One can learn about strategy and innovation from unexpected situations. I just recently moved to Georgia, where there are lots of trees and squirrels. These interesting creatures are found in many parts of the world, so they must have a pretty good formula for success. Nonetheless, while driving around, I noticed a lot of dead squirrels on the road. I did not think much about it until I went on a few hikes and noticed how squirrels behaved when I approached. They would typically run a bit, stop and look at me; relying on their color to blend in with the forest and conceal them. If I approached too close, they would run up a tree. This predator avoidance strategy seems well suited for their forest environment, to which they have adapted over the millennia.
However, it causes problems for squirrels when they enter human environments. When a car approaches, they react as if it were a predator and freeze, but cannot move away in time when it gets too close, and get squashed. Their tried and tested method to avoid getting eaten by big things, results in many of them dying. Since this has been going on for years, it must mean that their behavior in this case is genetically programmed. They are unable to evolve (change) in the relatively short time they have been encountering cars.
What does this have to do with strategy and innovation? A behavior and strategy that worked well in the past can be fatal in a new environment. This is true for squirrels, people and companies. Firms that were hugely successful in the past (Sears, Kmart, Circuit City, Digital Equipment), are often unable to adapt when the environment changes and they die as a result. The same thing happens everyday with many lesser known companies and small-businesses. However, unlike genetically programmed squirrels that cannot change, individuals and companies can adapt in response to a changing environment. Their old learned behaviors can be replaced with new learned behaviors that are better matched to the current situation. For those employees who cannot change, they can be replaced with creative, flexible and risk-takers who can innovate.
Therefore, individuals and companies must innovate and adapt when confronting a new environment. Don’t be a nut… innovate and adapt when conditions change!