How Will Your Company Adapt?

Charles Darwin wrote the book on natural selection: Survival of the fittest is about adaptability to a changing environment and new competitive realities. That’s just what companies face today.

Suddenly, the world changes.


First, it’s prosperity: Unlimited growth abruptly ends. Stark recession sets in. The stock market stops booming. Companies go bust.

Then, it’s peace: An attack on the United States provokes a new and different kind of war. In a matter of a few months, the familiar world gets turned upside down, then inside out.

The challenge is to adapt — or die. The sudden shifts in the economic and political environment only serve to underline the relevance of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection — a power “incessantly ready for action,” as he wrote in The Origin of Species.


When the environment changes abruptly — when the Ice Age arrives, say, or, more to the point, when war erupts — adaptability becomes the only survival mechanism.

But how do you adapt? What does adaptive behavior look like? How are companies and their leaders practicing Darwin’s lessons? Here are three versions of adaptability that suggest survival strategies for changing times.

JetBlue Airways: Starting With Fresh DNA

When David Neeleman launched JetBlue Airways in February 2000, he knew that he was entering into dangerous territory, a landscape that had claimed the lives of a number of ambitious new entrants: Kiwi International Airlines, People Express, and Tower Air, to name a few. He thought that he had figured out a unique way to fill a niche left empty by the big air carriers — low-cost, high-touch service for harried travelers. But nothing could have prepared Neeleman for the events of September 11 or for their impact on the airline industry. Suddenly, he was operating on pure instinct.


Neeleman’s first response was to buck the industry trend. He vowed not to lay off any of the airline’s 2,000 employees, even though its planes, in the first weeks after they resumed service, were flying mostly empty to 17 cities from JetBlue’s home base at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Neeleman’s second big decision was about how to talk to his customers — New Yorkers, who were the nation’s most deeply affected fliers. In the wake of September 11, Neeleman knew that he had to adapt his marketing message. But what should JetBlue say?

In times of crisis, companies tend to fall back on their habitual patterns of behavior. Top-down hierarchies look for one decisive leader — an approach that can be useful for managing certain operational matters, such as recovering airplanes that are stranded at airports around the country. JetBlue’s ability to adapt is rooted in its small size and its focus on teamwork. In this crisis, Neeleman’s team rallied together to locate the emotional center of its new marketing strategy.

Neeleman first tried drafting a personal letter that would run as a full-page ad. But he was vetoed by his team, who felt that the message was too self-conscious. Instead, JetBlue ran an ad that told its customers, We know you need time to heal. JetBlue will be here when you’re ready to fly again.


Other carriers were urging Americans to shake off their fear of flying. “We really did not want to go down the path of, ‘Get America moving again’ or ‘Get on board. It’s important to show bin Laden we’re not afraid to fly,’ ” says Amy Curtis-McIntyre, JetBlue’s vice president of marketing. “That resonates in a lot of other parts of the country, but it just didn’t feel right for New York. The worst thing that we can do right now is make a mistake. Being quiet is not necessarily a bad thing.”

It was a lesson in restraint for Neeleman, a driven, hands-on entrepreneur who felt that the time was right to market JetBlue’s low fares. “I’m being totally deferential and patient,” Neeleman says, “because I think the situation demands it. I have to trust the instincts of the people around me.”

Fast Response, Agile Response

JetBlue’s single most striking adaptation has been its determination to expand when larger, more established competitors are shrinking. Virtually every other airline is limiting service and capacity and postponing the delivery of new planes that had already been ordered. JetBlue is adding three new Airbus A320s and expanding its service to markets where competitors are scaling back.


“We aren’t sending a message by flying empty planes on new routes,” Neeleman says. “But in a lot of places now, there’s no low-fare nonstop service. We’ve targeted markets where our competitors have reduced their capacity or where it has gone from two carriers in that market to one. That creates some opportunities for us.”

