Disrupt the Corporate Immune System!

Flickr/Bernard Spragg
Flickr/Bernard Spragg

In the name of efficiency, the corporate mantra runs like this: “find an issue. Solve the problem. Document the process. Require adherence. Reward obedience. Punish deviance.” This is the corporate immune system and it will not tolerate deviance. Because deviance is inherently bad, right?


The danger with the rigid orthodoxy of the Corporate Immune System is that policies, procedures, and culture work to confine our efforts to help us arrive at planned outcomes. Surprises become unwelcome guests. Meeting expectations gives you the chance to do the same thing, the same way, over and over again – until, that is, you don’t meet expectations. On first hearing this sounds pretty enticing. But it turns out there is plenty to question about the Corporate Immune System model.

The first clue to the dangers of an inflexible approach comes when we look at Startups, which are known for their loose, open cultures. That nature allows them to avail themselves of opportunities. Those that become successful often do so at things that are very different from what they set out to do. Robert Safian, the managing Director of Fast Company, writes that: “Things rarely go as planned, and that’s just the way it is. Rolling with the changes will often take you to a better place than you could have predicted.” Stories of firms doing just this, pivoting from their initial business plans, to adjacent possibilities, are essential elements of Silicon Valley lore.

But, as they succeed, the nature of the firm changes. It starts to calcify, and the resulting rigidity becomes self-reinforcing. As a culture gels, it starts to defend itself. In essence, businesses negate their ability to evolve with the changing circumstances in which they operate. Today’s answers become tomorrow’s anachronisms. Unique solutions become rote processes. Methods become rules. Ideas become distractions.

As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote: “In any great organisation it is far, far safer to be wrong with the majority than to be right alone.” And why not? Change is risky. But choosing not to change is making a choice of planned obsolescence. Those who are unable, or unwilling, to adapt to evolving circumstances will suffer the consequences.

Titanics can’t pivot to open water and so they sink.

‘Why not’ people

Esko Kilpi wonders if the system itself is broken as “it leaves organizations unable to fully utilize the potential of human beings.” I think he’s onto something. We need to find people who are willing to drive change, and then we have to create the conditions which ask them to do so. Henry Mintzberg suggests that, “Hope lies with the ‘Why not?’ people of the world, who keep searching for new and better ways.” And Seth Godin adds that: “Some people go to work or school and do nothing except the things that they are sure about. The other path is to do things that might not work. Work, projects designed to land on the spectrum of not sure… But all the good stuff comes from leaping. From doing the things that might not work.”

Intrapreneurs, the folks who naturally look to drive needed changes, can help here. They’re already in our midst, but they’re rarely encouraged to ply their gifts.

Instead, they’re beset with challenges from all corners. Imagine Hercules trying to perform his labors, while simultaneously fighting off marauding hordes.

Why is this the case?

Let’s look at it from the perspective of business leaders. Should they expect strict adherence? I think the answer to that question depends on the outcomes they’re looking for. If they’re trying to maximise short-term returns, they’re probably more likely to reward obedience while killing off new ideas. Experiments and long- term investments don’t normally pay off quickly. But if they’re trying to balance short and long-term interests, then we might see them leaving a bit more slack in the reins. This is crucial for those who want to be successful over time, rather than at a specific point in time.

Space to grow

Businesses leaders need to get comfortable with uncertainty. If we want our people to learn and grow, we have to give them the space to do so. Allowing people to try new things and embracing failure are both critical. You can either learn to embrace failure, or failure will eventually show up to embrace you.

Charles O’Reilly, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, writes about the value of “adaptive cultures.” According to professor Reilly, adaptive cultures encourage: risk-taking, a willingness to experiment, innovation, personal initiative, fast decision-making and execution, and the ability to spot unique opportunities. He adds that these cultures put less emphasis on: being careful, predictability, avoiding conflict, and making numbers.

I think of this in terms of the BCG Matrix. Businesses tend to be based on cash cows, but those don’t last forever. Just think about Kongo Gumi, a Japanese temple building firm; it lasted 14 centuries before closing its doors in 2007 due to slumping demand. As such, firms need to continually seek new stars which will eventually transition over to the cash cow quadrant of the matrix. A balanced portfolio of old and new will give the firm a chance to meet current expectations, while also tending to future needs.

Leaders are responsible for keeping the pipeline filled with opportunities, but they also need to maintain performance with existing business lines. My advice on meeting the delicate balance needed here would be to hark back to the chorus of an old song by the old Florida rock band .38 Special: “Hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.”


This post originally appeared in Salt Magazine.