Shirky’s Dinosaur

Clay Shirky wrote a post about the Complex Business Models which is meant to be a harbinger of the seemingly inevitable collapse of the giant media companies and models. It’s not that long a post, but it could have been said in a sentence: “It’s easier to build new things than it is to change old ones”. Granted, it looses a little intellectual oomph in translation, but that’s the gist.

This idea finds it routes in evolutionary theory, where you can’t change things that already exist, so a cycle of selection, destruction and renewal is required. But is that equally true of societies and organizations? No. It’s not. An organism cannot adapt to it’s environment Larmarckian-style. Giraffes did not start off with short necks and stretch them to reach tasty leaves at the top of the trees. But humans are different from most animals because they use tools to adapt. They cannot grow a longer neck but they can build a ladder. Organizations of humans are even more versatile than an individual. They can change remarkably quickly. We dealt with a hole in the ozone layer of our atmosphere not long ago – pretty impressive. But just because we CAN does not mean we WILL.

Our culture, American-style capitalism, is based on throwing stuff away so we can sell/buy new stuff. This is as true of toasters as it is of organizations. We attach little value to the old things and want the new ones. We want the new ones because we’re”taught” – by advertisers mostly – to like the new ones.

Destruction is not endemic to us, our organizations or our society. It is a cultural trait which can be changed with the right kind of leadership.


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