Five ways to strengthen your company’s immune system

I’m not usually a germophobe, but the last few months I’ve been walking around opening doors with my elbows and washing my hands constantly. I’ve been freaked out by the constant updates on Facebook about what my friends/friends’ kids have come down with now. So far, my immune system has held up pretty well, but I always worry that H1N1 is only a doorknob away.

These are trying times for corporate immune systems too. The economic meltdown has exposed corporations to all sorts of risks they don’t deal with in the regular course of business. Many corporate immune systems have failed, putting millions of people out of work. It begs the question: how resilient is your company? And how can you make your corporate immune system stronger?

I got to thinking about this corporate immune system concept after reading the new book The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It by Joshua Cooper Ramo. In this fantastic book, Ramo (former foreign editor of Time Magazine, now a foreign policy/strategy consultant at Kissinger Associates) offers his thoughts on what we as a society need to do to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Ramo talks a lot about the idea of creating a stronger global immune system. Here’s what he means:

“What we need now, both for our world and in each of our lives, is a way of living that resembles nothing so much as a global immune system: always ready, capable of dealing with the unexpected, as dynamic as the world itself. An immune system can’t prevent the existence of a disease, but without one even the slightest of germs have deadly implications.”

Ramo presents this in idea in the context of how we protect ourselves from a scary world– terrorists, rogue nations, nuclear proliferation, and all that, but the concept applies well to the corporate world as well– tough competitors, fickle customers, shrinking budgets– we corporate folks have our own demons.

So how do we shore up the ol’ immune system? Ramo refers to the philosophy of building resilience or “deep security” into the organization.

“Learning to think in deep-security terms means largely abandoning our idea that we can deter the threats we face and, instead, pressing to make our societies more resilient so we can absorb whatever strikes us. Resilience will be the defining concept of twenty-first century security, as crucial for your fast-changing job as it is for the nation. We can think of resilience as a measure of how much disturbance a system can absorb before it breaks down so fundamentally that it can’t easily return to the way it once was.”

Not surprisingly many of the most resilient organizations Ramo mentions in the book share a lot of characteristics familiar to us from the open source way. I’ve pulled out five ideas I think may be valuable for those interested in strengthening their company’s immune system.

1. Failing fast and often makes you stronger.

According to Ramo, the most resilient organizations are constantly challenged, with either people on the inside (or sometimes enemies) seeking out “bugs” in their system. This constant challenge is the way that many terrorist organizations have become as resilient as cockroaches– when you are always under attack and your weak points are exposed, you are always looking for ways to shore up the weak spots.

Each failure, whether one you cause yourself, or one caused by outside forces, makes you stronger. The faster you push the organization to the breaking point, the stronger you can become. Ramo thinks the most resilient organizations spend much more time analyzing their failures than they do celebrating their successes.

2. Create a meritocracy where power is shared.

In the traditional organization power resides at the top. But in a resilient organization, power is distributed to the places where it can be most efficiently used, and this actually makes the whole system stronger. In the open source world, we often talk about creating a meritocracy where the best ideas rule, no matter where they come from. I always think of meritocracy as a way to ensure the best ideas see the light of day, but Ramo also believes that that power distribution can actually help the organization become more secure and resilient in a world where you can not plan for every challenge you will face.

“It involves accepting that the most important things cannot be predicted with any great accuracy. It involves radically refiguring the balance sheet of power in such a way that the aim isn’t to hoard power but to give away as much of it as possible so it can be mashed, mixed, and used in new and decent ways.”

3. Empathize with the vision.

Ramo studies some of the most successful venture capitalists in the world, including Michael Moritz from Sequoia Capital. I was very interested to see the weight that Moritz puts on being able to empathize with the original vision / mission / values of the organization.

“Moritz cultivated a skill few engineers cared about: the ability to empathize with company founders. It was crucial to see their dreams exactly as they did, he believed. Even if they were deluded, you had to know how and where to adjust their imagination. And sometimes– usually in the case of the most brilliant ones– they were on to something.”

When you are on the outside, embracing the vision requires empathy. When you are on the inside, it simply requires deep understanding and passion for the mission.

4. Create a culture that naturally  “swarms” problems.

From the book:

“Swarming is, of course, the classic immune-system response. It’s what happens when your blood clots after you slice your finger cutting cucumbers, and it’s what’s going on in your sinuses when you sneeze. This kind of self-organization, the ability to pull off an “all hands on deck” reaction, exists in many of the most efficient and resilient systems in our world.”

The funny thing is, the traditional corporate organizational model makes it almost impossible to swarm a problem. How many times have “that’s not in my job description” or “I have to stay in my lane” stopped people from collaborating to solve problems that can not be tackled by one part of the organization alone?

The open source movement has many examples of problems that have been solved by contributors swarming, not just within an organization, but among organizations. The Linux operating system itself is probably the most famous. And that swarm started here (or see my analysis of it here).

5. Create a compelling architecture of participation.

It seems like every book I read these days has at least one section about open source. Here’s what Ramo had to say:

“Take, for example, what economists call “peer production,” which is the previously unimagined economic twitch for sharing work that has built Wikipedia, file-sharing systems like BitTorrent (which now accounts for at least 50 percent of all Internet traffic), or “open source” operating systems… “Peers” can be producing anything from decisions to software, but what matters is that these efforts are largely bottom-up, which, strangely, makes them more efficient rather than less.”

First Ramo talks about how peer production creates ownership and engagement in places where it didn’t previously exist:

“Once users step into active engagement, the dynamics of the system shift forever: users stop being consumers and become participants. This pushes the opportunity for innovation to the edges of a network, where users reside, instead of leaving it in the hands of some slow-moving, committee-oriented, centralized manufacturing center.”

And where most organizational architectures began to break down from stress as they get larger (think bureaucracy), a decentralized and open architecture of participation actually becomes stronger as it gets bigger.

“The more users a centralized system has, the closer it comes to exhaustion… But the more users a decentralized system has, the more efficient it becomes, since work can be spread around or picked up by whomever can do it best and fastest…. The best resilient systems… don’t just bend and snap back. They manage to get stronger because of the stress. They capture the good from avalanches of change without letting the bad wipe them out.”

So what’s the punchline? How can you strengthen your company’s immune system? My observation is that a lot of the ideas you see above will be implemented within the dark matter of organizations– in the corporate vision, the brand, the culture, the communities that surround and define what the company is all about.

Investing in these things may be the key to creating a resilient 21st century organization, yet doing so requires a leap of faith.

You may be hard pressed to find traditional business metrics that support these investments. But while you might not be able to find reliable metrics, the evidence of their impact is all around you. Seek out examples in books like this one, or The Starfish and the Spider or The Future of Management, among others.

And of course I’ll continue to bring you the evidence as I find it.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.



  1. Pingback: Five Ways To Strengthen Your Company’s Immune System « Dark Matter … « DIY Projects - November 30, 2009

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