Do you know the penguin dilemma? Hundreds of penguins standing on the edge of a cliff looking at the water full of fish. So why don’t they jump in? Well, among the fish there may also be an orca, and he quite literally has penguins for breakfast.
So the only way for the penguins to know whether it’s safe to jump in, is to wait until one of them is impatient enough to take the first plunge. And when he does, all the others watch. If a massacre follows, they all turn and go home. If the little daredevil comes up for air again, they all jump in.
This behavior reminds me of the way many businesses behave when confronted with a new development in the market place. Whether it is a new medium, a new technology, a new market or an alternative business model, they wait. They wait until there is one company brave enough to jump in and then they wait again to see how it fares. If it fails, they walk away. If it succeeds, everyone jumps in.
The result has been dot-com bubbles, the green movement and the propagation of the SUV. Yet what is interesting to me is that as a survival strategy, the approach does seem to work. Both for the penguins as for the corporate world.
The businesses who jump in first do seem to fare worse than those who observe and act later. After all, Amazon wasn’t the first online bookshop and no one even remembers those that went before. The same goes for eBay, Google or many others.
So I wonder … have the penguins got it right?
Picture by Steve Deger (CC-attribution): http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevedeger/106562800/