Organizations as Organisms: DNA and Culture

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DNA and epigenetic effects are important and have a large impact on one’s potential and individual abilities. However, it seems clear that intragenerational adaptation, namely learning and acting via the neocortex, is the prime determinant of what an individual is capable of during a lifetime.

Luckily, there has been a whole lot of research into how to achieve these gains predictably. We have large institutions which take an organism which isn’t capable of much beyond farting and burping and turn it into a generally productive member of society. Much of this is done through the educational system, but the majority of the truly useful learning seems to happen more haphazardly, less formally. Specifically, learning to manage habits and develop personal systems for dealing with recurring challenges leads to massive individual effectiveness increases; having a growth mindset and working towards improving oneself makes life easier and makes you more effective as an individual.

Can these concepts be extended to organizations? Organizations do not possess a hard-coded DNA, which gives them tremendous flexibility but as a result also do not possess a default, time-tested foundation of decision making systems (for humans this would be instincts, emotions, etc) to fall back on. Organizations develop a set of systems, attitudes and practices which together can be considered their culture. These systems tend to be sticky once formulated, difficult to change throughout the life of an organization, and persist through generations of personnel. Similarly to how the cells of a multicellular organism will replace themselves throughout the organism’s life yet we still consider the organism intact, personnel will rotate in and out of an organization yet the organization (and more precisely, its codified systems and practices; the culture) will remain intact (but perhaps modified, over time).

As a result, the long term behavior of an organization can be said to be governed by its culture — it encompassing the role of both genetic code, instincts, deeply ingrained habits as well as systems for problem solving and learning that we see on an individual level. If we wish for better, more effective, organizations then we should be looking to intelligently design their DNA and maintain (hopefully, improve) the quality of the culture throughout the life of the organization.

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