DNA is the Wrong Metaphor

In Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan describes corporate DNA as “the visions, values, and sense of purpose that bind an organization together…”

Leaders face diminishing control as their organizations grow. DNA appears to be a good metaphor for how they can encode their core principles into the minds of their employees at scale.

I like how the DNA metaphor likens companies to species. Species persist while their members and environmental conditions change. Similarly, companies must thrive as employees come and go, as customers are acquired and lost, and as technology is refactored. Species and companies preserve life and identity while their elements radically change.

Yet, the DNA metaphor feels limited when applied in the corporate sense. Current employees don’t literally give birth to new hires, so how are genetics passed between contributors? Can you spread DNA through PowerPoint slides?

To improve on the DNA metaphor, let’s look at the broader playbook of species survival. Genetics is just one of the ways species pass along survival advantages from one generation to the next. 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.

Key takeaway: to perpetuate your values, build them into your environment.

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.

What examples of non-genetic inheritance have you seen work at your company?

 

 

 

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