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The Kakapo Parrot and Business Death Spirals

Sirocco the Kakapo Parrot

Sirocco the Kakapo Parrot (courtesy of Department of Conservation on Flickr)

The Kakapo is a parrot native to New Zealand, which is critically endangered. For thousands of years, they lived a stress-free life due in large part to having no natural predators. In fact, life was so good for the Kakapo that it lost the ability (desire?) to fly.

The male Kakapo’s mating call is a very low base sound. If you have a home theater system with a subwoofer, you know that it doesn’t matter where you locate it in the room because low frequency sounds are non-directional. That makes things a bit frustrating for a potentially interested female trying to find the source of the mating call. But even if she can find him, they will only mate when trees are masting (fruiting heavily) and that only happens every three to five years. And even then, the female will lay just one egg.

Changes in Latitude

This seems absurd until you consider what the Kakapo’s biggest problem was for thousands of years – overpopulation. While some animals survived by developing camouflage or venom, the Kakapo evolved by mating more slowly. For most of its evolutionary life, their inefficient mating ritual was not only a non-problem, it was a survival mechanism. This changed quite drastically in the 1840’s when humans showed up and introduced predators like dogs, cats and rats. When faced with new predators and a falling population, you’d think that the Kakapo would start to change its behavior. It did, but probably not in the way you’d think: It actually started to slow down its already anemic reproduction cycles. Why on earth would it do that?

When faced with stress, it reacted the same way it had for thousands of years because it had always been a successful strategy. To do anything else would be against its nature.

Changes in Attitude

Which brings us to business death spirals. Many people watch dying industries from the outside much the same way we look at the Kakapo and think, “Why don’t they change their behavior?” It seems absurd when we watch them continue to follow the same strategies that aren’t working in the new environment. Worse, they tend to focus even more energy and resources on those failing strategies because it’s their evolutionary reaction to stress. To do anything else would be against their nature.

When a print publication (hypothetically) has to lower its advertising rates because budgets are shifting online, what do they do?
They (hypothetically) put a plan in place to sell more ads at the lower price in order to stay even.

When a membership organization (hypothetically) is losing members because they are finding the same value elsewhere, what do they do?
They (hypothetically) turn up the volume on the marketing message because people obviously aren’t hearing it.

When a brick and mortar retailer (hypothetically) is losing business to a digital or online equivalent, what does it do?
It (hypothetically) lowers its prices in order to lure in more shoppers.

When a Hollywood studio (hypothetically) is losing a portion of its sales to digital piracy, what does it do?
It (hypothetically) takes its own fans and customers to court and makes an example of them.

The point is that many of these organizations mistake changes in latitude (i.e. the environment) with changes in attitude (i.e. the customers). They think that if they keep doing what they’ve been doing – only a little better – they can change the customer’s attitude. They don’t realize that the environment has shifted and that they’re quite possibly doing the exact opposite of what they should be doing.

Parrots, the Universe and Everything

The story of the Kakapo was revealed to me in this Douglas Adams presentation. It’s quite long, but thoroughly entertaining (not to mention educational). If you don’t have time right now, then “don’t panic,” just bookmark it and come back later. How much later? Forty-two hours, obviously.

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  • Jon,
    Compelling post, thanks for sharing that video. I haven’t watched it yet but plan to. You highlight something that’s been on my mind lately – which is what are the characteristics of companies who are not just succeeding, but thriving in today’s changing markets. You nicely pointed out it’s about altitude and not latitude. Company dysfunctions are still rampant, but that’s really nothing new. What is new is how they respond to change. In some cases, smaller companies need to implement processes to have a better chance of succeeding. Sometimes the solution is not about just “finding new business”, which is counter intuitive to many small business owners. The reality is if you are not efficient at working the business you do have then all is for naught. In larger companies it’s often leadership that falters through poor communication, not evangelizing their vision so that people want to support it. For associations, its all what you said – it comes down to just ignoring the obvious and sticking heads in the sand. Some business models just run out of runway. Then stagnancy becomes the norm, which is the ultimate death spiral for any business.

    • Thanks, Juliann. You’ll love the video – it’s very funny. I think associations have it the toughest because they typically have to change their very core values. Not easy.

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