Overcoming Monoculture: Keeping Ideas Alive

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 04-13-2005

Overcoming Monoculture: Keeping Ideas Alive

All human organizations tend to be self-amplifying. —Angus' Eighth Law

As I explained in the first part of this deconstruction of orderly seeming groups, the natural tendency of any organization to become ever more like what it already is a silent killer of effectiveness.

Managers with a certain mind set hire and promote people with the same mind set, sending the message to those who think differently that they're not welcome; over time the decision-making process becomes entirely homogeneous and the organization loses any ability to change or adapt to new conditions.

It's a gravitational field, not a piece of predestination, so with a conscious approach, you can overcome the trend. It's easier in a healthy workplace, but even the most politically stained large organization can apply some tools.

Cracking the Self-Amplification That Weakens

The longer the self-amplification cycle lasts, the more ingrained it becomes. This argues for attacking it as early as possible.

If the organization is reasonably healthy, "diversity" hiring has powerful side-effects that tend to disrupt the worst aspects of self-amplification.

Diversity hiring too frequently is a checkmark item, and in most workplaces, managers go through checkmark tasks in neutral and do a half-axed job of them.

A woman in an all-male shop, a man in an all-woman department, an African-American in an all-"white" bastion has the probability of bringing in a different cluster of life experiences or ways of seeing, and solving, challenges.

People tend to want to hire someone more like themselves or their existing successes, and this natural tendency can undermine the value of the diversity hires.

Unless both H.R. and the hiring leads are determined to hire someone who is truly adding to diversity, they are likely to choose the woman whose operant behaviors most closely resemble their existing talent pool's individuals, and feel the diversity candidates who are least like the incumbents are "too different."

This can destroy the value. Tell H.R. not to vet the apparently qualified candidates of those who seem "too different" so you can at least meet them.

Force them to send you a certain number of wild cards, people who have some qualifications or promise, but who are not optimal; this'll give you a chance to look for something you don't normally get or already have in your group.

The Lotus division of IBM has always been excellent at getting momentum out of its ability to see virtue and not cost in the hiring a diverse cornucopia of talented people.

One does have to be careful not to over-do the difference.

A friend of mine had a client who experimented with turning over diversity hiring to a small committee of ambitious minority employees.

That committee brought in a group of hires, all from one ethnic group, all of whose outlooks and qualifications were very similar, though very different from the rest of the rigidly monocultural company.

The result was a division into two antithetical groups of people, with no one who bridged the gap and few tools to ease the differences.

This client foolishly believed "diversity" hiring was to blame, where it was actually the company's implementation and inability to smooth the flow of new blood into the system that caused the failure.

Most organizations are not healthy enough to do good diversity hiring (if they were really healthy, they wouldn't need to have a special program for it).

Next Page: Costly, But It Works.

Costly, But It Works

Costly, But It Works

Sun Microsystems' ex-CTO Eric Schmidt once described a costly, consciously chaotic approach Sun used to reboot the company cognates in an effort to overcome the self-amplification effect.

Sun would decentralize its product development and marketing out to business units and then shift it back into a centralized group every 18 months or so.

This works, but it's expensive in overhead and work lost to the moves and staff shifts. The good thing is that if good staff know the situation is pre-determined, that they only have X months to make something happen, they'll devastate their gluteii to get projects defined at out before they turn into pumpkins.

On the other hand, bad staff will sandbag, believing it won't matter because they're going to move on shortly, anyway.

This brute force approach is one way to cope with a giant organization's centripetal collapse, but it is so wasteful, I don't recommend it for most shops.

Exogeny: A Lesson from Anthropology

A practice I've been able to instill in a few places is deliberate exogeny.

Tribal cultures' problem with excessive inbreeding (more of a problem in this case of limited ideas than traits inherited through genetic diseases), quite parallel to that in workplaces, is one survivors learned to adapt to by the practice of forcing people to marry outside the tribe or village.

Mandated marriage outside the group is somewhat artificial, but it's effective and has lower overhead than Sun's brute-force approach.

In a workplace setting, exogeny is something you could carry out in a number of ways.

The way I've seen it succeed is through having mid-range performers who have been around a while shift to a job in a different department for a project or a pre-determined amount of time.

These sabbaticals yield results in immediate problem-solving abilities for the receiving group and if the migrant worker is open to the experience, she can pick up extra skills, too.

The hidden side-benefit is that both groups get an infusion of "otherness."

It will work especially well if both managers make it clear that part of the mission is to be open to the differences and for all concerned to learn new ways of doing things.

If they don't make it clear, the migrant will just do his best to conform to the new home instead of having all concerned trying for synthesizing strengths.

I like this technique best when the originating and receiving groups are ones that share work tasks or process hand-offs.

The derived knowledge can, as a side-product, smooth connections in the way the groups work together and help each empathize with the consequences of their own decisions on other, partner, departments.

None of these tools make the gravity field go away.

Each is an option that in the right context can help you resist going cherry pie time when gravity is trying to pull you into the black hole of monocultural groupthink.

Jeff Angus is a management consultant and has been working with IT since 1974. He has held IT management positions in user interface design, marketing, operations and testing/analysis. Look for his book, "Management by Baseball: A Pocket Reader." Jeff's columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun.