What the blue whale can teach us about strategic planning.
A story of sticking to the plan vs taking advantage of opportunities.
Studying science at university opened me up to a diverse and disparate range of concepts and ideas, none of which ever seem relevant to the real world at the time.
As I’ve started to dive deeper into thought leadership, however, a number of these scientific concepts are proving to be more than relevant to the world of startups and entrepreneurs.
I was first exposed to one of these concepts during the most memorable lecture I ever had at university. It was a biology lesson in whale courtship and the example given to carry the concept provides an excellent lesson for startup founders.
On the face of it, blue whale courtship is a wholly un-useful process to know. It starts with the mating pairs following a ‘pre-programmed’ courtship ritual, which involves a series of rolls and dives. The ritual is to allow the female to assess the suitability of her potential partner.
At the conclusion of the ritual, if the female is happy with the suitor she will orientate herself ‘right way up’, with her back to the sky to be more accommodating for the act of copulation. If she’s doesn’t want to proceed, she orientates herself ‘upside down’, which makes access hard to achieve.
This detail is important because, while the female may not want to copulate, this often doesn’t stop the male from trying. Regardless of the females’ consent, the male will leverage the length and dexterity of his impressive ‘manhood’ and will attempt tp copulate. He does this by positioning himself next to the female and proceeds to wrap all ten feet of ‘it’ around her body, where it will break the water’s surface and begin aggressively prodding her belly, which is now facing the sky.
So, as the lecture progressed, the professor explained that she and her research colleagues were observing a male blue whale engaging in courtship with a female on a small boat off the coast of New Zealand.
They were witnessing a situation where the female was not interested in the advances of the male and he was becoming aggressive. As the tussle went on, the crew became increasingly concerned about the proximity of the whales to the vessel. The crew was very much aware that their small boat could quickly become collateral damage to an overly aggressive, horny, sea beast, and that the chaos was getting closer.
All of a sudden, the female whale approached the boat and pulled up underneath the hull, where she disappeared and remained. While the crew was distracted determining exactly what had happened to the female, suddenly, a twelve-inch diameter, ten feet long, whale penis appeared by the side of the boat. Without warning, it sided the hull and began aggressively thumping in-between the crew as it ‘probed’ the deck, in search of the female below!
This story is a perfect lesson for startup founders. It demonstrates the importance of not only be able to identify opportunities as they present themselves, but also to ensure we are in a position to take advantage of them, even if they aren’t planned for. The female whale observed the boat and figured out how it could give her an advantage, and she took it. The female had overridden the embedded subconscious behavior of the mating ritual and improved her odds of avoiding pregnancy to an undesired suitor.
The best execution of a plan is often done habitually and ritually, where everyone knows the role they play and can execute reliably and measurably. There will be a point, however, where rigorous adherence to a plan can start to harm the business, particularly if it isn’t able to identify or take advantage of opportunities that present themselves.
In essence, companies that can find a good balance between the certainty of sticking to a plan vs the potentially rewarding but often hard to manage ambiguity of pivoting or deviating from the plan will give themselves higher odds of success.
About the author — Aidan Kenealy
My mission is to help those with high growth businesses realise their vision for success. I draw from the unique lessons learned growing EMGN to help founders and CEOs get the best out of what their businesses can be.
If you would like to discuss how I can help you and your business — please reach out via LinkedIn or email firstname.lastname@example.org