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Monday, November 13, 2020

Evolutionary Backsliding



It seems that current management fashions are a rare case of evolution running backwards. More typically, evolution acts like a non-stop arms race. As predators gain greater skill, prey are quickly scooped up—all except those that happen to be a little faster, a little better camouflaged, or a little more cunning. And as prey become more advanced and complex in their ability to outwit or resist the predator, so in turn the predator must grow stronger, faster, more cunning or more co-operative with its fellows in the hunting pack.

The resulting pattern moves life constantly in the direction of greater complexity and higher skills. Even a humble bacterium must evolve to be better able to resist our antibiotics in some way—perhaps by producing more mutations faster, so that it gets a better chance to find the one version of itself that the antibiotic can’t yet kill.

At a certain point, organizations started to give up on finding smarter and more complex ways to organize themselves and the people they employ.
Since management techniques evolve to give organizations a similar advantage in survival over their competitors, you would expect the same process to be evident. New techniques would be smarter, more complex, and better adapted to change and complexity than those of the past. But that is not what has happened. At a certain point, organizations started to give up on finding smarter and more complex ways to organize themselves and the people they employ. Instead, they ran the process backwards, over-simplifying things and using gut reactions instead of rational thought. They decided that the way forward no longer needed to respond better to change or growth. All it required was to cut costs as a way of life, and to increase productivity (as they fondly believed) by making everyone work harder, and for longer hours, without increasing pay. It is as if you took today’s highly sophisticated and mechanized farms in the developed world, and decided instead to grow more by the simple expedient of bringing all possible land under cultivation, knocking down homes and communities where necessary, while cutting the cost of machinery by returning to the use of thousands of slaves.

What has caused such an odd pattern? I suspect the answer is fairly simple: it is today’s obsession with speed.

Today you have high-speed, non-stop factories, and equally quick, untiring computer record handling, all dependent on slow, easily tired, temperamental human beings making the technical and managerial decisions.
As soon as machines began to be common in factories, owners discovered the obvious limitation of human beings: they are generally slower than machines—and they get tired too. The result was the introduction of patterns like shift-working, where human operators could be shipped in and out, while the machinery ran without stopping. Manufacturers become increasingly reliant on machines; and machines, in true evolutionary style, became ever more complex until the need for human operators has almost disappeared. But in other work areas—especially those linked to so-called professional or knowledge work—replacing human limitations with machines, with their unlimited working hours and greater speed of work, poses far greater challenges. To date, relatively little progress has been made. Only in clerical work and record-keeping have computers almost removed the need for people. Today you have high-speed, non-stop factories, and equally quick, untiring computer record handling, all dependent on slow, easily tired, temperamental human beings making the technical and managerial decisions.

To speed up the humans, they have turned to relying on instinct in place of brainpower.
You would expect that the outcome would be to evolve smarter and more complex ways of using these necessary, but unfortunately fallible, human beings. One day, I am sure that must happen. But in the short-term, organizational bosses have taken a different—and much less hopeful—route. To speed up the humans, they have turned to relying on instinct in place of brainpower. We all know that instinctive reactions—like snatching your hand away from a flame—happen extremely quickly and require virtually no conscious input. Similarly, when Dr. Pavlov trained his dogs to salivate whenever he rang a bell, the resulting behavior pattern was both fast and consistent— and demanded nothing beyond that initial conditioning.

Styles of leadership like Hamburger Management are very similar to Pavlovian conditioning. Decisions are quick and consistent, entirely because leaders must select only from a very short “menu” of pre-programmed options. Thinking is not only unnecessary, it must be discouraged, since it will slow down the process and introduce unwelcome variations. How to raise profits? Cut costs. How to raise them after nearly all the costs have been cut? Cut the workforce. How to get work done with too few people? Make them work longer hours and cut corners. And so it goes. In the reverse of evolution’s normal pattern, it is simpler and more basic than what it replaces. But—and this is the key advantage— it is far quicker.

Mankind can outperform its competitors and predators—even those far bigger, faster, stronger, and far more lethally armed by Nature than we are—because we are smarter and thus able to change our behavior by thought, not just by instinct.
In the evolutionary race, animals that rely entirely on instructive behavior can be very successful—but only if they stay relatively primitive. The time comes when having, and using, a brain to let you adapt to change faster and more easily than can be produced by the lengthy time-scales needed for the evolution of new instincts becomes important. Mankind can outperform its competitors and predators—even those far bigger, faster, stronger, and much more lethally armed by Nature than we are—because we are smarter and thus able to change our behavior by processes of thought, not just by slowly developing better instincts. That is why, for better of worse, we are the dominant species on the planet in terms of our environmental impact. (Not numbers, that prize goes to bacteria).

Organizations that run the evolutionary process backwards may also reap a benefit for a short time. But such simplistic, limited, and instinctual responses are a dead-end in the competitive stakes. At some point, you cannot force people to work still longer hours (unless you enslave them); or cut costs further without ruining service and quality and threatening the existence of the business itself. Then, supposing you have not yet devised computers smart enough to write all their own code, or able to sell goods to other computers, or competent to replace you in the boardroom, you can go no further.

When that happens, any organization that resists this foolishness and keeps on working to produce smarter, more complex, and more effective ways of releasing human creativity will walk right over you. And serve you right.

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4 Comments:

Clay said...

Carmine -- I really enjoy your blog. Thank you for reminding us of the necessity to change the way we work to have a truly meaningful and successful career.

I agree that the simple dumbing down of organizations is a point of concern. However, this posting wanders into two controversial areas without appearing to be aware of the nuances. First, whether evolution is "directional" in the sense of moving toward increasing complexity is a matter of serious debate among scientists. The two most famous evoluationary theorists of the 20th century (Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins) disagreed strongly on this matter.

Second, I think you confuse complexity with the need for novelty or creativity. Sometimes novelty does require new complex forms in organizations, but sometimes complexity is unnecessary and an inhibitor to smart behavior. An example is unnecessary bureaucracy, which typically introduces useless complexity into an organization.

9:52 AM  
Ken Flowers said...

I see another evolutionary response to competition: Operational efficiency. This manifests as bureaucracy and process which treat people like machines, and reduces the output of each individual to be the same as the weakest member of the team can achieve.

The survival-of-the-fittest metaphor is apt to businesses. Thanks for the insights.

10:06 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Ken. Please keep reading.

4:21 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Well, Clay. Maybe you are right to take me to task for simplifying as well. I am aware of the disagreements, but since the post is about business, not evolution, I guess that I choose to focus on the viewpoin that made the clearest analogy.

And, yes, I simplified complexity as well. What I meant was this: leaders need to gain a fuller and fuller understanding (more complex in the sense of covering more angles) of business and how it works. Sometimes this will result in more complex outcomes, sometimes in simpler ones, as you suggest, that strip away what is not necessary.

Thanks for the reminders. Keep reading, my friend.

4:26 PM  

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