The Red Queen Effect Explains Why You Aren’t Getting Ahead

For much of my career, I’ve argued that people design key performance indicators (KPIs) incorrectly. One of my own favorite blogs made the case that, unless you compare yourself against some external benchmark, you might be making progress towards achieving your KPIs but actually losing ground. Simplistically, if you’re growing by 20% and the market is growing by 30%, you’re losing market share.

I was explaining my performance management approach to a class on digital disruption when a student pointed out that I was referring to the Red Queen Effect. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, it comes from Lewis Carroll’s classic book “Through the Looking Glass.” At the Red Queen’s urging, the heroine Alice runs faster and faster but never seems to get anywhere. Here’s a short passage:

The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything.

[…] Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’

‘Of course, it is,’ said the Queen, ‘what would you have it?’

‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

It’s not enough to run faster or perform better than you have in the past – you must be faster/better than those around you. But it’s unlikely you can continually exceed everyone else. Strong over-performance is usually followed by average or even under-performance. This is reversion to the mean.

You can see the Red Queen effect with Darwin’s survival of the fittest. In evolutionary theory, those that leverage their ‘strengths’ by adapting to their surroundings are more likely to prosper. This puts them ahead of their competition and therefore more likely to ‘survive.’ In many cases, however, these advantages are often temporary.

Physicist John Gribbons entertaining book ‘Get a Grip on Physics’ provides a vivid example of the Red Queen effect with frogs and flies:

Suppose there are frogs that eat a certain kind of fly, which they catch by flicking out their tongues. If the frogs evolve a particularly sticky tongue, they will be adept at catching flies. The frogs will do well, and the flies badly, in the evolutionary stakes.

But if the flies evolve a particularly slippery body surface, they will be able to escape from the sticky tongue more easily – and the original balance will be restored. […] Overall, nothing has changed. There are still the same number of frogs, each other eating the same number of flies.

I see many similar examples in business. Companies continually try to out-innovate each other or run continuous promotions to compete on price. One company might gain a temporary advantage but eventually others catch up.

Today’s Silicon Valley seems to be suffering from the Red Queen effect. Every venture capitalist seems to be funding variants of the same business plan. Every company seems to provide similar benefits like free lunches. Everyone is working crazy hours.

Is anyone really getting ahead?

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4 Responses to The Red Queen Effect Explains Why You Aren’t Getting Ahead

  1. roamingruth October 8, 2017 at 11:34 pm #

    Lovely and inspiring. Is it the company’s problem of is the worker’s problem? You can run even three times speed better than last run but if the strategy is still the same or no strategy at all, then the results will be the same.

    “Companies continually try to out-innovate each other or run continuous promotions to compete on price. One company might gain a temporary advantage but eventually others catch up”.

    On reading this statement I was taken back to the Telco companies in East Africa. There is a great difference where 3 of 16 still stand out. The rest have tried but seem not to get it. I know it takes sleepless nights to think and come up with suggestions, creativity and innovation, research and trials, a cost that many others may not be willing to take up.

    The question now is to the employees. Are they satisfied? This question can be answered by looking at turn-over. Face to face interview, email exchanges etc. they may not be as happy but they are happy to be part of the winning leadership and are committed to doing something everyday to make a difference.

    Thank you for you sharing.

  2. Mukhiya Ram sevak October 8, 2017 at 11:58 pm #

    Nice read Sir and love frog&fly example
    sir if i am not wrong there are some sucking type in this case i believe cant escape even slippery body, Thank you for sharing Sir

  3. Malcolm Ryder October 9, 2017 at 9:53 pm #

    The post highlights the problem of performance versus value, but more specifically it makes me think of the the difference between shareholders and stakeholders. My visibility into the valley’s investors is nearly devoid of insight, but we all have to assume that an investment is about someone’s idea of what is really important to give someone and who is really important to give something to. Both our domestic and global economy continually call into question whether the bulk of valley investing is actually meaningful, and on the power curve of funded companies, whether the ones that could be most meaningful are the ones for which the constructs of competition are productive instead of counter-productive. This month, competition has failed to provide anything useful against opioid epidemics, storm and fire recovery, or the violent disinformation of youth and the unemployed through social media, just for starters. I increasingly think that whatever company is stuck at #4 or #5 in their game would “excel” rather by being good enough (not perfect) at something that passes the Who Cares Test among people who really need things to be different (stakeholders). A bit political here, yes, but other respondents can just take it as a prompt…

  4. Ashley October 15, 2017 at 10:48 am #

    If you are doing “all the running you can do”, then wouldn’t “all you can do” be your max output?

    To my thinking, would it not be more logical to compare it to multiple people outrunning a bear. If you are at all slower than the bear, than the further ahead of others you are, thus the longer you have before the bear eats you. No one wants to slow down because it’s a giant angry bear. But the goal becomes to keep the bear’s pace so that it never gets closer or to outrun it. Utilizing the environment around you (in the real world it would be tools of your trade, innovation, etc) you may slow down both the bear and fellow runners who don’t know how to use the environment to their advantage as much. This example would also work using a zombie horde.

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