DNA doesn’t predetermine our future as biological beings, but it does powerfully influence it. Some have applied the concept of ‘DNA’ to a company or organization, in the same way, it’s applied to biological organisms. Firms like PWC have been at the forefront of this approach, developing organizational DNA assessments and outlining the principles that shape the DNA of an organization. A good brand is an identity that you communicate with yourself and the world around you. A healthy brand is built on healthy DNA.
Tech entrepreneur and writer Om Malik sees DNA as being comprised of those people that form the organization:
DNA contains the genetic instructions used to build out the cells that make up an organism. I have often argued that companies are very much like living organisms, comprised of the people who work there. What companies make, how they sell and how they invent are merely an outcome of the people who work there. They define the company.
The analogy between the DNA of a company as being that of those who make it up is apt because, as he points out, organizations reflect the values, habits, mindsets, and focus of those who run them. For that reason, understanding your organizations’ DNA structure might be critical to shaping the corporate direction, brand and promoting any type of change, as we see from the case of Facebook.
DNA dilemma: The case of Facebook
Facebook is under fire these days. To anyone paying enough attention to the social media giant the issue with Facebook isn’t that it’s happening now, but why it hasn’t happened sooner? Back when the site was first opened up to allow non-university students to have accounts (signaling what would become the global brand it is today) privacy was a big concern. I still recall listening to a Facebook VP interviewed on a popular tech podcast who basically sloughed off any concerns the interviewer had about privacy saying the usual “we take this seriously” stuff but offering no example of how that was true just as the world was about to jump on the platform. I’ve heard that same kind of interview repeated dozens of times since the mid-2000’s, including just nine months before Mark Zuckerberg’s recent ‘mea culpa’ tour.
Facebook has never been one to show much (real) attention to privacy because its business model is all about ensuring that users’ are as open as possible to collect as much data as possible from them to sell as many services to them, through them, about them, and for others to manipulate. The Cambridge Analytica story simply exposed what’s been happening for years to the world.
Anyone who’s tried to change their privacy settings knows that you need more than a Ph.D. to navigate them* and, even then, you’re unlikely to be successful. Just look at the case of Bobbi Duncan and Katie McCormick who were outed as gay to their families through Facebook even though they had locked down their own individual privacy settings. This is all part of what CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the folks at Facebook refer to as “connecting the social graph.”
The corporate biology of addiction
In a prescient post, Om Malik wrote about Facebook’s addiction to its business model based on sharing, openness, and exploitation of its users’ information mere weeks before the Cambridge Analytica story came out.
Facebook’s DNA is that of a social platform addicted to growth and engagement. At its very core, every policy, every decision, every strategy is based on growth (at any cost) and engagement (at any cost). More growth and more engagement means more data — which means the company can make more advertising dollars, which gives it a nosebleed valuation on the stock market, which in turn allows it to remain competitive and stay ahead of its rivals.
Whether he knew it or not, Malik was describing an epigenetic model of addiction. Much emerging research on addiction has pointed to a relationship between genes and addictive behaviour. This is a two-way street where genes influence behaviour and behaviour influences a person’s genes (something called epigenetics). The more Facebook seeks to connect through its model, the more it reinforces the behaviour, the more it feels a ‘need’ to do it and therefore repeats it.
In systems terms, this is called a reinforcing loop and is part of a larger field of systems science called systems dynamics. Systems dynamics have been applied to public health and show how we can get caught in traps and the means we use to get out of them. By applying an addiction model and system dynamics to the organization, we might better understand how some organizations change and how some don’t.
The first step toward any behaviour change for an addiction is to recognize the addiction in the first place. Without acknowledgment of a problem, there can’t be much in the way of self-support. This acknowledgment has to be authentic, which is why there is still reason to question whether Facebook will change.
There are many paths to addiction treatment, but the lessons from treating some of the most pernicious behaviours like cigarette smoking and alcohol suggest that it is likely to succeed when a series of small, continuous, persistent changes are made and done so in a supportive environment. One needs to learn from each step taken (i.e., evaluate progress and outcomes from each step), to integrate that learning, and continue through the inevitable cycling through stages (non-linear change) that sometimes involves moving backward or not knowing where along the change journey you are.
Having regulations or external pressures to change can help, but too much can paralyze action and stymie creativity. And while being motivated to change is important, sometimes it helps to just take action and let the motivation follow.
If this sounds a lot like the process of innovation, you’re right.
Principled for change
Inspiring change in an organization, particularly one where there is a clear addiction to a business model (a way of doing things, seeing things, and acting) requires the kind of therapy that we might see in addiction support programs. Like those programs, there isn’t one way to do it, but there are principles that are common. These include:
- Recognize the emotional triggers involved. Most people suffering from addictions can rationalize the reasons to change, but the emotional reasons are a lot harder. Fear, attraction, and the risk of doing things differently can bubble up when you least expect it. You need to understand these triggers, deal with the emotional aspects of them — the baggage we all bring.
- Change your mindset. Successful innovation involves a change of practice and a change of mindset. The innovator’s mindset goes from a linear focus on problems, success, and failure to a non-linear focus on opportunities, learning, and developmental design. This allows you to spot the reinforcing looping behaviour and addiction pathways as well as what other pathways are open to you.
- Create better systems, not just different behaviour. Complex systems have path-dependencies — those ruts that shape our actions, often unconsciously and out of habit. Consider ways you organize yourself, your organization’s jobs and roles, the income streams, the system of rewards and recognitions, the feedback and learning you engage with, and composition of your team. This rethinking and reorganization are what changes DNA, otherwise, it will continue to express itself through your organization in the same way.
- Make change visible. Use evaluation as a means to document what you do and what it produces and continue to structure your work to serve the learning from this. Inertia comes from having no direction and nothing to work toward. We are beings geared towards constant motion and making things — it’s what makes us human. Make a change, by design. Make it visible through evaluation and visual thinking – including the ups, downs, sideways. A journey involves knowing where you are — even if that’s lost — and where you’re going (even if that changes).
Change is far more difficult than people often think. Change initiatives that are rooted solely in motivation are unlikely to produce anything sustainable. You need to get to the root, the DNA, of your organization and build the infrastructure around it to enable it to do the work with you, not against you. That, in Facebook terms, is something your brand and its champions will truly ‘Like’.
* Seriously. I have a Ph.D. and am reasonably tech literate and have sat down with others with similar educational backgrounds — Ph.D.’s, masters degrees, tech startup founders — and we collectively still couldn’t figure out the privacy settings as a group.
References: For those interested in system dynamics or causal loop modeling, check out this great primer from Nate Osgood at the University of Saskatchewan. His work is top-notch. Daniel Kim has also written some excellent, useful, and practical stuff on applying system dynamics to a variety of issues.
Image credit: Shutterstock used under license.
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