The decision to move came quickly. Neeleman and his team gathered in a windowless conference room at JetBlue’s headquarters in Queens, New York, nine miles from ground zero. The airline’s strategic planners used a computerized reservation system to scan competitors’ traffic on the routes flown by JetBlue and to hunt for dropped flights that show up immediately when airlines cancel service. They zeroed in on Florida, where American Airlines, Delta Express, US Airways, and MetroJet had all recently slashed their schedules. In the post – September 11 airline industry, that looked like an opportunity. Less than two months after the tragedy, JetBlue inaugurated seven new flights to Florida, boosting service by 44%.

That is what adaptation looks like. In Darwinian terms, JetBlue is a new breed that is looking to capitalize on spaces in the competitive landscape left open by older, larger companies. Its greatest asset is fresh DNA. Unencumbered by habits built up by time, scale, or scope of operation, JetBlue hopes to survive by responding sensitively, nimbly, and quickly to turbulent times and catastrophic changes.


Safety Is Differentiation

That kind of agility is what Neeleman thought would catapult JetBlue to success when he started the company. He had spent 16 years in the industry and had cofounded and run Utah-based Morris Air, a regional carrier that Southwest Airlines acquired in 1993 for around $130 million. From the outset, he promoted JetBlue as the anti-airline airline, a colorful alternative to a monotonous industry where very little separates AA from UA.

With $130 million from backers J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Weston Presidio Capital and from financier George Soros, Neeleman set out to lure passengers with a small fleet of brand-new Airbus A320s, outfitted with such unconventional features as all-leather seats and real-time TV beamed to screens in every seat back. Neeleman’s entry strategy was working beautifully. In an industry that had already fallen to a 10-year low before the September 11 attacks, JetBlue had earned a profit of $8.5 million on revenues of $78 million in the second quarter of 2001, the company’s 10th-consecutive profitable month. JetBlue could boast a higher load factor than any other U.S. airline: 80% in the first six months of 2001. Its on-time performance over the same period was 80%, 7% higher than the industry average.

It was, Neeleman figured, the right time to take the company public. Last summer, attorneys and investment bankers drew up documents to register JetBlue’s plans with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The filing date that they picked: September 11. Two hours before they were scheduled to file with the SEC, the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center.


The adaptations have started again. Even though capital is tight, JetBlue’s lean operations and low-cost structure hold down the burn rate. For the time being, $20 million from the $5 billion government airline bailout, plus the pledge of fresh capital from its original backers, should keep the company in the air. But the tougher problem confronting JetBlue is the need to continue to adapt and respond to customers’ changing concerns.

In the aftermath of September 11, leather seats and real-time TV may seem frivolous. And ultimately, in the current environment for air travel, it may be that only huge companies with deep pockets will pull through. But JetBlue’s small size, its ability to respond to its customers, and Neeleman’s willingness to move quickly and decisively may also give the company an all-important instinct for survival. Take safety: Neeleman has already made it his personal business to establish JetBlue as the first national carrier to install bulletproof, dead bolted cockpit doors on all of its aircraft. Every air carrier expects the Federal Aviation Administration to issue such a mandate. Neeleman is moving even before the FAA does.

“A lot of carriers will wait until the mandate is issued,” says Neeleman. “We aren’t waiting. We’re small. We’re nimble. We can do fleetwide upgrades in weeks instead of months. This is an area where we will take a leadership position.”


Hours after the attacks, Neeleman was on the phone to Airbus, JetBlue’s aircraft supplier, asking for prototype doors that would secure pilots from intruders. He’s adamant about making the changes. “We do it first because we think it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “But then, for that, you’re perceived as a company that can move quickly and that understands what needs to be done.”

W.L. Gore: The Power of Adaptive Radiation

A company can only start from scratch once. After that, the DNA is mostly established. But some companies have in their natural capabilities an attribute that biologists call “adaptive radiation.” Think of it as the ability of an organism to expand its geographic range by splitting into multiple species. It happened on the Hawaiian islands, when two small birds called honeycreepers ultimately produced more than 50 distinct species that swarmed the forests. It also happens with stunning regularity at W.L. Gore & Associates Inc. It’s the principle that Gore uses to spin out adaptive uses of its original product, polytetraflouroethylene, or PTFE.

