What's the secret of survival of any species, especially of that of humans? Mutation. These are quasi, random changes that happen at genetic levels at all times that have enabled us to not just survive, but also thrive. Some changes aren't fit with the environment and hence lead to cancer. Others, which are fitted with the environment lead to evolution, and we become a more robust species as a result. We can't control the rate or the direction of mutation but have so far managed well.
If mutation is the secret of human’s survival, the case is no different for other species or even organizations. After all, organizations are like organisms. They take birth, grow, fall sick, recover, and then die. Some last longer than others. Why? It's not that they are better, but rather that are fitter, at least for the time being.
Unlike in humans where mutation can't be controlled, in organizations, it can be. I reckon that one of the key roles of a leader is to enable mutation on an ongoing basis. A leader essentially has three levers to effect such a mutation. The first lever is by hiring and tolerating diverse people. The second is by encouraging and incentivizing experimentation. And thirdly, by keeping organizational boundaries porous.
People matter the most and different people matter even more. Yet attracting diverse talent has its own cost and friction. Cost in terms of lack of productivity and friction in terms of lack of coherence. Still, a wide variety of talent pips over the coherent squad, at least in the evolutionary sense. Even more important is to tolerate such a wide variety. If the leader can pace the team in building absorptive capacity for variety, the results might outlive her tenure. That's worth the effort.
Take for instance General Electric, which has been known as a leadership engine for over a century now, and that as much as its process orientation as for its ability to spot and home a wide variety of talent. Age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, religious beliefs are just the visible fault lines. The trick is to go beyond and deep to seek diversity at the level of thinking and doing new stuff, and moreover creating an environment of tolerance. Diversity creates resilience in face of failure, especially of a single black swan. Since you can’t predict one, you have to anticipate and be ready for the not so favorable outcomes.
On experimentation, right from 3M to Google, some of the most innovative firms have always factored for experiments and failure in their work. It's not a side-effect as much as a desirable outcome. Such firms offer their productive time and resources to employees to fail. That's why the firms survive beyond some mistakes. Look at 3M, a century-old set-up that thrives on commercialization of science, or Google which has moved far beyond being the generic name for the search.
It is actually being open to external ideas and channels of sharing own ideas. Being open calls for being humble and yet not getting lost in the noise. The case of open-source technologies, crowdsourcing, crowd-funding and the likes suggest that there exists far better talent beyond the shores than within. Companies like Cisco, Oracle, and Microsoft date regularly with the world outside and their open posture has helped them reinvent their working over this long a period. The companies of tomorrow have to be significantly different from those today, but the forces of competition would remain similar. Resource scarcity would only become more pronounced, and that's where the fittest would emerge.
Mutation can be made possible and must be, in a systematic manner to see a firm living longer and that's where leaders contribute the most. To sum up, the levers available with a leader to effect mutation on an ongoing basis is diversity, experimentation, and openness, and on a personal front, tolerance to ambiguity and failure. Nature has done that since the days of dinosaurs, and continues to tolerate all sorts of natural and man-made mistakes, but keeps going, stronger and better. The same is true for the most resilient of the species, and hopefully, the most resilient of organizations.