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survival of the fittest

Charles Darwin – agile 150 years ago

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Darwin's journal from the Beagle voyage contains this diagram and the beginnings of a world-changing idea. Note the 'I think' at the top.

Working at Lonely Planet has taught James and me a lot of lessons about the publishing business – not the least of which is the chasm between the product lifecycles enjoyed by the average travel guidebook and the average digital guide.

A good guidebook, written by people who actually went to the place being written about, may take up to 2 years to hit the shelves – but with a useful life of another 2 years, it has a fair chance to pay the publisher back with sales over a long period. Basically, when that guidebook finally hits the shelves at Readings, the authors are back on the road.

Printed books are nearly impossible to revise – once the ink dries and the binding glue is set, it’s pretty much done – apart from the reprints – which are a bonus not often seen given careful planning for sales volumes. Earthquakes, regime changes, tsunamis, and recessions are the travel publisher’s nightmare. For publishers of longer lasting texts like novels, the discouragement to change is simply cost. Customer feedback be damned! And the author is likely to have moved onto the next project (very waterfall!).

Lonely Planet has been working (in a most agile fashion) on a new way of publishing guides. With Amazon now selling as many eBooks as paper books, the world of apps and digital texts has opened an opportunity to do things very differently.

But Lonely Planet is far from the first group of authors and publishers in the world to understand agility, continuous release processes and adapting to customer feedback. And a great example from 150 years ago is Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. As always, we’re not going to rewrite Wikipedia here, so we’ll focus on the agile bits.

1. Darwin was a practitioner of Toyota’s lean manufacturing principle of genchi genbutsu (roughly ‘go and see for yourself’)  – not the least of which was enduring a famous voyage on the Beagle from 1831 to 1836, where as botanist he was staggered to discover the world was not as the English experts had surmised.

2. There were many iterations of his theory researched, discussed and written before the idea was released. Darwin had a reasonably well-formed theory by 1838, but the book was held from public view until 1859. Darwin wanted it to be a great book, well-written and suited to a general reader. Quality takes time, and he had other projects he was working on in parallel – including the journals from the Beagle voyage, which were finished in 1854.

3. When the production release of Origin finally hit the bookshops, it was a conservative print run (about 1,200 copies for sale), designed to gauge initial customer reaction to a controversial topic. Within 8 weeks a 2nd edition was on the shelves, with a print run of 3,000. It went on to have 6 releases in total, and by the final edition in 1872, the book was selling 250 copies a month.

4. Darwin had no fear of adding content, deleting sections he was not happy with, and responding to reader’s questions and complaints. Ben Fry’s amazing infographic showing the evolution of the book can be viewed here at http://benfry.com/traces/

Although agile can sometimes seem like a missionary sale to large corporations, none of have suffered the public criticism leveled at Charles Darwin for his theories.

5. The most fascinating addition is the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. Herbert Spencer, a philosopher who had published his book Principles of Biology in 1864 had coined the term, and Darwin felt it useful to comment at length on the concept (having coined his own term ‘natural selection’ to explain his theory), as well as responding to his critics in a whole new chapter. It is widely noted that Herbert Spencer’s other contribution to western civilisation was the paperclip – truly a great inventor!

It is this last point that seems most relevant to agile product and software development today – in particular the massive  misunderstanding that being the biggest, the strongest, the fastest, the wealthiest or the most aggressive will kill off the others and win the race. Darwin had only adopted the phrase so willingly because it better explained the impact of environmental pressure and competition on the rate of change of species.

As Darwin reputedly pointed out late in his life, when asked if he had any regrets, he conceded that the entire concept of the qualities needed to endure had been  misunderstood widely from that edition and the populist phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ onwards. What he had always meant, was that the species most adaptive to change would be the one that succeeded.

And that, is fundamentally agile. Think of Charles Darwin when you next write the agile tenet ‘embrace change‘ on a whiteboard somewhere.

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