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The living corporation
Really smart science people tell us that a human being is an “organism”, and that it contains organs. Each organ is made of one or more tissues, which are made up of cells. Each cell contains DNA which magically tells the whole thing how to work. The kicker is that while all cells have the same DNA, cells in different tissues pay attention to different parts of it. This approach to making a living thing lets each cell do one specific thing really well. Your brain is really good at thinking, your stomach does a fantastic job of digesting food, your muscles are awesome at moving things, and when it’s all joined together you have a living person.
The really funny thing is that living beings aren’t the only entities that work this way. Businesses—particularly large ones—follow this exact same approach.
A business has a goal, and it hires folks to reach that goal. As the business matures it develops different divisions to accomplish specific functions. Just as a liver cell can’t pump blood like a heart cell, an accountant would probably be a terrible sales rep. Each person has their function, and if they do it well, the organism—sorry, the company—thrives. The analogy goes further… just as exercise improves your muscles, team members who take the time to work together and improve as a team make the whole group work better.
The analogy even stands true defensively. Us humans have an immune system to protect the body and kill intruder cells, like harmful bacteria. Similarly, healthy businesses always keep an eye out for “bad apples” and fire them before they hurt the team. Even consultants are part of this analogy; just a a human needs lots and lots of external bacteria for the digestive system to function, a company often needs the help of many other outside parties—vendors, consultants—to best do its own work.
There are many angles that can be explored here and I hope to discuss some in future posts. I’d like to finish off this particular post by exploring a particularly abstract business concept: corporate culture.
People’s behavior is largely defined by their personality. Outgoing, inquisitive, analytical, meticulous; everyone has a heart and stomach and spleen, but personality is often what sets people apart. Companies have a personality, too; it’s usually called a “corporate culture”. Many big companies spend a lot of time and money bragging about their rich history, or their rockstar leadership, or the incredible devotion to their community, or their employees, or their customers, or whatever. All that bluster is them trying to define their personality. In reality, the “personality”—culture—is really only visible when you do business with them. Good support? Dishonest lawyers? Taking care of employees even if it means a loss for the company? This is what the company really holds as important.
In that vein, one of the toughest things an organization can try is a culture shift. Trying to change internal culture is like to someone trying to change their personality. An extrovert can go avoid socializing, but it’ll make them pretty unhappy and they’ll probably give it up eventually. A food junkie can diet, but everyone knows how well those tend to turn out. Change doesn’t come easily here. On this vein, a whole lot of studies have shown over and over that corporate change efforts fail. Funny enough, the reason for failure is most often reported to be “communication”. They weren’t even able to tell their employees that they wanted to change, let alone actually try to do it!
This analogy, though, gives us the secret to success. How does a person successfully lose weight? Discipline, routine, and support systems. Doctors will tell you that weight is lost and kept off through full lifestyle changes… eat differently, exercise more, track progress, support and encouragement from friends, and more. How does a company successfully implement change? The same, but spread over an entire organization. Now we see why that’s so tough! Everyone has to know to do things differently, everyone has to change what how they do things, everyone has to support each other. It’s a tall order, and frankly really, really difficult, but entirely possible.
Knowing how something works lets us easier understand why it acts as it does, as well as how to get it to change. By maintaining the mental model of a business as a living entity, with it’s own personality, we can gain significant insights into why companies act the way they do.