Strategy and memes

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Strategy and memes

The concept of a gene is familiar, a biological element transferred from parent to child, and which affects the child’s characteristics. Despite this, there’s a longstanding debate about how much of behaviour is shaped by nature, that genetic inheritance, and how much by nurture, the upbringing and experience of the child. Looking back through family histories, it is possible to see patterns of behaviour, traits, and particular types of responses in particular situations, replicating again and again down through the generations.

But there’s another form of replicator. Richard Dawkins, world-leading evolutionary biologist, wrote: “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life.’ It is information, words, instructions.” This defined the meme as a unit of cultural transmission, in which ideas or ways of behaving move or pass from one person to another. And just as families have patterns of behaviour, so do organisations. These are in part driven by the purpose of the organisation, “What we do” but more significantly driven by the identity of the organisation: “Who we are.” Businesses have life stories just as families do, and significant events in an organisation’s life show up in conversation, often as “before (or after) such-and-such”. These past events shape the present and the future, and it was the previous organisational ‘generations’ which have ‘chosen’ which events have formed that cultural identity.

Memes are really, really sticky. Yes, they mutate and evolve as genes do, but they are part of the DNA of an organisation, deeply ingrained in its values and beliefs. So why is this important? Because memes shape and are part of identity, and past behaviour is a reasonable predictor of future behaviour. Has an organisation always been a slow, solid responder to change? Pushing a strategy which requires it to compete through nimbleness and speed is likely to feel like wading through treacle. A small organisation which adapts eagerly and proactively to predicted market changes would find it agonising to slow its pace and partner with a large bureaucracy. Structure drives strategy as much (or more) than strategy drives structure, and so it is with strategy and identity. It’s really hard for an organisation to change its identity because the memes kick in like white blood cells, dampening down any change. In some ways this is a real positive, and the organisation’s memes bring cohesion, purpose and alignment, and it ‘knows’ how to respond to situations it has met before.

Knowing the memes of your organisation is important – they define the types of organisational response that it will feel most comfortable with. They are the organisation’s ‘default setting’, the strategies and responses and behaviours that it turns to reflexively. It may actually be incapable of defining and executing different strategies (except in pockets of the organisation) for sheer lack of capability and practice. It’s like muscle tissue – use it or lose it, and when only one strategic response is available, the organisation over-uses it and loses its ability to operate in other ways.

Back to genes, then. A large gene pool means high genetic diversity and increased chances of biological fitness and survival, and a small gene pool indicates low diversity, reduced changes of developing biological fitness and raised likelihood of extinction. More options gives you choice. It’s exactly the same principle as leaders having multiple leadership styles for different contexts, or managers having different influencing styles for different members of staff. And so it is with memes, which can be seen as a strategic response at an organisational level. Having a range of potential strategic options and ways of thinking enhances the performance of your organisation. Building up the meme pool and avoiding a monoculture gives your organisation health and viability, and the possibility to be effective in a wide range of strategic situations.