Today, Gore is a 43-year-old company with more than $1.5 billion in sales, more than 1,000 different products, and 6,000 employees — all of which trace back to Bill Gore, who worked as a young chemist at DuPont, where he and his colleagues developed PTFE. In 1957, DuPont opted to focus on PTFE’s nonstick qualities, which were marketed as Teflon. Gore recognized PTFE’s unique properties as an insulator for wire and quit DuPont to start his own company.


In 1969, Gore discovered a way to turn round, fat coaxial wires into flat ribbon cables using PTFE. IBM seized on the breakthrough to make its A360 mainframe computer smaller and faster, helping to turn the machine into a runaway hit. Gore followed with GoreTex, the monster brand extension that produces waterproof, breathable fabrics. Then Gore exploited PTFE’s chemical inertness for medical grafts.

For pure adaptive radiation, however, nothing in the evolution of Gore and PTFE can top the day in 1971 when Bill Gore tied a strand of PTFE fiber to the hole in the handle of his toothbrush and started flossing his teeth with it. It sounds like the setup for a joke: How many engineers does it take to floss your teeth? But the punch line was for real. Gore eventually turned its nonshred dental floss, Glide Floss, into the best-selling floss in the United States — a $31 million product. Gore’s ongoing ability to practice adaptive radiation under the leadership of Bob Gore, Bill’s son, who took over as president and CEO in 1976, is a textbook lesson in business biology.

Amplify Your Uniqueness

How has Gore managed to adapt its core product into so many different species? Part of the answer lies in a product-development process that values uniqueness. Part of it is the independence that the company gives its people. “Both of those things were necessary to draw floss out of Gore,” says Burt Chase, one of the company’s first salesmen and a senior executive. “Dental floss may seem like an unlikely product for Gore, but when you have the right conditions, you come up with unanticipated results. We have learned to capitalize on the unexpected.”


Despite the company’s adaptive culture, the idea for a better dental floss languished within the company for 20 years after Bill Gore first flossed his teeth with PTFE. The problem wasn’t the idea — it was the company’s traditional business model. In some cases, Gore made money by selling PTFE fiber to other companies that then manufactured and sold new products, using PTFE as the raw material. Following that approach, Gore went to Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive, two giants that dominated the market, offering a nonshred material for floss.

This time, Gore’s model faltered. Five times over 20 years Gore looked into the idea of selling expanded PTFE fiber to floss makers — and five times it found no takers. But Gore didn’t abandon the idea. The company was convinced that it had the world’s only nonshred floss. At Gore, that phrase — “the only” — has special power. “It’s how we review product concepts,” says Bob Henn, who oversees R&D at Gore. “We give you those two words — ‘the only’ — and then we say, ‘Now, fill in the rest.’ If you can fill in that blank and validate it without resorting to marketing gimmicks, then you’re onto something.”

Every Adaptation Needs a Carrier

John Spencer seems too quiet and self-contained to lead a struggle to transform a company’s self-image. He’s 46 years old, but it’s not hard to imagine him 25 years ago, first as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, then as an engineer aboard a nuclear submarine. He still has the same neatly trimmed sandy hair, wire-rim glasses, and measured tones that he had back then.


In 1991, six months after joining the company and on his first week in a new division, Spencer heard about the stalled floss project. He quickly proposed a radical new plan: Stop chasing other producers and market the product directly to consumers. Spencer’s proposal quickly aroused opposition from some of the company’s most successful operations. The loudest objections came from Gore’s medical-technology group, which had built up a profitable business manufacturing such sophisticated products as vascular grafts and artificial heart valves. “They voiced major concerns that putting the Gore name on a string for teeth would hurt the company’s image as a medical-technology leader,” Spencer says.

Spencer’s response: Use a clinical trial to validate the product in a way that the medical-technology group would respect. It was a simple test, pitting Gore’s PTFE floss against standard nylon floss and asking consumers which they preferred. Most picked Gore — and those who didn’t said that they doubted that the new floss worked, because it didn’t hurt their gums.

The clinical trial was a breakthrough. The American Dental Association conferred its seal of approval on Gore’s floss, which Spencer named Glide Floss. The loudest critics inside the company quieted down. And Spencer had his marketing hook: He would position Glide as the product for people who didn’t like to floss — in other words, almost everybody.


