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Do IT Like Darwin

By Adam Stanley,  Global CIO and Chief Digital Officer

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Ok, so many people think that Charles Darwin, who developed the theory of evolution, never really penned that famous quote, though it clearly fits with his general thinking.

Darwin died in 1882 long before the Wright Brothers, Henry Ford, and many other trailblazers who changed and are continuing to change the world with their landmark innovations. And yet, a lot of his initial theories on the survival of the fittest and natural selection seem more relevant than ever before.

Adaptability is nothing without action

Adaptability is essential to survival and competition, yes, but it’s often misunderstood in business because of how we associate it with the word “agile.” A lot — A LOT! — is said about being agile these days. The fact is that absolutely no one in business cares about “agile methodology.”

What clients, internal and external, care about is how good you are at anticipating change, that you are outstanding at creating models or solutions to meet future demand, and that you can execute and help manage change. They care about whether you’re doing those three things and that you generate revenue and incredible new efficiencies as a result. They want you to help them adapt.

Be counted

I’ve seen so many CIOs just take orders in meetings – and that happens in all areas of business. Technology should absolutely be driving the innovation process in companies right now, not enabling it or restricting it. Step up and say what you think is needed to drive effective change. You may be in a room of legacy thinkers who won’t get it, so make them get it. It’ll take more than one meeting or interaction to get your ideas across, but with so much money and the future of stakeholders on the table, you need to get buy in with a strong case.

Embrace obsolescence

Andy Grove, a founder of Intel, used to say that you know someone is a good manager when they make themselves obsolete in the role. That may be a stretch, but there is something to it. The same concept goes for processes. It is about being open to reinventing yourself and your ideas. If you love the system or process you created like a first-born child, that’s great; now, make it obsolete. If you don’t find the holes, break it down, and figure out how to build a better version. (And how to kill the new one.)

Channel Archer

I love Archer, FX’s genre-bending spy comedy. Whenever Archer says someone is in “the danger zone,” I laugh out loud. Why? Because I’d much rather talk about the danger zone at work than have another presentation about agile methodology. You need to live on the edge a little bit. Not in terms of professionalism — keep it real there — but don’t stop being afraid. Take a risk and fly your plane right into the danger zone from time to time, and see how you come out of it.

Listen to your sentries

Meerkats are small burrowing animals in Africa. To look out for predators, one or more meerkats stand guard. They remain completely still, keeping watch. When a predator is spotted, the sentry gives a warning sound, and everyone splits. When you build out the right team, you need co-workers on guard — and if you listen to naysayers (you should), they will help identify threats and potential missteps before you see them. You need meerkats.

Big doesn’t mean best

The reality is the biggest players across sectors often stifle competition — and thus innovation. The seismic event that ended the dinosaur era opened the door for mammals to rapidly diversify and evolve. Because we’re a big company, I like to think like we’re a small one. You know how Instagram beat all the existing photo giants to the digital sharing punch? They watched, they learned, kept their finger on the pulse of changing consumer interests and behavior, and had the product ready. Meanwhile, big photo companies — who were already developing similar tech did what they always do: thought ‘big’, which means they got ensnarled in hierarchy and checking boxes instead of adapting rapidly and launching new concepts. The small guy won and changed the ecosystem. It happens all the time, so think like the small player.

Do it like Darwin

So, in sum, what am I saying? Darwin identified adaptation as key to evolution and survival – and in this age of disruption, we need to be more open and responsive than ever before. Our firm, our industry, and our clients are counting on us to not just react, but to lead change. Whether you are a CIO, a broker, facilities manager, marketer, researcher, support staff or whatever role you fill, we can and should learn from Darwin. Adapt. Learn. Stand firm. Be on guard. And have fun.

A version of this blog appeared on CIO.com.


Adam Stanley provides strategic and operational direction for Cushman & Wakefield’s client facing and colleague technology systems and infrastructure across all global business lines. Drawing on his more than 20 years of industry experience and as an integral member of the global executive team, Adam is a change agent with proven success driving growth, performance, talent retention and innovation.

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