The Red Queen and Reinvention

Imagine this—you’re running. Your breathing is heavy. Your heart is racing.

But you look around and your heart sinks. You haven’t moved an inch! You’re exactly where you started.

That’s what happens to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass. The Red Queen, who’s dragging Alice by the hand, delivers this infamous line: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Sound familiar? That’s because there is an effect called The Red Queen Problem. And it can mean the difference between success and failure for your business.

The Red Queen Problem originated in evolutionary biology. It’s the hypothesis that evolution in one species pressures other species to evolve.

Think about a peaceful savannah. All the creatures are in equilibrium—half the time the cheetahs catch the gazelles, half the time the gazelle escapes.

But imagine that one day, a cheetah shows up that’s built a little differently—she can outrun every gazelle on the plain. So can her kids, and her grandkids, and her nieces and nephews.

Suddenly, there’s dramatic pressure on the gazelles. The theory is that they have to literally pick up the pace or face extinction. If the fastest gazelles survive, they’ll have fast children, and balance will be restored.

But now an arms race has begun. All the other predators—and their prey—face the exact same pressure to speed up or die.

The same is true in business.

There’s a constant evolutionary arms race of reinvention. One business develops a groundbreaking process or product, and all their competitors must adapt or face extinction.

In short, stagnation is destruction. Innovation is keeping up. Your growth and evolution is likely the result of growth and evolution among your competitors. As the Red Queen said, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

But make no mistake—the sooner you reinvent, the greater the rewards. That faster cheetah on the plain? She instantly shoots up the food chain, securing her species’ place.

Again, the same is true in business. The first businesses to mass produce personal computers, or create cloud software, or redefine socialization have had massive advantages.

The goal is to be the one in the lead, the one who dictates how others adapt.

So are you leading? Or are you adapting?