and surprise is an essential element in winning the battle. It is time that CEOs adopted the same attitude of 'fitting' their vision to the changing reality, particularly when it involves the huge discontinuities we are seeing today.

In summary, Chantell and I propose a radical shake-up in strategic thinking that goes clean against all the stuff that is being peddled by Western business schools and business gurus. Even the West has to adapt. They no longer possess the power to do otherwise. So may the fox be with you, wherever you may be and whatever you do.

By Clem Sunter

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