The Link Between Biology and IT

By Mike Scheuerman

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At first glance, biology might not seem to have a lot to do with IT, but when you view an organization as an organism or ecosystem, you can learn a lot about how to deal with change.

In biology the response of an ecosystem to change has one of three outcomes: 1) the system adapts to the change and thrives, 2) the system rejects the change and ossifies or 3) the system can’t adapt and dies.

So, how does that lesson apply to IT? IT is, for better or worse, the change agent in many organizations. One of the risk factors in initiating change is understanding the rate of change the organization can absorb. The old story about the frog in water is illustrative: If you put a frog in cold water and heat it up gradually, the frog will stay in the water until it cooks. If you drop the frog in hot water it will jump out.

The same thing happens when you introduce change in an organization. If you gradually introduce the change and let everyone get used to it in small increments, the change will be more likely to be accepted. But if you try a "big bang" and change everything at once, people get uncomfortable and odds of making a successful change go down.

Another risk factor is letting change get out of hand. Take the example of cellular growth. It's a great thing to have. It helps the organism replace dead cells. It provides the organism with additional resources to support a larger, more robust structure. But what happens when the cellular growth gets out of hand? We call it cancer.

Taking Control

Planning for controlled change is crucial to successful growth for both organizations and organisms. Putting governance mechanisms in place to control change will keep wild undesirable growth from sucking the life out of your company.

Change is a positive thing for many environments. Take the pond scum example. Your backyard pond is probably not the most attractive thing in the world when it’s covered with algae. So you change it by getting the water to move which inhibits the growth of algae.

You add a little base or acid to improve the pH of the water so the coy don’t die. But you do that with a little planning because to much or too little will unbalance things to the point where desirable pieces of the ecosystem die off. Working with and involving all the affected parties in planning change will make that change more likely to be a success.

Sometimes change is externally initiated. A forest fire is can be a disastrous change, but the ecosystem has mechanisms to deal with that kind of change and it recovers over time. In the business world the appearance of a disruptive change can mean the demise of an organization that cannot readily adapt to the change.

Developing adaptive change control mechanisms will mitigate the risk of both internal and external changes.

There’s no easy answer to change risk-management. You have to understand your organization, its goals, and its culture to assess what rate and volume of change it can absorb.

While looking for risk think about the following:

  • What is your organization’s level of risk tolerance? Some organizations are much more risk‑averse than others.
  • Does your company routinely explore new ideas and processes? There is always some risk in doing new things, but if you do this often, your organization is probably more attuned to risk evaluation and does of things that generally mitigate risk.
  • How critical is the change to the company strategy? If the change is incidental to the operation of the company, you may want to ease the change in a little more slowly. However if it’s mission‑critical, you’ll probably want to speed up the change because everyone will more likely be supportive of that change.
  • Can the risk be mitigated, if not eliminated? You might be able to cost‑effectively reduce the risk to a point that the remaining risk is acceptable.
  • How does your organization plan for and implement change? Does it have a formal change process or is it ad-hoc? More companies are finding that a formal change process is desirable particularly in light of the regulatory requirements of Sarbanes‑Oxley.
  • Preparing your company for continuous change is one of the things you can do to reduce the risk of change. Putting mechanisms in place to respond positively to change and take advantage of it will give your business a better chance of survival in a world that is constantly changing.

    Knowing the organizational “organism” and using your best judgment on what rate of change can be absorbed is the best way to keep your company from becoming extinct.

    Formerly with B2B CFO, Mike Sheuerman is now an independent consultant with more than 25 years experience in strategic business planning and implementation. He can be reached at mike@scheuerman.org.