Jan 14 2009

Fig Wasp #879

Fig Wasp #879

I have 7 categories of books in my somewhat regular reading rotation:  Business (the only one I usually blog about), American History with a focus on the founding period, Humor, Fiction with a focus on trash, Classics I’ve Missed, Architecture and Urban Planning (my major), and Evolutionary Biology.  I’m sure that statement says a lot about me, though I am happy to not figure it out until later in life.  Anyway, I just finished another fascinating Richard Dawkins book about evolution, and while I usually don’t blog about non-business books, this one had an incredibly rich metaphor with several business lessons stemming from it, plus, evolution is running rampant in our household this week, so I figured, what the heck?

The Dawkins books I’ve read are The Selfish Gene (the shortest, most succinct, and best one to start with), The Blind Watchmaker (more detail than the first), Climbing Mount Improbable (more detail than the second, including a fascinating explanation of how the eye evolved “in an evolutionary instant”), The Ancestor’s Tale (very different style – and a great journey back in time to see each fork in the evolutionary road on the journey from bacteria to humanity), and The God Delusion (a very different book expounding on Dawkins’ theory of atheism).  All are great and fairly easy to read, given the topic.  I’d start with either The Selfish Gene or maybe The Ancestor’s Tale if you’re interested in taking him for a spin.

So on to the tale of Fig Wasp #879, from this week’s read, Climbing Mount Improbable.  Here’s the thing.  There are over 900 kinds of fig trees in the world.  Who knew?  I was dimly aware there was such a thing as a fig tree, although quite frankly I’m most familiar with the fig in its Newton format.  Some species reproduce wildly inefficiently — like wild grasses, whose pollen get spread through the air, and with a lot of luck, 1 in 1 billion (with a “b”) land in the right place at the right time to propagate.  At the opposite end of the spectrum stands the fig tree.  Not only do fig trees reproduce by relying on the collaboration of fig wasps to transport their pollen from one to the next, but it turns out that not only are there over 900 different kinds of fig trees on earth, there are over 900 different kinds of fig wasps — one per tree species.  The two have evolved together over thousands of millenia, and while we humans might take the callous and uninformed view that a fig tree is a fig tree, clearly the fig wasps have figured out how to swiftly and instinctively differentiate one speices from another.

So what the heck does this have to do with business?  Three quick lessons come mind.  I’m sure there are scores more.

1. Collboration only works when each party benefits selfishly from it.  Fig wasps don’t cross-pollenate fig trees bcause the fig trees ask nicely or will fire them if they don’t.  They do their job because their job is independently fulfilling.  If they don’t — they probably die of starvation.  They’re just programmed with a very specific type of fig pollen as their primary input and output.  We should all think about collaboration this way at work.  I wrote a series of posts a couple years back on the topic of Collboration Being Hard, and while all the points I make in those posts are valid, I think this one trumps all.  Quite frankly, it calls on the core principle from the Harvard Project on Negotiation, which is that collaboration requires a rethinking of the pie, so that you can expand the pie.  That’s what the fig trees and fig wasps have done, unwittingly.  Each one gets what it needs far more so than if it had ever consulted directly with the other.  The lesson:  Be selfish, but do it in a way that benefits your company.

2. Incredibly similar companies can have incredibly distinct cultures.  900+ types of fig tree, each one attracting one and only one type of fig wasp.  Could there be anything less obvious to the untrained human eye?  I assume that not only would most of us not be able to discern one tree or wasp type from another, but that we wouldn’t be able to disdcern discern any of the 900+ types of trees or wasps from thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions (in the case or urbanites) types of trees or bugs in general!  But here’s the thing.  I know hundreds of internet companies.  Heck, I know dozens of email companies.  And I can tell you within 5 minutes of walking around the place or meeting an executive which ones I’d be able to work for, and which ones I wouldn’t.  And the older/bigger the company, the more distinct and deeply rooted its culture becomes.  The lessons:  don’t go to work for a company where you’d even remotely uncomfortable in the interview environment; cultivate your company’s culture with same level of care and attention to detail that you would your family — regardless of your role or level in the company!

3. Leadership is irrelevant when the operating system is tight.  You think fig wasps have a CEO?  Or a division president who reports into the CEO that oversees both fig wasps and fig trees, making sure they all cross-pollenate before the end of the quarter?  Bah.  While as a CEO, you may be the most important person in the organization sometimes, or in some ways, I can easily construct the argument that you’re the least important person in the shop as well.  If you do your job and create an organization where everyone knows the mission, the agenda, the goal, the values, the BHAG, whatever you want to call it — withoutit needing to be spelled out every day — you’ve done your job, because you’ve made a company where people rock ‘n’ roll all night and every day without you needing to be in the middle of what they’re doing. 

I’m sure there are other business lessons from evolutionary biology…send them along if you have good thoughts to share!