The power of an algorithm

An algorithm is a set of instructions that allows you to solve a problem.

Each instruction is simple and repeatable. It's important to understand that the instructions work on all similar problems, not just one.

Here's an algorithm for sorting any set of numbers, to get them into order. Start with 4,3,5,6,2 for example.

The bubble sort algorithm is simple. Compare two numbers. If the first number is higher than the second, switch them. So now it's 3,4,5,6,2. Next step is to compare positions two and three. If the second is higher than the third (it's not) switch them. Repeat for the whole string. Then start over. Do it over and over again until you can go the whole way with no switching. Done.

Same trick works for alphabetizing words or sorting kids in order by height.

Of course, there are algorithms that are far more complex, far more intuitive or far more useful.

Algorithms don't care a bit if you believe in them or not. They either work or they don't.

Algorithms in business appear to be magical, because they allow you to be smart about problems you haven't seen before. The 'angry customer' algorithm or the 'promote a book' algorithm don't always work, but they are approaches that work on a huge range of problems.

All of which is a long way to wish Charles Darwin a happy birthday. The simple algorithm he described is often misunderstood but is robust and flexible and powerful, and it works for ideas and businesses as well as fruit flies and turtles.

Ideas that spread, win. Sometimes ideas get changed in transmission, and sometimes those changed ideas spread even farther and with more impact than the ideas that came before them.

In business, if you lock down ideas, make them difficult to change and spread and have impact, you fail. If you accept the fact that change is real, that there is competition for your ideas and that amplifying the good stuff works, you can grow and thrive.

Seeing the algorithm in action (which the Net makes easy) helps you understand the notion of failing fast, of exposing ideas to the real world with a posture of perpetual beta. The clothing store Zara doesn't have clothes for a particular season, they launch clothes for a particular fortnight. They watch and measure and adjust and then repeat.

Your organization (and your career) either embraces change and turmoil and sudden shifts in the rules or you fear it. In times of rapid change (that would be now), embracing the algorithm of the evolution of ideas and systems is a significant competitive advantage.