Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Archive for July 2013

The Organization as Omnivore

leave a comment »

An omnivore has certain advantages. Not being a picky eater, an omnivore can wander away from its traditional food source and expect that it will find some thing or other to eat when it gets to wherever it is going. When an omnivore, however, really wanders into unexplored territory and comes across completely foreign food, it faces a dilemma. The omnivore’s dilemma is a term first used by Paul Rozin and essentially states that omnivores as they move around must find new foods and new food sources, but at the same time must be wary of them until proven safe. Is this new food something that it can safely eat or is it a food, like certain wild mushrooms, that should be avoided at all costs? How can it know?

Jonathan Haidt describes omnivores as having two competing drives or motives. Neophilia is an attraction to new things, and neophobia is a fear of new things. And it has been shown than in the omnivores we call humans, neophilia and neophobia are not binary conditions but rather exist along a spectrum with each term anchoring one end of a “neo” scale.  People who score higher on neophilia are more open to new experiences, including meeting new people and considering new ideas. Neophobic people do not prefer new experiences but do prefer tradition, guarding borders and boundaries either physical or social.

Now an omnivore’s survival as it wanders into new territory, much as the Vikings or Columbus did, depends on having evolved a disgust reaction to foods or environmental conditions that were certain to harbor pathogens or which could prove deadly. Omnivore flexibility only goes so far. For instance, you would be hard pressed to find an omnivore that would eat rotting meat, as only very specialized types of animals, such as vultures, can manage that without getting sick. Disgust as it turns out is also not binary but exists along a continuum along with neophobia and neophilia. And you guessed it, neophobics, people who are more fearful of new experiences preferring tradition; and those who feel a need to closely guard social or physical borders, have a more readily triggered disgust mechanism.

Organizations face the omnivore’s dilemma continually. Do they hire leaders from the outside, exposing themselves to potentially new ideas, new ways of doing business, a willingness to try some “new food” which unfortunately might prove poisonous, or alternatively might lead them to previously unattainable success? Or do they promote from within, utilizing those who have risen from the ranks, have found success in the organization’s current methods and processes, and are deeply imbued with the organization’s existing culture and ways of doing things? That is a surefire method of guarding one’s social and physical boundaries, which might lead to either the continuation of a success story or alternatively to obsolescence as the organization is stagnant and unchanging as environmental conditions change. If the leader of the organization is neophobic or neophillic will it affect which path they choose?

If one organization acquires another organization do they take the best of both cultures, processes and procedures, forging a brand new entity or do they bend the newly acquired organization to the will, the culture, the methods and processes of the acquirer? Do they guard their borders or are they neophillic, open to new experiences and the ideas of new people?

As organizations consider which products to bring to market, or which markets to enter, how to grow in their existing markets they have choices regarding when to stick to the tried and true and when to strike out, as Columbus did, in search of the new world. One path is not inherently safer or more sure than the other for both paths carry risks. How do you choose which path to take?

The omnivore organization roughly parallels the decisions that must be made in an ambidextrous organization. An ambidextrous organization is one that can maximize its current performance while at the same time building future potential. That is a balance that must be struck but is at the same time somewhat of a conflict or challenge. When you are building future potential, you are by definition not maximizing current performance, and if all you are doing is maximizing current performance, you are throwing away your future.

Leaders of organizations that are successfully ambidextrous relentlessly talk about the need to maximize current performance and to build future capacity. Their management teams below them tend to have differing groups focused on either the current performance or building potential, but not both at the same time. It is at the top that all points of view should be listened to, considered and the balance must be struck, by leaders that are practiced at being omnivorously ambidextrous.

© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Visit OV:

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 1, 2013 at 7:20 pm

%d bloggers like this: