Whatever Doesn't Make You Stronger Kills You

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 04-06-2005

Whatever Doesn't Make You Stronger Kills You

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

There's an effect that hamstrings all corporations, even the most effective ones. It's the natural tendency of any organization to become ever more like what it already is. It's what I call a "self-amplifying" tendency.

The longer an organization has spent becoming more like it already is, the stronger the force to continue in that direction becomes—like matter being sucked into a black hole. Eventually they lose the ability to change at all, without recognizing how it happened.

The consequences are reduced flexibility, a shrinking portfolio of solutions to face problems that inevitably evolve, and a loss of ability to find new customers or even to remain in touch with existing ones.

If you know the effect exists, there are tactics you can use to address it, though they don't work in all organizations. To have a chance of dealing with it, you first need to understand why it happens.

In Unconscious Systems, Opposites Detract

It's normal behavior to like working with people who make you comfortable. Most people naturally believe people who agree with them, who see things the way they do, who speak using the same vocabulary they do. They often consider these people "smarter" or "better" than those who don't. Hiring managers are stochastically more likely to hire people who are "smarter" or better," and therefore tend to hire people like themselves.

Click here for a column on management by wishful thinking.

Sometimes that hiring tendency affects a group only through a concentration of the same kind of personality or ethnic identification. Frequently, though, it homogenizes problem-solving approaches as bosses unconsciously favor employees who reason like the boss ("bull's-eyes") and disfavor or ignore staff who don't ("strangers").

That managerial pattern exerts a gravitational field that shapes behavior, like a humongous Skinner Box.

The "strangers" are a little less likely to get promotions or high-impact assignments, while the "bull's-eyes" will tend to get more of them. The ones in the middle will start to gravitate more toward the favored choices and styles so they can get approval or avoid being ignored.

Next Page: How it proliferates.

How It Proliferates

How It Proliferates

Over time, those like-minded folk on the fast track become hiring managers themselves, amplifying the process. When there are layoffs or downsizing moves, even healthy organizations will consider how close a contributor is to the behavioral norm in deciding whom to keep and whom to let go.

Even if not forced out, "strangers" tend to want to leave, in order to find a workplace where they perhaps could be "bull's-eyes" themselves.

And when the hiring starts again, a greater proportion of hiring managers choose based on the kind of people who will stay around.

Under such a tendency, the more accelerated the hiring/firing cycles, the more quickly the system gravitates toward cognitive entropy, a monocultural sameness of approach in attacking projects, products and problems. It goes beyond management skills.

Monoculture tends to express itself in the skills and products an organization produces, what it can do well, where it thinks the future lies, and the risks it is willing to take.

Under stress, the organization is more likely to fall back on its most "bull's-eye" tendencies even though, more often than not, it's been their stubborn adherence to those tendencies that has amplified the stress they are trying to endure.

How often have you been in a meeting in a troubled organization where people voice the opinion that the group "needs to get back to basics?" In itself, that's not always a bad idea, but "basics" more often than not are the safe, "bull's-eye" behaviors and thought processes of the past.

To read about the pursuit of efficiency at AXA Financial, click here.

While the attempt to find safety through nostalgia is frequently a losing proposition, it's one the group can't refuse because it's less likely that anyone in a monocultural organization will have any power to stand up and take an opposing view.

Monoculture can make an organization stronger only under very unusual circumstances, and even then, it's a short-lived phenomenon. Military units that face an inferior force tend to be helped by their monocultural style.

In general, though, like a basketball team that puts five outside shooters on the floor, no matter how skilled the individuals are, they will struggle to defend against a less talented but more diverse team that can shoot from both inside and outside, play fast-break and play a half-court game.

Monoculture breeds fragility by winnowing the tactical portfolio, by making blind spots more invisible.

Farmers who grow only one kind of crop are more likely to be whipsawed by the commodity price of their primary product. To succeed, they have to divert attention away from agriculture toward financial survival tactics such as futures markets.

Monoculture wastes energy that would be better spent on a core mission.

A medical practitioner who optimizes on a certain kind of patient with a certain kind of condition will start to lose the ability to discern exceptions. Remember, when all you hold in your hand is a scalpel, everything looks like a tumor.

Monoculture atrophies the ability to recognize or act on exceptions. And there are always exceptions.

Against the Wind

There are a handful of approaches that managers can take to overcome gravity. They won't work in all organizations, but in Part II of this discussion, which is due to be published Monday, I will cover some of them.