Yes! We Have No Bananas

By | March 15, 2016

Pathogens don’t take defeat lying down. Back in the 1950s, a fungus called the Panama disease acquired a voracious appetite for the world’s favourite banana, the Gros Michel, and rendered it virtually extinct. Banana growers in Asia, Africa, Central America and Australia replaced it with a variety of banana, the Cavendish, that was, happily, resistant to the Panama disease. It travels well, ripens on schedule and turns black only after we’ve had it home for a few days. Because it behaves so well, it now accounts for 99% of the world market.

It’s become alarmingly evident, however, that pathogens are capable of re-purposing themselves and a new virulent strain of the fungus is about to subject the Cavendish to the same fate as its predecessor. This banana’s almost certain demise is just one example of the perils of monoculture; a consequence of the hubris of sacrificing genetic diversity for economies of scale. Banana growers seem not to have heard of the law of requisite variety which says that “since the variety of perturbations a system can potentially be confronted with is unlimited, we should always try to maximize its internal variety or diversity, so as to be optimally prepared for any foreseeable or unforeseeable contingency.” (Francis Heylighen & Cliff Joslyn, Principia Cybernetica.) Or, to put it more prosaically, only variety can cope with variety. The lesson? Don’t put all your bananas in one basket.

My interest is in social systems and I’ve spent enough time working in and around them to have learned that, like ecological systems, they, too, can become monocultures. While organizations and institutions of any size and complexity will generally possess sufficient disciplinary and functional diversity to cope with the perturbations in their complex environments, they can, notwithstanding this diversity, become dangerously myopic. That’s down to leadership. Whereas the hubris of the world’s banana growers was to shun diversity by planting a single variety of banana, the hubris of leaders of these enterprises is to attend only selectively to the many voices available to them. It’s not unusual, therefore, to find organizations that have taken on the culture of a dominant profession or function to allow its view of matters to shape the organizational agenda. The tyranny of loud (and incessant) voices.

A few days ago I caught an interview that Charlie Rose had with Apple’s Chief Design Officer, Johnathan Ive. He was talking about where new ideas came from and, more importantly, how they came into being. In talking about his relationship with Steve Jobs, he had this to say. “We both recognized that new ideas are tenuous and fragile and we were both comfortable with some of the appalling ideas we had and we were both quiet enough and sensitive enough to listen to the quiet idea.” And he went on. “There’s a danger that we only pay attention to the loud voice and the articulate voice and yet some of the most profound ideas I’ve heard come quietly and with humility.”

What Ive said put me in mind of a workshop the musicians of Getting in the Groove and I did for the senior management team of a project-driven, hi-tech organization. They were reflecting on what they’d seen going on in the improvised jazz performance and one participant spoke of what he had noticed. “You guys were practicing servant leadership.” He then went on to say that one of the most important things leaders can do is to create space for marginalized voices. “There are people in our organization who know things and we never hear from them. I’ll bet they know stuff we should know.”

Several years ago a colleague and I were doing some work with a CEO whose organization was in the process of transforming itself from a functional to a matrix structure. Not surprisingly, things were not going well as matrix structures (sometimes referred to as “two-boss” systems) require significant shifts in power and, in the process, upset traditional hierarchies. Culture change writ large! The CEO was not without opinions (when do CEO’s ever not have them?) about what was going wrong. As it turned out, after extensive interviews with key players within the organization, his opinions were actually those of one of the powerful, loud-voiced functions that would lose much of its powerful voice in a matrix environment. Given the CEO’s selective listening, I was struck by the fact that, at the same time, he was both the most powerful and, given that he was ill-informed, the most vulnerable person in the organization. Irony writ large.

And then, of course, there are the leaders who listen only to themselves … all they need are listeners. Not a problem … no shortage of sycophants around.

Advice for leaders? That should be obvious. Get out there and cultivate some diversity before you suffer the same fate as the Cavendish.

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