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Ostrich calluses and organisational change
An introduction to canalisation and development landscapes
“Environmental induction is a major initiator of adaptive evolutionary change. The origin and evolution of adaptive novelty do not await mutation; on the contrary, genes are followers, not leaders, in evolution.” — Mary Jane West-Eberhard
The ability of an organisation to adapt to changing conditions is key to its survival. This ability is bounded by two sets of constraints: the external constraints of the market and the internal constraints to plasticity — how ‘reconfigurable’ the organisation is.
Since organisations are complex adaptive systems, or living systems if you prefer, then analytical frameworks developed for evolutionary biology might be helpful for interpreting organisational dynamics related to adaption.
Complex adaptive systems adapt to their environments. A business’s environment includes the set of customers that it can potentially serve. Its ability to satisfy those customer’s selection criteria can be represented as a fitness landscape, as discussed in a previous post.
In this visual metaphor, peaks represent desirable product or service traits while valleys represent undesirable traits. Successful products and companies are found thriving near the peaks while unsuccessful products and companies lay dying in the valleys.
Executives at every level of a business need to be working towards moving their products and companies towards fitness peaks. This is a non-trivial task because the peaks are dynamically evolving due to the relentless march of exponential technologies and other VUCA forces, such as pandemics.
Just because a business identifies a threat or opportunity in the environment doesn’t mean that it can spontaneously climb out of a valley or onto a peak. There are usually a large number of internal constraints inhibiting it. These are often hidden, or subterranean, dragging the organisation down into valleys despite the lofty ambitions and heroic efforts of its change management consultants.
How living systems develop robustness and insensitivity to change is just as important as how they innovate. In the 1940’s, influential biologist Conrad Waddington hatched the concept of ‘epigenetic landscapes’ 1 which are very useful for understanding developmental stability.
Through experiments, Waddington observed that embryo fruit flies could be persuaded to show different thorax and wing structures simply by changing the environmental temperature or by introducing a chemical stimulus. That is, they adapted to environmental stimuli in a single lifetime without gene mutation and natural selection (Darwinian adaption). Furthermore, these ‘soft adaptions’, if activated for several generations, were passed on to future offspring as ‘hard adaptions’ in a process he called genetic assimilation.
Waddington proved that instructions (information) regarding successful environmental responses can be propagated forward in time to future generations. A good example of this phenomena is ostrich calluses:
The bird sits on rather peculiar parts of its anatomy: the two load-bearing points are at the front of the breast and near the tail. At these two places the ostrich has large, thick callosities. Anyone who works with his hands or walks in bare feet knows that continual pressure and rubbing cause the skin to grow thicker and tougher, i.e., to form calluses. But the callosities of the ostrich, at the present stage of its evolution, are certainly not produced in this way. They appear on the chick while it is still in the egg, before it has sat on anything. They must in fact be hereditary.2
This is epigenetics (‘above genetics’) at work. Epigenetic mechanisms exploit pre-existing developmental plasticity to unlock adaptive pathways.
Like Sewell Wright a decade before him, Waddington used the visual metaphor of a landscape to describe the process. Referring to the diagram above, a ball rolling down the hill towards the reader represents the journey of a particular set of cells from egg to embryo to adult morphology. They can only follow permitted trajectories leading to different cell fates or morphologies. In this way, from a single zygote containing one set of instructions (DNA) all of an organism’s differentiated cells are generated.3
Environmental stimuli can nudge the cells to make ‘decisions’ about which ‘fork’ to go down during development. Once a set of cells has made a ‘forking decision’ they become locked into that developmental branch. Small differences in slope lead to one channel in the landscape being favoured over another. Waddington called this process ’canalisation’.
Canalisation is a stabilisation mechanism. It constrains developing cells and their host organism into a limited number of forms. It explains why it is highly unlikely for us to suddenly sprout one or two extra arms, despite the obvious fitness benefits when raising small children or attending cocktail parties where they serve canapés with forks.
Why it matters
Canalisation happens all the time in organisations. Decisions and investments are made that lock products and businesses into particular development trajectories. Historical decisions are assimilated into the structures, processes, and cultures of organisations. Changing course becomes harder and harder as the canalisation continues. This is represented by steep ‘ridges’ between the ‘valleys’ in the development landscape.
To be clear, sometimes these canalised trajectories are highly beneficial. That the Kindle developers chose electrophoretic ink as the basis of their reader, rather than an LCD screen, is a key factor of its market success, for example.
However, as we all know, canalisation can also be highly detrimental. A bad decision is made and over time the resulting pattern gets baked into the organisation. Some typical examples:
Investing in monolithic applications to automate certain processes and therein becoming welded to it, unable to inexpensively customise it to suit changing requirements
Establishing policies to achieve one objective but generating undesirable second- or third-order consequences. Stack Ranking comes to mind
Implementing KPI’s to drive local performance while inadvertently creating incentives that are detrimental to the whole
Promotion of politically powerful players who then hold the organisation ransom to their whims
Accretion of mindless bureaucracy
These and many other internal constraints can limit an organisation’s ability to adapt. When organisations feel overly constrained they usually initiate some sort of change program as an attempt to escape a negative trajectory.
Next to Waddington’s framework, the traditional change-as-three-steps (unfreezing → changing → refreezing) model seems crude. It is akin to dragging the organisation over a steep ridge from one valley to the next; a marathon and not always successful.
A better approach might be to identify the causal drivers of the undesirable canalisation and implement appropriate decanalisation strategies: interventions that alter constraints and lower the boundary threshold between the current and desired trajectories, allowing the system to self-correct and evolve in favourable directions.
I will be exploring constraint manipulation in much more detail in future transmissions. Please subscribe here:
For a very good introduction to Waddington’s ideas and epigenetics in general, see Denis Noble’s article, Conrad Waddington and the origin of epigenetics, in the Journal of Experimental Biology 2015 218: 816-818.
Epigenetic Landscape via Waddington CH (1957) The Strategy of the Genes (Allen &Unwin, London).
Epigenetics means ‘above genetics’. Waddington pioneered the study of mechanisms over and above standard genetics and natural selection. More formally, epigenetics is “the branch of biology which studies the causal interactions between genes and their products, which bring the phenotype into being”. C.H. Waddington. Endeavour, 1 (1942)
C.H. Waddington. Experiments in Acquired Characteristics. Scientific American 189(6): 92f (1953)
The human body is composed of approximately 200 different cell types, yet each cell originates from the same zygote and carries the same DNA. Gabriella Ficz. New insights into mechanisms that regulate DNA methylation patterning. Journal of Experimental Biology (2015) 218: 14-20