How to Spread Your Seed

Spencer’s next challenge was to find the market for Glide Floss. With few resources at his command, he launched a grassroots campaign. He started in his own neighborhood, persuading Happy Harry’s, a chain of Delaware drugstores, to stock Glide Floss in 26 stores around Gore’s headquarters in Newark, Delaware. He gave free samples to area dentists and told them that if their customers liked it, they could buy more of the floss at Happy Harry’s.

Spencer’s target was to sell 600 units in the first three months. No one was ready for what actually happened — including Spencer. Customers snapped up 12,000 units and clamored for more. Then the product took on a life of its own.

Tipped off by a Long Island dentist, New York magazine published a brief item extolling the virtues of the new dental floss. The mother of a producer of the hit TV show Seinfeld read the article and gave some floss to her son, who passed it on to Jerry Seinfeld — and Glide Floss became part of a Seinfeld episode.

Suddenly, Gore’s switchboard was deluged by thousands of callers who wanted Glide Floss — and Gore had its next example of adaptive radiation. A short 18 months after Spencer dropped off the first boxes at Happy Harry’s, Glide Floss was the best-selling dental floss in the United States — a position that it still holds today. And John Spencer? He’s still in the adaptive-radiation business — producing guitar strings coated with PTFE and developing a line of PTFE-based clothing for cyclists.

The Girl Scouts of the USA: Adaptive Coloration

It may be the single most familiar principle of natural selection: A species’ coloration plays a critical role in its survival. Most biologists can recite the story of moths in England in the early days of industrialization. As factory smoke changed the color of the skies and filtered onto trees and leaves, gray moths gained a distinct advantage over the more numerous white ones. Predators could easily spot the white moths against the dark background. Natural selection favored the darker uniform.

In Darwinian terms, it’s a short hop from moths to Marty Evans, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and the 16th executive director of the Girl Scouts of the USA. When she assumed her post in 1998, Evans took over an 86-year-old organization that was large and growing — it grew to 3.7 million members in 2001. But the big picture obscured a real problem. A snapshot of any 10 Girl Scouts would reveal 7 white faces. Image problem number one: How could Evans make scouting appealing to all girls?

That same snapshot would also reveal a more subtle problem. Few if any of the girls in the photo would be wearing the kelly-green outfit that was the Scouts’ identifying uniform. To young girls who were accustomed to the styles of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, the “geeky green” uniform was a turnoff. Uniforms aren’t mandatory for Girl Scouts — but they are a critical marketing tool for the organization. Evans needed to come up with a look that girls would want to wear.

Blend Outside DNA With the Original

The notion of updating the Girl Scouts’ uniform was hardly a new one. In the past, the organization’s executive counsel had periodically turned to a big-name designer to fix the look, usually with disastrous results. In the late 1970s, for example, Halston gave troop leaders a uniform that made them look like airline stewardesses.

This time, Evans realized, the Girl Scouts needed something more radical than a stylish makeover. “We made a decision that we would start with a blank sheet of paper and not just tinker with the design,” Evans says. “We would be open to any and all ideas. To get the look we were after, we couldn’t think about it simply as a continuation of past generations of Girl Scouts uniforms.”

The Scouts, Evans believed, needed to look outside for a partner. They needed to find a design-and-marketing firm that could inject some new DNA into the organization to refresh its image. At the same time, the new look would have to be true to the Scouts’ historic values and sensibility — if it was too hip or too sexy, it would lose touch with the best qualities that the Scouts had to offer.

The expanded gene pool came in the form of Siegelgale, a cutting-edge brand-management firm headquartered in New York. The firm had a long line of design successes to its credit and a list of clients such as Coca-Cola, Dell, ESPN, and MasterCard. In her first week on the job, Evans attended a Siegelgale presentation and liked what she saw. Alan Siegel, the firm’s founder, suggested that the features of the Girl Scouts’ new identity were to be found in the organization’s roots. “He wasn’t going to put a group of people in a room and say, ‘Come up with a new look,’ ” Evans says. “He felt that the seeds for evolving the Girl Scouts’ brand image had to come from within the Girl Scouts.”

