Anti-innovation meme

Does your organization make basic assumptions about its capabilities? Knowing your organizational “memes" can highlight the invisible constraints that may be holding you back. I want to share a recent example I ran across, but first a little on memes.

Meme is a word coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. It has been defined as “a contagious information pattern that replicates by parasitically infecting human minds and altering their behavior, causing them to propagate the pattern" (Glenn Grant). Memes are all around us. They are ideas that we catch from others (like a virus) and just as quickly spread to others. Memes compete for survival, and those that gain acceptance live on.

Mitch Ratcliffe’s essay on Invisible Dogma offers an articulation of this concept for organizations:

"...Invisible dogmas — unstudied and facile management fads or simple faith in a particular way of doing business imposed at some stage in an organization’s life — are akin to the religious fervor that laid civilization low in the early fifth century. Rigorous thinking was replaced by faith reinforced by dogma, which became unquestioned truth, very much like the company that, when asked why it does something one way and not another, responds “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it."..."

Memes are an under-appreciated force in driving business performance. I recently ran across an excellent example.

Recently, I had the good fortune to speak with a top executive at one of the world’s most successful financial processing companies. Toward the end of the discussion, I asked him about the assumptions that are prevalent in his organization. It didn’t take him long to come up with an example that was troubling him. He was concerned about a commonly-held belief among employees that the company was not good at innovation. At the same time, everyone agreed the company was good at “fast following." Though only a small portion of the company’s revenues came from products developed in the last three years (an innovation metric that falls far behind most leading companies), that wasn’t the part that worried him. In his view, the belief by employees that innovation wasn’t part of what they “do well" had implications beyond product development. If employees don’t try to think creatively about problems and look for opportunities to change for the better, how could the company improve?