Companies, like people, don’t change

Photo courtesy of Drew Graham vs Unsplash

Not a month goes by when we hear about another snafu or scandal about Facebook and Uber. And each time I wonder if they will change. It seems both these companies are genetically pre-programmed to obey what their DNA tells them — unfettered growth without consequences. And which makes me wonder, can companies change? Or the culture a company starts with becomes its defining characteristic. Here are my thoughts.

I read three articles recently — about the Facebook-ization of InstagramFacebook & Fake News Pages & Uber’s HR chief quitting after 18 months, without an explanation— and they made me think of an old blog post from many years ago, and Dr. Gregory House, arguably my all-time favorite television character.

Dr. House, a curmudgeonly brilliant reincarnation of another recalcitrant detective, Sherlock Holmes, famously observed, that people don’t change. Even almost dying doesn’t change people. It was one of his many astute observations. And you could apply that thinking to companies — because companies, at their very core, are all about people, and are an apt reflection of the people who lead these companies, and the people who end up working for them.

Like people, companies too, are genetically pre-programmed and obey what their DNA tells them. As a result, the culture that a company starts with is virtually hard to overhaul — not matter how much effort is put into trying to change a culture. The DNA of a company permeates its thinking, its business processes and most importantly its revenue models. Those start to define how a company is organized, and its people are incentivized. And that’s company culture.

When they talk about the HP Way, they are mainly talking about the culture and the context you have on the world. If you are Google, you are predisposed to using engineering and infrastructure as a way to solve all your problem. Apple automatically aligns itself with good design and user experience. If you are Microsoft, then developers and developer ecosystems are part of your DNA and thus the reason for every rationale, every decision. However, sometimes being beholden to their DNA can be fatal, ask Digital Equipment or Sun Microsystems.

Anyway, back to the three articles I mentioned. A Facebook-style makeover of Instagram shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. As I pointed out in an earlier post:

Facebook’s DNA is that of a social platform addicted to growth and engagement. At its very core, every policy, every decision, every strategy is based on growth (at any cost) and engagement (at any cost). More growth and more engagement means more data — which means the company can make more advertising dollars, which gives it a nosebleed valuation on the stock market, which in turn allows it to remain competitive and stay ahead of its rivals.

Instagram’s level of engagement is going up (even if our collective love for it is declining) and the company’s feed is a reflection of Facebook’s feed and its algorithmic gaming of the feed to favor engagement and thus advertising. It doesn’t matter what the content — beautiful photos, videos or animated gifs is. If they can steal two seconds of your time, they will take it. If it means blatantly copying Snap, they will do it. Instagram is Facebook 2.0, and Facebook knows it. It knows how to make people addicted to its feeds — and you see it on Instagram. It feeds you the same stuff every time.

That addiction to growth and engagement is why it turned a blind eye to Fake News even when it was their problem as a platform owner. They have since tried to paper over everything by using a charm offensive — which seems to be working — but at the very core, Facebook is a growth monster, and it will do anything to find growth and appease the stock markets. The only reason they talk about fake accounts on the platform because they were brought it to light. Otherwise, they were nothing but a footnote in their risk statements. And that is why I am not surprised to read that Facebook Pages are part of the misinformation problem on the platform, even if they don’t see it that way.

Uber, too is an excellent example of a company that is struggling with its ability to change — as the exit of its HR Chief Liane Hornsey. “My goal is to make Uber the most inclusive company on the planet where all employees feel safe, supported, and empowered to be successful,” Hornsey (Chief People Officer) is quoted as saying on Uber’s Glassdoor profile page. She is gone because there were complaints about her from people of color. Furthermore, there have been rumblings about new COO Barney Harford (hired by new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi) having made racial comments. Wall Street Journal recently reported that Uber is facing a federal investigation due to gender discrimination as well.

“Disgruntled employees still don’t trust Uber’s systems, and they are turning to the media to air their grievances,” Jessi Hempel notes in her piece for the BackChannel. In other words, the “Game of Thrones” environment and that maniacal ruthlessness where anything goes to achieve growth (that also turned Uber into a $70 billion giant) is still deeply rooted in the company.

That comes down the question of change and can companies change their DNA? In his piece, Organizational Change is Hard organizational psychologist Nick Tasler point out that “adaptation is the rule of human existence, not the exception.” Let’s hope he is right and that Dr. House is wrong. But I almost always tend to side with a TV character that often mirrors my feelings.

July 18, 2018, San Francisco

A letter from Om

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