Re-Wilding Old Corporate Foxes

Amit and I haven’t posted for a few weeks now. Sorry. Been in meetings. Really. Meanwhile, on long flights I had time to think about what’s going on with large companies with lot of people.

I was reminded of the fantastic story I had heard years ago about the Siberian Silver Fox. Apparently there is a fur farm in Siberia that systematically shot foxes (for fur) that were aggressive, leaving only the tame foxes to breed. One out of line growl. Bam! Fur jacket. Only gentle purring? Love shack, baby! In a space of 40 years, 10 generations and 45,000 foxes, the fox became tame, domesticated and available as house-pets. Instead of the aggressive foxes that started the farm, “selective breeding to create genetically docile animals had resulted in a breed of ultra-tame foxes that make good house pets ‘as devoted as dogs but as independent as cats, capable of forming deep-rooted pair bonds with human beings.’ Link here.

As with foxes, so with humans. Companies that start out hungry and aggressive end up, after several generations of selective hiring and grooming, becoming docile and domesticated. Down boy. Here’s a bone. Good boy! Now beg!

No wonder big companies have an innovation problem. They have systems optimized for performance, and individuals are selected for conformity. Over time, the individuals and the company lose their ability to think differently, to perceive the world differently, and to create any new products. Successful companies become evolved, but secluded, ecosystems. Not much new blood is added into the companies from outside, and the insiders get used to walking, dressing, talking and thinking like everyone else. Then, the companies fail and make way for other companies to take the baton.

Who’s thinking different? Everyone, and no one. Most companies that are successful today probably hired a lot of smart people early on. Then, the systems, the processes, the performance reviews and the insider cultures breed a new species of employee. One that doesn’t think different. One that conforms.

Companies have to learn to de-anonymize to allow people to create their own identity. People that are clever want to be recognized for their clever-ness. They need an avenue to express their intelligence, creativity and ideas. Not everyone will be a Steve Jobs, obviously, but within small groups each one of the employees can be a rock star. Lost in a sea of heads, people will either learn to tame their personality in order to fit in, or leave and find themselves elsewhere. That’s a pity.

What can companies do to de-anonymize? Companies can take diversity seriously (instead of being a buzzword). They can deliberately hire – and make heroes out of – different breeds of thinkers and workers. They can create opportunities for people to find themselves in small groups. None of this is difficult, or terribly revolutionary. But it must be done.

Tribes, Stories and Recognition. Creating small tribes or communities of 100-150 people is one way (I had written about Dunbar’s number here). Alternately, giving people a compelling story that binds people and gives them purpose is another way to allow people to explore their own sub-story. In tech-savvy companies, using the magic of social media to create new ways to providing recognition and individual fame (however ephemeral). These are all simple ideas.

Meanwhile, you can buy a domesticated fox for $6000 here.