Shifting Your Paradigms: Thought Leader Joel Barker Stresses Strategic Exploration, Mutualism, and ‘the Verge’

Going Deep: Is it survival of the fittest or fit? Nature demonstrates the survivor is the one ‘present and most ready’ to capitalize on opportunities, he says. Where does your company fit?

Editor’s note: Eric Jackson, a technology consultant and developer, is a regular contributor to Local Tech Wire. His column appears on Tuesdays. “Going Deep” is intended to be about inquiry, not authority – a combination of statement, challenge, and question, all at once. The only way to consistently achieve depth is through conversation, and so I urge and welcome your reactions, ideas, and suggestions. You may contact me by email at”

BLACK MOUNTAIN,The primary competitive dynamic in nature is the survival of the fittest, according to Charles Darwin, right? Wrong.

Herbert Spencer said “fittest,” Darwin said “fit,” and some recent research confirms that there is a difference. One that might make a difference in how we think about business strategy as well.

This was one of several intriguing bits presented in a keynote at the recent NCEITA Forum, “Insight to Innovation: A CEO Conversation.”

Joel Barker, who introduced the concept of paradigm shift into the business world in the early 1980s, shared with the audience the richness of business insight to be found in nature, noting that “a great place to study complex systems is to look at ecosystems. Mother Nature has been experimenting for a billion years, so we can probably learn something — especially about robust systems.”

So what about fit versus fittest? The May 1999 issue of Smithsonian magazine reported on research conducted over 20 years on an island in the Panama Canal. The study tracked which trees “won the gap” of precious sunlight that formed when a tree fell, opening a space in the canopy of the forest. While classical evolutionary theory would argue that the best competitors should win, for example, those trees able to grow fastest toward the light, in fact, a variety of trees won the gap. The question was not which was the most aggressive, but which tree was present and most ready.

The application of this finding to business has some interesting consequences. For one thing, it explains why mediocrity can do so well. It has frequently been observed that the competitor who wins in business is not necessarily the one with the best technology or the most seasoned management team — it is the one that is most ready to take advantage of the opportunity.

Over the course of his talk, Barker led the audience on several interesting excursions that illuminate the task of being prepared, notably, strategic exploration, mutualism, and the verge.

Innovation is only helpful if it leads to useful results. In a complex world it can be difficult to tell — too often an innovative approach can lead to unintended, and unwanted, consequences. Barker points out that a more accurate term would be “unanticipated consequences,” and that we can learn to anticipate far better than we do through strategic exploration, a precursor to effective strategic planning.

Beyond linear thinking

The task is to move beyond linear thinking, beyond looking for the consequences of a decision or idea. Often those who can see several steps ahead in a chain of consequences are lulled into a false sense of security — by focusing on a single chain, they are likely to miss the three or twelve other chains that will also come to pass. The trick, says Barker, is to learn to see “cascades of consequences,” and his company has developed a tool, the “Implication Wheel,” to help organizations do this.

Barker next took up the topic of mutualism, which refers to a kind of symbiotic relationship in which both participants gain benefit (in contrast to parasitism, for example, in which one benefits at the expense of another). In nature, mutualism allows each member of the relationship to grow or reproduce at a higher rate than it could alone — something particularly important in environments that are stressful or scarce in resources. Just as mutualistic relationships in nature contribute powerfully to abundance and diversity, Barker argues that prosperity in an increasingly global and competitive economic environment requires looking for similar opportunities in business.

On the verge

Finally, Barker spoke about the importance of the verge for innovation. Biologists and conservationists have assumed that the creative source of the astounding diversity of tropical rainforests lies deep within, where the number of species is greatest. But evolutionary biologist Tom Smith found evidence that the source of diversity, the creation of new species, may emerge “not at the forest’s center but at its margins, where dense vegetation meets grassy savanna” (Discover, December, 1997). This region, where two dramatically different environments meet is what Barker calls the verge, and he argues that it is just as important in creating new ideas, new businesses, and new industries as in creating new species in nature.

The verge is about diversity in action, differences meeting and creating something new. Embracing diversity is not just a good thing to do, it is the primary source of the innovation required to prosper. As Barker notes, “More verges, more opportunity for innovation. Ecological research reinforces what de Toqueville saw 150 years ago: America’s wealth is driven by our variety and willingness to mix.” Barker points out that we are a nation of verges — not only in the regular meeting of gender, racial, and cultural differences, but also in the vast array of companies, government entities and volunteer organizations that bring different people together.

We will return to the theme of diversity frequently in the coming months, exploring in greater depth such issues as sources of diversity that companies and teams can leverage and how to actually achieve positive results from the clashes that true diversity brings.

Those interested in learning more about Joel Barker and his work can visit his website,

Ideas? Suggestions? Contact Eric at

Eric Jackson is the founder of DeepWeave. He has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. In 2000, Eric co-founded Ibrix, Inc. He is the inventor of the Ibrix distributed file system, a parallel file storage system able to scale in size and performance to millions of terabytes.