What Moths and Marsupials Can Teach You About Business Adaptation


“But this is the way we’ve always done it…”

“I just need to get my business back to what it was…”

“We don’t want to get any bigger, we just want to stay the same size we are…”

As a consultant, I have heard all three of these statements over the last few years from business owners in different industries. When I hear these words, I can mark it on a calendar when the business will hit a crossroads and the owner forced to make very unpleasant decisions.  I know they are resisting telling themselves the truth and no amount of marketing advice, strategy or tactics will change their business.

A business cannot ‘out market’ their own inflexibility. Even the best direct marketing campaign or the latest ‘ninja marketing’ tactic can’t outpace a product or service that refuses to reinvent itself.

It’s hard to watch, but many businesses are stuck in a pre-recession mindset. The recession itself reset the market, tossing a bucket of ice water in the faces of consumers as well as businesses. People woke up out of a stupor. The party was over and somebody turned the lights on.

Many are still living like the pre-recession years will come back someday and are keeping their fingers crossed while their accountant screams in their ears that its time to make some changes fast.

Unless a business is constantly morphing (because human’s perceived needs and desires are constantly morphing) you could probably set your watch on when that business will no longer be relevant. The problem is not the market or the business itself – it’s the belief that the business does not have to adapt and the subsequent resistance that follows that belief.

A perfect example of adaptation from environment is the English peppered moth. Here’s a summary from National Geographic:

A famous example of an animal adapting to a change in its environment is the English peppered moth. Prior to the 19th century, the most common type of this moth was cream-colored with darker spots. Few peppered moths displayed a mutation of being grey or black.

As the Industrial Revolution changed the environment when smoke killed lichens growing on trees and blackened their bark. The appearance of the peppered moth changed. The darker-colored moths, which were rare, began to thrive in the urban atmosphere. Their sooty color blended in with the trees stained by industrial pollution. Birds couldn’t see the dark moths, so they ate the cream-colored moths instead. The cream-colored moths began to make a comeback after the United Kingdom passed laws that limited air pollution.

The environment had changed. The English peppered moth probably preferred that it didn’t. With the industrial revolution came pollution and changes in the level of toxicity in the air that changed its environment and forced the peppered moth to either die or adapt. The peppered moth adapted and is still thrives today.

The peppered moth probably doesn’t have the reasoning capability of a human being. I doubt if the peppered moth had a conversation with itself back in the day saying, “If I don’t adapt to this new environment I’m going to get eaten. I really don’t want to get eaten. In fact, I really like flying around and sucking up tree sap with my really long garden-hose-type tongue. I prefer doing that over getting eaten, so I think I’m going to adapt my body and wing pigmentation to the new color of these trees. I’d rather not – and it’s quite inconvenient actually, but I suppose it’s better than being eaten alive by bats.”

The peppered moth adapted as the environment changed. It didn’t overthink it. It didn’t try to convince itself that things would go back to the way they were. It dealt with reality – the reality was black tree bark. Since the moth could not change the environment, it changed itself. Fundamentally simple, excruciatingly hard for many businesses.

Today our environment is a post-recession society. Buyer confidence is still not and may not ever be what it was pre-2008. Easy credit is gone. Confidence in our government keeps falling as rampant spending continues. Unemployment is still a huge concern as college graduates walk away with a diploma, thousands of dollars in debt, and a one-way ticket to their parent’s basement.

Its gonna take some serious value-building in your customer’s mind before they pull out their wallet.

I doubt if the peppered moth flies around and laments about the ‘good old days’ when trees weren’t black. The peppered moth simply accepts and adapts. Another example of adaptation to environment:

Sometimes, an organism develops an adaptation or set of adaptations that create an entirely new species. This process is known as speciation.

The physical isolation or specialization of a species can lead to speciation.

The wide variety of marsupials in Oceania is an example of how organisms adapt to an isolated habitat with no competition. Marsupials, mammals that carry their young in pouches, arrived in Oceania before the land split with Asia. Placental mammals, animals that carry their young in the mothers womb, came to dominate every other continent, but not Oceania. There, marsupials faced no competition.

Maybe the post-recession era is causing your business to go through the process of speciation right now. Maybe you’re not supposed to be the business you were six years ago. Maybe you’re supposed to become something completely different where the competition is sparse and you can evolve faster. Maybe you’re business is destined to become a hybrid, a mutation, or an entirely new species.

I’d love to tell you that your customers will be loyal forever. But the truth is right now, your best customers are shopping you against your competitors (even though you bought them a big expensive lunch last week and took them golfing). It’s true whether you like it or not.

I’d love to tell you that your product will continue to be relevant, and people will never care to look for the next best thing or perhaps some enhancement or improvement or feature that holds just enough bleeding-edge value that they walk away from you  in the name of  ‘it’s not personal, it’s business’.

The rules apply to everyone, in every business, on any level. Our environment demands from our business an unwavering commitment to adaptation, flexibility and innovation on some level.

Only you can decide that it’s time to adapt. Change might be hard, but getting swallowed up by your market is worse. Don’t wait another day take a hard look at your environment and adjust your business as needed. You may end up loving what it becomes.

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