I recently finished reading The Assault on Reason by Al Gore. In one chapter of the book Gore gives the metaphor of human immune system and how it calibrates itself during childhood and infancy and creates antibodies in response to any threats to the body. The process continues till a person is a grown up and then the genetic code of these antibodies remain imprinted in the immune system for easy accessibility whenever there is any threat to health. He then
goes on to link this metaphor to political responses:
“Scientists have recently discovered that the modern practice of quickly treating infants with massive doses of antibiotics at the first signs of a threatening pathogen has had a disturbing side effect; it deprives the immune system of its ability to “learn” how it should respond quickly and appropriately to pathogens. As a result, the normal “close order drill” of a healthy immune system can become free-wheeling, loose and inexact in its responses to threats”.
Although Al Gore used this metaphor to draw parallels between human immune system and American democracy, I think the same metaphor fits well with how new companies deal with business risks. The culture of “quick fixes” has become so widespread that companies do not go through the normal evolutionary process of learning and like human babies end up sacrificing their inbuilt fully programmed immune system. As a result and In the absence of a fully functional immune system that determines exact and ethical responses to issues that can cause risk, the company instead resorts to a life long journey of cover-ups, deception and dishonesty.
The most common quick fix at the first sign of trouble in a newly formed company is to lie through your teeth. It’s fast; it’s easy and seems like a good idea at the time. Not many think of getting caught and almost no one considers the ethical implications. The first reaction as in the case of a new born is to be able to survive and every threat is seen as serious and life threatening. While it may avert the immediate danger, the long term implications of this culture of lying and not owning up to your mistakes are immense. Over time, there develops a kind of indifference in the company toward moral issues and people who question this culture are seen as disloyal or “not the right fit” for the company.
This under-developed corporate immune system prevents the company from responding appropriately, precisely and effectively to risks. Hence, we see companies taking up meaningless PR activities disguised as CSR and with no real conviction but as a way to deal with a threat; consumer backlash in this case.
As the company matures, the continuous struggle to look for quick fixes continues. The desire to come out unscathed from each altercation is what drives most decisions. The valuable lessons from falling down and getting back up are never learned. The Immune system never gets to its full potential and we see the company responses becoming “free-wheeling, loose and inexact” towards social and moral issues. The corporate culture becomes that of always finding the easy way out and ethical issues if any are quickly and deftly swept under the carpet. Although Sweeping things under the rug is what most companies do anyway, it’s important to know that the more you sweep, the more junk gathers and at the end, that’s what’s left. An enterprise with the potential to have made a positive difference but which is now scrambling to make sense of how they ended up with so much rubbish.