I recently came across this quotation from Charles Darwin:
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent…It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
The quote so perfectly captures my thinking about organizations that I searched for the source in the hope of reading more. What I discovered instead is that Darwin never wrote those words.
The phrase, according to QuoteInvestigator.com, is an “idiosyncratic interpretation” of Darwin’s theory from a 1963 speech delivered by a Louisiana State University business professor.
The people at QuoteInvestigator have so much experience with this kind of misattribution that they offer an explanation of how it works. Essentially one person summarizes, condenses, or restates someone else’s idea, and passes it along to others. And when such restatements repeat over time in a multistep process, you end up with a simplified, shortened misquote—in this case reassigned directly to Darwin.
It is ironic that through a process of cumulative restatement—natural selection, if you will––a casual description of Darwin’s theory of evolution has been socially distilled into a pithy quotation. In spite of (or maybe because of) their imperfect pedigree, the words still resonate for me.
So much of management “science” and organizational culture resists change and promotes stability. Yet it is clear to me that all organizations operate as small particles in a complex and changing universe where the inability to adapt overpowers whatever other advantages they may enjoy.
In other words, this one deficiency—not being able to change—can become an organization’s Achilles heel.
That is why I insist in my consulting engagements that adaptive capacity is the indispensable advantage high-functioning organizations must cultivate.
Maybe Darwin didn’t say it’s the most adaptable that survive, but I’m sure that’s what he meant.