Siegelgale conducted months of interviews with leaders, people in the field, and customers — in this case, the girls and their parents. At the same time, the consultants sifted for images that spoke to the girls: the Disney film Mulan, a movie that told the story of a young girl going to war to protect her family; the Women’s National Basketball Association; and the popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “All of those images showed girls in control, girls in power, girls center stage and on the court — not on the sidelines,” says Linda Cornelius, managing director of Siegelgale’s New York office. “The message was, it was cool to be strong.”

That message was already embedded within the Girl Scouts’ DNA. “The Girl Scouts have a law,” says Cornelius. “It says, ‘I will do my best to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring’ — all of the things that people generally associate with scouting. But that same line continues with the words, ‘courageous and strong.’ When we saw those attributes, we said, That’s it! That’s the part of the Girl Scouts that the girls don’t get credit for.” Siegelgale had the new mantra of the branding campaign: The Girl Scouts was the place “where girls grow strong.”

Find a Look That Fits

Many companies talk about how their people are the best advertisement for their values. At the Girl Scouts, it’s true. The new brand had come from the seeds of the organization. Now the new look would come from its members. “We were very keen on getting the word directly from the girls,” says Evans. “They are our customers.”

What the customers wanted came down to one word: khaki. “No matter what style,” Evans says, “the girls told us over and over. They’re not wearing it unless it’s khaki.”

The process of creating the new look was like a time-lapse version of natural selection at work. Staff designers fanned out from Girl Scouts headquarters on Fifth Avenue in New York to the major stores in Manhattan, returning with bags of samples. They scanned the different designs and quickly selected the most popular styles and colors with an eye to what would be most practical for the Scouts. Guided by national director of equipment service Kathleen Duncan, who had spent 20 years as a buyer and fashion director before joining the Girl Scouts, the team created its own patterns: a couple of styles of slacks, shorts, blouses, and skirts.

The final products could have been in the window displays of the finest shops in any mall in America: new A-line skirts that ended well above the knee; parachute-style cargo pants; stretch-fabric navy tops. The entire color scheme underwent a transformation from dark green to khaki with pastel blue for Senior Girl Scouts and khaki with jade green for Junior Girl Scouts. The only feature that identified the wearer as a Girl Scout was a discreet rectangular label — the kind that comes automatically on any Tommy Hilfiger outfit.

The girls went wild. In city after city, at focus groups convened by Siegelgale to test the designs, scouts raved about the new look. “Girls told me that this was the first uniform they would consider wearing with their friends at school,” Evans says.

But true to the laws of natural selection, the new uniforms are a reminder that every adaptation carries the seeds of the next one. In an environment where all outfits are khaki, will the Girl Scouts stand out enough to be distinctive? “It’s a balancing act,” says Evans. “The uniforms have to look hip without straying too far from the conventional standards. But if they’re dorky and the girls don’t like them, they won’t wear them. Now at least we’ve got a look that girls feel proud to put on.”

Paul C. Judge ( is a Fast Company senior editor.

Sidebar: Lessons of Adaptation

“This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection,” wrote Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. In the world of business, what does adaptive behavior look like?

Successful adapters see the world with fresh eyes. When the environment shifts around them, they are among the first to respond to changes in the complex web of relations that binds together all species. As Darwin pointed out, competition is keenest between closely allied forms in nature. Successful adapters are quick to differentiate themselves from their closest rivals.

Speed matters. Adapters are often quicker to locate and exploit new sources of nutrition. They find ways to coexist where possible and to outrun, outmaneuver, or outfight competitors where necessary. When landscape-altering events sweep across the environment, some species win simply by making do with what’s at hand. Efficiency can be the best survival strategy.

Instinct plays a crucial role. All species possess instinct. But successful adapters seem to have a more refined capacity to intuit the dangers and opportunities in their environment and to act decisively. Darwin, who considered instinct to be a powerful, mysterious force, wondered where it comes from. Without presuming to answer the question, he demonstrated how natural selection works to refine instinct in such cases as slave-making ants or hive-making bees. However species come by instinct, they can’t last long without it.

Adaptation is never over. Conditions change constantly in large and small ways, demanding and favoring ongoing adaptations from species — and companies. Natural selection, wrote Darwin, “is a power incessantly ready for action.”