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THE CORPORATE CURMUDGEON/DALE DAUTEN

Like the crafty crow, adapt, and go with it

''Appreciation, wonder, astonishment, and careful insight would seem prudent." -- From ''In the Company of Crows and Ravens" by John Marzluff and Tony Angell

Most corporations aspire to being mighty, seeking to be the lions or eagles of their industries. Indeed, the largest and strongest of the business predators are sometimes referred to as ''category killers." Grrrgh.

But there is much to be said for the smaller and craftier species -- the coyote and the cockroach, of course.

Today, thanks to the brilliant work of Marzluff and Angell, I'd like to see what we can learn from the wisdom of the crow. While the mighty eagle declines, the crafty crow thrives.

Crows are the geniuses of the avian world. The authors wrote, ''Mentally, crows and ravens are more like flying monkeys than they are like other birds."

As geniuses, crows have learned to turn humans, the planet's ''category killer," into unwitting allies. They feast upon crops and frequent garbage dumps and trash bins. It's no wonder, then, that crows are ''eight times more abundant within six-tenths of a mile (1 kilometer) of people than they are further from people."

Yet, crows do not require humans. They eat seeds, insects, worms and just about anything else.

When convenient, crows can work as a team: Should they spot an otter with a freshly caught fish, the crows gather around, and one crow pinches the otter's tail to distract it, then the others nip in for the fish steal.

When working alone, crows turn leaves into spears or hooks to remove insects from crevices, and have been observed placing tough items on a roadway to let a car do the work of cracking a nut or splitting open a dead squirrel.

Thus, we see the wisdom of the crow, the ultimate adapter: Go with it. Not the old ''go for it" of the predator relying on strength and will, but the brainier ''go with it," accepting the environment and making use of whatever it offers.

Changing the world is much more work than cleverly fitting into it.

With a bit of a stretch, I can offer a business example of ''go with it" wisdom:

PetSmart started out as a ''category killer," the ''big box" chain in pet supplies. It did well in the late 80s, back when going into a ''warehouse store" was still a tingly adventure for customers, and when volume and distribution made for economies of scale.

Eventually, however, the predator's predator, Wal-Mart, started taking over, taking the heart of the ''big boxes" and laying them out on the economy's roadway like dead squirrels.

That's when PetsMart became PetSmart.

And while it may sound like one of those silly corporate ''you say to-ma-to, I say to-mah-to" name/logo exercises, in this case it represented a change from being a company built around distribution to being one built around customers and services.

As David Lenhardt, a senior vice president with PetSmart put it, ''We had a new vision, given to us by our customers." What they did was examine the market and find what they came to think of as ''pet parents," the people who call themselves their pets' Mommy and Daddy, the folks who delight in a special trip to a pet store, especially one where they can bring the pet along.

So PetSmart adapted, offering not just grooming and vet services, but doggie day care and the PetsHotel. (To give you some idea of the extent to which dog lovers go, Lenhardt reports that the Bone Booth in the PetsHotel, where Mommy or Daddy can call the pooch on the speakerphone, is used by 40 percent of boarding customers.)

The upshot is this: Whereas PetsMart was failing in the late 90s, PetSmart is now thriving.

Instead of doing battle with the biggest predator, you go where the predator won't venture. You don't have to open the nut, just put it on the road.

You don't have to fight the otter to get the fish. That's the genius of adapting. You don't have to be the lion or the eagle; you don't even have to contest them, not when the crow can outsmart and outlast both.

Go with it, and do so with prudent astonishment.

Dale Dauten is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at dale@dauten.com.

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