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The Red Queen among Organizations

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The Red Queen among Organizations

How Competitiveness Evolves

Princeton UP,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

In business, as in nature, competition is what forces evolution. And the better you get, the better you have to get.

Editorial Rating



  • Comprehensive
  • Innovative
  • Eye Opening


This book tackles an important, fascinating subject, “how competitiveness evolves.” Adapting techniques from disciplines as disparate as evolutionary biology and literature (the guiding metaphor of the Red Queen is from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, hinting that the text is not totally devoid of humor), William P. Barnett brings an intelligence to bear that is sharply focused and dense with knowledge. He makes essential observations about organizational learning, offering telling, innovative insights on the real complexity of information management and communication. getAbstract recommends this to serious students of knowledge and management. Regretfully, only serious students are likely to sift through the analysis, since Barnett’s style is as dense as his learning, making for tough going at times – though the Red Queen perspective is worth the trip.


Competition and the Red Queen

In Lewis Carroll’s classic, Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen explains how her country differs from normal places. In her skewed kingdom, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” That sounds crazy, as Carroll intended, but it perfectly describes the competitive reality that organizations face: They must work harder and harder just to stay even with each other. People toil diligently to find any advantage or improvement for their firms, and their competitors do the same, so the race accelerates over and over. Like living creatures in an ecological system, companies compete for finite resources. Thus, competition is a “zero-sum” game. When you win, someone else loses.

While all companies compete, they don’t do it the same way, to the same degree or against the same competitors. Instead, organizations compete against similar organizations. They operate like organisms jockeying for supremacy in a single ecological niche where the pressure of competition works like evolution, forcing change and adaptation. How you win in these different niches depends on the criteria your specific area uses to define...

About the Author

William P. Barnett is the Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Business Leadership, Strategy and Organizations at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

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