The Red Queen Principle

The Red Queen Principle (or Red Queen Hypothesis) was proposed Leigh Van Valen who based his theory on a quote in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In the book, the Red Queen tells Alice that “in this place, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” The Read Queen Principle is usually applied in the context of evolutionary biology, but it can also be applied to business and IT.


The Red Queen Principle states that:

“For an evolutionary system, continuing development is needed just in order to maintain its fitness relative to the systems it is co-evolving with”

In essence what this means is that when a species evolves, it gains a competitive advantage and allows it to capture a larger share of the resources available. Consequently, other, competing, species must also evolve so they can regain their share of resources. When one improves, the other also quickly improves, and so neither is better off relative to the other. This is a classic “arms race.” Another word for this phenomenon is “non-progressive evolution”.

What has this got to do with IT?

I like to bang my “IT should be a source of competitive advantage” drum, but if the Red Queen Principle holds true then it seems my crusade is futile. As soon as you attain some competitive advantage, everyone else will follow suit, and despite all the hard work we end up no better off. Furthermore, if there is no significant first mover advantage then it is bordering on negligence to accept the risks associated with being a trailblazer, when the rewards of doing so clearly don’t justify it.

The Red Queen Principle seems to be alive and well in IT today. Each year increasing amounts of money are spent on IT but no one seems to gain any advantage. We’re caught on a treadmill and it seems we’ve only got two options: slow down and fall behind or run ever faster just to stay in the same place (relative to everyone else).

We need to get off the treadmill. Thankfully the Red Queen Principle itself gives us two ways of doing it:

  • make it difficult to co-evolve.
  • change the ecosystem.

Option 1: Make it difficult to co-evolve.
When deciding between various options for achieving a competitive advantage, be sure to consider the “reproducibility” of your idea. If you pursue initiatives that can’t easily be copied by competitors then you’re preventing them from “co-evolving”. One way of doing this is through legal means such as patents, but in reality this will rarely be an option. However, every organisation has a unique set of strengths. Find out what yours are and then look for ways to amplify them through technology. Even if your competitors copy your technology strategy, they wont get the same bottom-line results as you. YOUR investment will be aligned with YOUR unique strengths. Their investment will be reactive and aligned with your strategy, not their business.

Option 2: Change the ecosystem.
In business, the ‘ecosystem’ is the market you operate in. The book Innovators Dilemma provides empirical evidence that there is no significant first mover advantage in mature, mainstream markets BUT there is considerable advantage in emerging/niche markets. Look for innovative ways to redefine your ecosystem. Technology is an excellent way of moving the goal posts.

A large part of the Enterprise Architecture efforts in your organisation should be oriented towards the pursuit of these options. This is what strategic IT is all about.

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