How a European Sex-Changing Tree Taught Me The Value of Corporate Agility

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A recent headline caught my attention. “UK’s oldest tree is undergoing sex-change,” proclaimed The Guardian banner, and the title proved decidedly accurate. The subject was a 4000+ year-old yew tree growing quietly in a churchyard in central Scotland. As the article explained, 2015 was the first year that it was observed producing fleshy-covered seeds—a decidedly female commodity. To this point in the tree’s venerable history, it had produced only pollen—the equivalent of mammalian sperm (a reality that turns ‘pollen allergies’ into something all the more personal).

Yew trees are typically dioecious, meaning that a single tree is either male or female, making this a story of true transformation. In technical terms it is called ‘sequential hermaphroditism,’ and after a cursory internet search it turns out that a surprisingly long list of species take part in male-to-female and female-to-male conversions (called protandry and protogyny, respectively).

The clownfish of Finding Nemo fame is one illustrative example. Journey to a reef, find an anemone, and you are likely to encounter a female clownfish fish, her male partner, and a collection of smaller non-breeding males. Pluck out the female and watch as the large male begins the physical and hormonal transition to womanhood. This anatomical and physiological journey can take a handful of weeks so don’t plan to observe it while holding your breath, but it will happen none-the-less. Faced with this latest landscape of opportunity, the next largest male will mature and become the new female’s breeding partner. Keep removing females and the cascading series of sex changes and maturations will continue until the ocean is void of clownfish.

Whether in tree or marine organism, this is a rather curious anatomical maneuver. But as is always the case, it exists for a compelling reason, and exploring its utility yields advice for us all.

Like everything in biology, this extreme makeover boils down to improved reproductive success. If an attribute increases its owner’s opportunity to get lucky and pass on its genes, it will spread through the population faster than a cute cat meme (well, maybe not quite that fast). On the other hand, if a trait increases an organism’s odds of dying alone, increasingly few, and haplessly unlucky organisms will possess it in the future. In that light, having gender-bending flexibility has increased these species’ odds of survival and reproduction. But why these species?

Turns out a yew tree and a clownfish have more in common than meets the eye. Both are relatively imprisoned in a small geographic area. The tree, of course, can’t uproot and relocate, and clownfish are functionally constrained to the safety of their anemone (venture too far from its protector and it shifts from a question of whether it will be eaten to who will eat it). Faced with such limited mobility, finding a compatible mate can be decidedly difficult. Even if a yew tree is initially lucky in the matchmaking lottery and grows within pollen-tossing distance of an opposite-sex partner, death of either tree leaves the other with untapped biological potential (if you know what I mean). The same goes for clownfish—it would be a lonely anemone if the only female passed away and there wasn’t a replacement plan.

Faced with these biological costs, nature stumbled upon a creative solution, sequential hermaphroditism. In that regard, the ability to change sex is a response to alterable environmental circumstances; a pivot to take full advantage of changing market opportunities. It’s also a story with an important lesson.

Specifically, the environments in which we live and work are also fluid. Our companies conduct business in ever-changing atmospheres. Everything from client preferences, competitor tactics, and corporate culture, to scientific understanding, technological innovation, and economic conditions confront businesses with shifting circumstances. Our businesses, like yew trees and clownfish, can also find themselves occupying rigid niches. Call it corporate typecasting, it occurs when a business’ legacy and historical strategies pigeonholes it into specific market segments. Established practices and products all work great until the market shifts, and then inflexible operators go the way of the dodo bird (just ask your local video store, travel agency, or taxicab drivers’ union).

Given the environmental similarities between modern businesses and the sex-shifting species above, it’s clear that successful companies need a transformation plan to address changes in their operating landscapes. They need an ability to radically reposition themselves, a willingness to pivot, and a readiness to restructure at a moment’s notice. If one thing remains constant, it’s that rigid attachment to a single approach isn’t viable in fluid circumstances.  Transformations are essential.  Just ask a clownfish.

On the flip side, drastic change can be difficult, but if a 4000-year-old tree can do it, so can we.


Copyright 2015 Kurt MacDonald