Think Like a Biologist to be a Better Manager

The first Archaeopteryx fossil was found in 1861, and it now resides in the Natural History Museum in London. It was an important find – two years after the publication of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Archaeopteryx was the rarest of fossils, and one that was quite useful for Darwin’s theory – an intermediate form. Archaeopteryx very clearly shows the transition from dinosaurs to birds.

The specimen in London is the type fossil – Richard Owen published the first full description of the species in 1863. However, after that, the fossil hasn’t just been sitting around on display. It was re-described in great detail by Gavin de Beer in 1954 – this description integrated evolutionary theories known as the modern synthesis. More recently pieces of the braincase embedded in the fossil were CAT-scanned in order to learn even more about the nature of Archaeopteryx.

Richard Fortey describes all of this beautifully in his chapter in Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society edited by Bill Bryson. He says:

All these endeavours have served to confirm the transitional nature of Archaeopteryx – but have also confirmed that in most important functional respects it is closer to birds than to dinosaurs. This in turn has contributed to the debate about whether birds descended from one particular group of dinosaurs: most paleontologists nowadays concur that they did. One might say the the meaning of Archaeopteryx has changed, while the information that has been extracted from this specimen (and other new discoveries) has increased fitfully as scientific hypotheses have shifted.

The Archaeopteryx story is important for managing innovation. The first lesson is on the research side. When people undertake business research, we like to think that we are being scientific. To many, this means acting like physicists and looking for laws. The problem with this approach is that people and their organisations don’t act like atoms. So it’s really difficult to find laws that apply equally well in all situations, and which allow for prediction.

People and firms are a lot more like organisms. Well, people are organisms – but my point is that we need to act more like biologists than like physicists when we are trying to learn what makes our organisations work. This means that we have to study the past, and use abductive reasoning to make our generalisations.

This is where the Archaeopteryx story is important. If we’re studying business like biologists, we need to start by describing things well, and by classifying them correctly. Research that is ‘merely descriptive’ is frowned upon in business schools, and this is wrong. We need more case studies, with a fair bit of detail, so that we can refer back to them in light of new theories and findings, just as biologists have with the Archaeopteryx fossils. Building grand theories might seem to be where the glory is, but we need to get a whole lot better at describing and classifying if we want our theories to hold up over time.

This leads to the second lesson – this time for managers. One of the dangers of being a manager is that often when we try to improve our skills, we end up falling prey to fads. One of the huge giveaways to someone trying to sell you on a fad is when part of the argument is “everything is different now.” This is usually a sign that there isn’t much research behind the idea – it’s often explained just through anecdotes.

One of the signs of a theory that is more grounded in reality is that whoever is explaining it makes some attempt to place it in history. They understand how previous cases fit in with their ideas, and the theories can explain not just what is happening now with dot.coms and social media, but also what happened back in the days of steam engines and telegraphs. Good business theories will do what the biologists are doing with Archaeopteryx – they will go back and reinterpret old evidence in light of the latest ideas.

My prescriptions today then are these: if you’re a researcher, think like a biologist. And if you’re a manager, look for help from research that looks more like biology. Try to use theories that are just as good at explaining Thomas Edison as they are at talking about twitter.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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