We need more sex in the workplace.
In some cases, much more.
Not among co-workers, for heaven’s sake. That’s their business, and if you’re very lucky they won’t make it your business.
No, this column is about sex in its biological sense — as a dramatic accelerator of adaptive evolution.
To understand the significance of sex, compare it to evolution in asexual populations. Imagine the offspring of an asexual creature contains a random, beneficial mutation. If it’s beneficial enough, eventually the population will consist entirely of that organism’s descendants. Then, a member of that future generation might have an offspring that contains another random, beneficial mutation. The process repeats, and with excruciating slowness the population will evolve.
Compare that to sexually reproducing organisms. Two parents give rise to an offspring containing a random, beneficial mutation. More of its offspring survive to reproduce than average, so the beneficial gene spreads.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, another beneficial mutation occurs elsewhere in the population. Among asexual organisms, the two beneficial mutations would compete. But these organisms reproduce sexually, which means two organisms, each having one of the mutations, can mate, giving rise to offspring that have both. The word is recombination. It’s what lets sexual evolution take place at a vastly faster pace.
Now, imagine a business with branch offices — maybe it’s an insurance company with agencies, a retailer with stores across the country, or a manufacturer with a number of local distribution warehouses.
The company could plan all innovations at headquarters. This is neither sexual nor asexual. It’s an attempt at divine creation. As few business leaders are divine, the odds of anything useful happening are limited, proportional to the number of former branch employees working at headquarters.
The company could, instead, encourage each branch office to innovate — to run itself as an independent business. This will encourage innovation, and innovation that fits local circumstances. But if that’s all the company does, it’s asexual. The branch offices will diverge, and because each will have to reinvent each others innovations, progress will be slow. Another disadvantage is that IT gets the miserable job of supporting as many different ways of doing business as there are branch offices.
Add sex. On a regular basis, bring the independently innovating branches together to compare notes and spread the best innovations back among the remaining branches. It’s recombination. But it isn’t as easy to accomplish as it sounds.
Among the barriers: It’s natural for the people in each branch to think their circumstances are unique, allowing them to ignore what the others do. Another: Designing an incentive system that, with the best of intentions, creates a barrier to adoption. If for example, you give a bonus to managers whose innovations are used elsewhere, everyone will focus on selling the benefits of their great ideas while denigrating those of the others.
This misses the point entirely. You want your managers to be the brokers of great ideas, not their originators. Give bonuses to the employees who suggest the successful innovations, and to the managers who adopt and implement as many innovations as possible, wherever they come from.
IT’s role in all of this is difficult. Not as difficult as supporting diverse ways of doing business, but still more difficult than if all innovations are designed at headquarters. You’ll need to create a systems architecture that supports multiple parallel innovation. Version control, change management and regression testing become challenges as well.
One solution: Create an environment that encourages IT innovation through end-user tools that link to the standard core systems. For those that spread sexually (DON’T SAY IT!), institutionalize them by rebuilding them into the core applications using enterprise-grade tools.
This isn’t a solved problem, by the way, which is just one of the aspects to branch innovation that makes it fun.
If you compare the benefits of branch innovation coupled with recombination to any of the alternatives, the advantages are clear: The business gets to try lots of experiments. It finds out which ones work and which ones don’t at modest risk, never betting the whole company.
It’s how nature works, and while evolution did give us the platypus, it has also led to a tremendous panoply of amazingly diverse creatures, each exquisitely adapted to its particular set of circumstances.
It’s a very sexy way to run your business.