I think that the formation of [DNA’s] structure by Watson and Crick may turn out to be the greatest development in the field of molecular genetics in recent years.— Linus Pauling, Nobel Prize for Genetics
On April 25, 1953 Professors James Watson and Francis Crick proposed that DNA is composed of a double helix structure, which effectively solved the question of how DNA and chromosomes replicate and combine to form new individuals. It was a revolutionary proposal in modern science that would have profound ramifications for biology, genetics and modern medicine.
As a young graduate student in biology at Harvard University from 1970-1972, I had the fortune of meeting James Watson on several occasions and attending some of his lectures. He was arrogant, opinionated and self-centered, but his awkward personality did not detract from the fact that he and Francis Crick provided a fundamental platform for future molecular and genetic science.
Basically, DNA is the building block of life and contains within its double helix structure the code that not only differentiates one species from another, but also one individual from another. The exact sequence of the amino acids Adenine, Thymine, Guanine and Cytosine forms the code that determines what we are, and in many cases who we are as well. And a new individual born from two parents contains one strand of DNA (and its genetic code) from each parent, making us unique individuals, and not clones.
If you like, you can think of DNA as the software code which runs the operating system of living things.
Since all DNA is made up of just these four amino acids, differentiation lies in the sequence and where they sit on the chromosomes. This basic building block similarity allows for the modern genetic engineering to take place, which basically is the process of manually adding new DNA to an organism in order to add one or more new traits that are not already found in that organism. For example, plants have been modified for insect protection, herbicide resistance, virus resistance, enhanced nutrition, tolerance to environmental pressures and the production of edible vaccines.
And the fact that human beings and chimpanzee DNA matches to 98.8% identical tells you that even as little as 1.2% difference contains enough genetic code (or about 35 million differences) to account for the many striking differences between the two species.
Corporate Culture is Similar to DNA
There is no single corporate culture, but instead the culture of most organisations is a collection of subcultures which contain strong formal and informal ground rules which guide how people in that subgroup should behave. So, if you think about it, corporate culture is very much like the DNA strand that carries the genetic code for a particular organism or individual. Certain parts of the DNA molecule code for different genetic expressions, such as hair color, eye color, skin color, certain elements of personality and even the raw material for IQ and EQ.
In the case of a business or organisation, the corporate culture is composed of multiple subcultures. And within the same company, subcultures can be very different, just as on a strand of DNA the genetic code for hair color is different from the genetic code for shape of the ears. Each subculture has their own code of behaviour and acceptance / rejection mechanisms, which determine how people tend to behave.
Trying to describe the overall corporate culture is not nearly as useful, or interesting, as understanding the many subcultures and their behavioural norms.
And when it comes to M&A, the DNA analogy is particularly strong. A new individual is made from one strand of DNA from the mother and a complementary strand from the father. But in many cases one set of genes is stronger from one parent than another, creating a dominance situation. Male pattern baldness and eye color are the result of dominant genes overshadowing weaker, recessive genes and are inherited traits.
When two organisations merge, in many cases they have the same functions (HR, Engineering, Marketing, Finance, etc) but some are stronger than others, depending upon which organisation they come from. While one company may acquire the other and be considered the “dominant company”, reality is that some functions and their resulting best practices from the acquired company may be stronger and better fit for purpose in the merged entity. Ignoring these differences has led many an arrogant acquiring management team to totally discount the capabilities of the acquired firm, thus weakening the potential benefits of the merger.
And changing corporate culture is not as easy as simply conducting a “culture survey”, defining a few new “core values” and orchestrating top-down training. The core of the cultural DNA needs to change, and that means something akin to gene splicing and genetic engineering. Real culture change comes about by getting into the subcultural level and determining the actual internal policies and work practices that drive behaviour.
Next time someone around the Board table says “we need a culture change”, have everyone step back and reflect on just what that really means.
A poorly executed culture change programme does more harm than doing nothing. ~John R Childress
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
John also writes thriller novels!