Autopoietic Product Thinking: A Frame for Long-Term Impact 

[People] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.

– Karl Marx (quoted by Levi Bryant)

Cognitive biologists Maturana and Valera argue that the defining quality of living things is that they are “autopoietic.” Autopoiesis literally means self-creation. Living things, Maturana and Valera explain, are able to regenerate their own parts, like how the cells of an animal die and regenerate or how a species reproduces.

Autopoiesis is an intriguing lens through which to understand the aspirations of tech companies.

To examine what it means for a tech company to be autopoietic, let’s consider two systems on which it depends: its product and its customers. An autopoietic company maintains a circular loop where the team builds the product, customers use it, and the team is paid to keep iterating. This is otherwise described as product-market fit.

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Startups are not born autopoietic — they are bootstrapped by investment and the passion of their founders. If these elements dry up before product-market fit is achieved, the team stops building and the company ceases.

Startups who achieve autonomous life remain vulnerable like organisms. The departure of a leader, a shift in the technical landscape, or the collapse of a market can lead to a company’s demise.

The most ambitious founders want more than a brief period of success: they envision autopoietic institutions that will thrive after their departure, riding waves of technological and social change.

To achieve longevity, companies must behave more like species than organisms. Traits for survival must evolve across generations in the midst of environmental flux. Great companies maintain their circular loop of creation as employees are fired and hired, as customers are acquired and lost, and as technology is refactored. They preserve life and identity while their elements radically change.

Companies are often advised to define their “DNA.” Genetics is an apt metaphor for the passing of values to new hires. However, genetics is not the only mechanism for passing down survival advantages. In the Democracy of Objects, philosopher Levi Bryant writes:

… it’s worth recalling that Darwin nowhere specifies what the mechanism of inheritance is, only that in order for natural selection to take place there must be inheritance. There is thus no reason to suppose that genes alone are the sole mechanism of inheritance.

Organisms alter their environments to enhance their future prospects. There is a class of animals known as niche constructors who change their environment to suit their purposes. Beavers build dams and birds assemble nests.

For some species, survival is predicated on the non-genetic creations of their predecessors. Bryant quotes developmental systems theorists, Griffiths and Gray:

Certain aphid species reliably pass on their endosymbiotic Buchnera bacteria from the maternal symbiont mass to either eggs or developing embryo. The bacteria enable their aphid hosts to utilize what would otherwise be nutritionally unsuitable host plants. Aphids that have been treated with antibiotics to eliminate the bacteria are stunted in growth, reproductively sterile, and die prematurely.

Bryant explains:

The point here is that the Buchnera bacteria is not a part of the aphid’s genome, but nonetheless plays a significant role in the development of the phenotype. Far from the genes already containing information in the form of a blueprint of what the organism will turn out to be, genes are one developmental causal factor among a variety of others.

The notion of non-genetic inheritance suggests that organizations can do more than pass down corporate values to new employees through training and culture. Companies can plant survival advantages in their environment; that is, within systems that exist independently of the team members themselves.

Here’s a simple example from my startup. We connected our post-purchase customer survey with our Slack communication system. Whenever a customer submits the survey, the Typeform app posts the response to a Slack channel where everyone sees it. Notifications are sent if the Net Promoter Score is beneath a certain threshold.

The result is that a baseline of real-time customer awareness is automatically provided for new employees. New team members don’t need to learn, “we value customer feedback” and then consciously seek it out. Instead, customer feedback is already there in the environment. Employees “inherit” an advantage out the gate that doesn’t require DNA transfer.

The circular loop of product creation is bi-directional. Not only must the team build the product, but the product must build the team. Long lasting products must be designed to perturb the team when something needs to be changed.

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Constructing environmental survival advantages helps companies increase longevity through autopoiesis. However, a system’s achievement of autopoiesis isn’t necessarily good for the world at large. Maturana and Valera argue that the only goal of autopoietic systems is to maintain their circular loops of self-creation. Regardless of the mission and intentions of the founders, the most successful companies take on a life of their own, a life who’s overall impact on connected systems is unpredictable.

I’m struck by how startups state their intention to “change the world” or “dent the universe.” Changes and dents, of course, can have both positive and negative impacts. Autopoietic systems created climate change and fake news.

Note: Thanks to Jordan Peacock for nudging me down the autopoiesis road and pointing me to Levi Bryant.

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