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The Not Invented Here by Me Syndrome

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“It sounds like your organization suffers from Not Invented Here Syndrome,” I commented to a client a few years ago.

“Oh, no, we don’t,” he told me. “We have the Not Invented Here by Me Syndrome.”

Which brings us to this week’s Insight from the Biological Sciences for Business Managers.

Stay with me.

Biologists think in terms of species — populations of organisms that are genetically isolated from one another. In general, members of different species can’t interbreed at all. Offspring of the exceptions, such as mules, offspring of a horse and a donkey, are infertile.

Research into human evolution suggests this is an overly simplistic perspective. In our own distant past, members of different hominid species — like Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis (Neanterthals), and Homo denisova (Denisovans) — could and did interbreed, producing fertile offspring whose genetic traces can be found in modern humans (“Denisovans Emerged from the Shadows,” Bruce Bower, Science News, 12/21/2019).

Our theory of the corporation is something like the older, more simplistic view of species. Substitute formal knowledge, informal ideas, and well-honed processes and practices for genes, as Richard Dawkins proposed when he originally coined the term “meme.” Then substitute patents, trademarks, copyrights, non-compete and non-disclosure agreements for the biological barriers to interspecies gene sharing.

Back in the halcyon days of the Microsoft vs Apple wars, Apple was the more innovative of the two. Under Steve Jobs it “innovated” the borrowing of Xerox Parc Labs’ research into GUIs years before Microsoft borrowed the idea from Apple.

But following that initial borrowing, Jobs established a core business culture that was rooted in all innovations having to be Apple inventions.

Meanwhile, Bill Gates’ business culture endorsed adopting any and every good idea that wasn’t bolted down … and, if we’re all honest with each other, good ideas that had been bolted down, but with too flimsy a bolt.

Apple’s aficionados were and are more passionately loyal than Microsoft’s customers. But in IT, Microsoft matters. Apple’s products? They connect to the IT portfolio but aren’t important to it.

Which leads to the question, has the corporations-as-species, IP-as-gene business model outlived its value?

The answer, as Scott Lee and I proposed in The Cognitive Enterprise, is yes. It’s time to replace it with a more fluid model of corporate evolution.

Some of this is making a virtue of necessity. Organizations are increasingly permeable. It’s luck that permeability has more advantages than disadvantages.

New and promising ideas, methods, and practices are readily available on your nearby internet. But there are barriers to adapting and adopting them. Based on my unscientific sample, it appears the most important are cultural. More specifically:

Incuriosity: Some people find new ideas intrinsically interesting. More fall on the other extreme. They figure they’ve learned what they need to know. It works. Learning something new, especially if I don’t need to know it to do my job? That takes far more mental energy than I’m willing to expend.

Fear: The way we do things now works well enough. The new alternative might fail. The personal benefit from championing a successful improvement is dwarfed by the punishments imposed on those whose names are on a failure.

Internal disqualification: One reason I’m a management consultant is that I’m allowed to be an expert. Employees rarely are, for two probable reasons. The first is peer pressure (“Who do you think you are, telling the rest of us you’ve thought of a better way of doing things?”).

The second is pricing. Companies pay outside experts more than employees, whether the outside experts are consultants or industry analysts like Gartner and Forrester. The chain of logic: The more I pay for something, the more it must be worth.

Channel erosion: Once upon a time, associations were popular. They met regularly, providing social outlets for like-minded professionals, opportunities for personal networking, and the ability to exchange ideas from and to credible sources — peers who had actually tried these things, made them work, and had no need to hide the potholes they hit on the road to success, or the limitations they discovered when they finished implementing.

For one reason or another, few of these associations are still flourishing, and the virtual alternatives — on-line discussion groups — haven’t filled the gap. Why? Probably because they’re neither local nor sociable.

And, they’re limited to what participants can express by typing.

# # #

To be continued next week.

Comments (6)

  • Internal disqualification: Countless times I’ve seen consultants, after successful engagements, be brought on board as employees. Management would listen to everything they would recommend while they were consultants, but once they were hired, management wouldn’t listen to their recommendations anymore. It’s as if their professional expertise—the very thing they were hired for—was suddenly worthless once they became employees. I’m still gobsmacked when I see it, but I’m never surprised.

    Reply
  • Greg makes a valid point. There is also the possibility that having outside consultants is useful for pinning the blame on them when a project fails. Also, at least for IT Security consultants, if there is a breach, they may be pressured to tone down their findings and exonerate management due to who is paying.

    Reply
    • As it happens, when I was consulting as an independent, I offered an “I’ll take the blame” service with a graduated rate structure based on the severity and impact of the failure.

      It was, of course, satirical.

      I think: a few folks did ask me if it was real, but the conversations never went anywhere.

      Reply
  • I once flew on an airplane with a guy who introduced himself as a consultant. I told him of a recent experience of a consultant supporting a report of a team I had worked very hard on, then the director changed his mind and the consultant supported him.

    The consultant on the plane said “A consultant’s job is to support the leadership.”

    I’m sure not all consultants are like the one on the plane, but they have to be under a lot of pressure from whoever pays them.

    Reply
    • I’ve always taken the position that my job is to tell clients what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. I’ve had clients who, in effect, hired me to read a script. It’s a vsadly common occurrence in this profession and always an awkward situation.

      Reply
  • Re: Internal disqualification

    My experience with this is that consultants get hired because the internal people can’t do the work, but because they are already slammed with work that they are well qualified for. The consultants get to work on the ‘cool’ projects because they can’t be assigned to the old projects because the learning curve is too expensive. The current grunts have to work on the stuff that’s paying the bills because it is cost effective to do that. The consultants work on the new stuff because they have a clean slate (despite, perhaps, that there is some internal stuff already that could be reused on the new project).

    Reply

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