Change Is Good, But It’s Also Really Hard

Last month, I took a little break from all the hustle and bustle of the Internets and decided to focus on trying to get a better handle on my daily life. It included eating right, working out and, in short, decompressing. I was trying to use a month-long break to change life-long behaviors such as staying up late, working long hours and more often than not, eating erratically. I think these were some of the problems that got me into trouble the first place.

That growing bit of self-awareness and some well-minded friends and colleagues who convinced me — it was time to Get. A. Grip. In short, what I was trying and am actively trying to do is change behavioral patterns that have now become embedded in my brain.

Large companies are somewhat like me — once they get used to a certain behavior, they develop a certain culture and a set of procedures, processes and a work environment that defines them and their future. These define their corporate DNA. It is hard to change. You can’t buy new DNA, and companies can’t acquire their way into new corporate cultures. Furthermore, companies that lack that self-awareness of their DNA and behaviors, in the end, find themselves extinct.

The Corporate DNA

DNA contains the genetic instructions used to build out the cells that make up an organism. I have often argued that companies are very much like living organisms, comprised of the people who work there. What companies make, how they sell and how they invent are merely an outcome of the people who work there. They define the company.

If a company makes luxury goods, all its “genetic instructions” whether it is sales processes, manufacturing and production methodologies, its design and ultimately its messaging are tuned to provide a collective “corporate DNA.” Similarly a company making paper napkins is built a certain way and another one selling routers and switches is built in a certain way.

These instructions are often so ingrained in a corporate psyche, that they start to impede progress — mostly because they encourage a type of repeated behavior, which becomes a pattern that is hard to break. In the end, this behavior is what gets you into trouble — just as my own behavior got me into trouble. So while, you can’t change your DNA,  the question is, can you change your programming and behavior?

Google Me

Let’s take Google as an example. The company faces a clear and present danger from Facebook, which is using its social underpinnings to rearrange people’s daily web usage. In doing so, Facebook is taking attention away from Google, much like Google did to old directory-style services such as Yahoo (s yhoo) when it introduced search-as-a-starting point for the web.

In my previous posts, including my GigaOM Pro report (subscription required), Why Google Should Fear the Social Web, I argued that the Facebook threat is so dangerous because Google doesn’t quite understand people and often defaults to using its core competency — algorithms and engineering — as a way to solve problems. These two are such an ingrained part of the company’s belief system that it is hard for them to get over it.

I don’t think they quite get it that, in order to get ahead in the social race, they need to think so differently that they need to hire people who are very unlike them. What it needs are the creatives — the ones who don’t necessarily have computer science degrees. In fact, some of the smartest people I know don’t even have college degrees.

Social Needs Socialablity

In a recent interview, Kevin Systrom, co-founder of and an ex-Googler noted, “To be a product manger at Google they love you to have a CS degree, but people who start social products are not necessarily engineers.” Systrom is not alone. Evan Williams (Blogger, Twitter) and Dennis Crowley (Dodgeball, Foursquare) didn’t find a way to succeed at Google, and eventually left.  They had “product management” roles but it was hard for them to adapt to the corporate DNA of Google.

There is nothing wrong with Google’s DNA — it is just different. Its approach to the web is not social. Google fundamentally doesn’t think about connecting people; its core mission is organizing world’s information and helping people find it. It doesn’t think about communication as a core human need. Instead, it thinks about communication as a platform (Google Voice, Google Android.) As I said it is different — it is a company, which is stuck in a certain corporate way of life and it needs to plot a future that fits its culture.

Think of it this way — Google’s outgoing CEO is an engineer who spent most of his time in the UNIX world — at Novell and at Sun Microsystems. Its incoming CEO is cofounder Larry Page, an engineer and a computer scientist. That is what Google will always be — a great company for and by the engineers who build great infrastructure, work on complex mathematical problems and perhaps along the way build products that work. Because of their DNA, they may never succeed at social, and to me that is just fine — there are many great engineering challenges ahead.

Burn the Platform

In comparison, Nokia (s NOK) is a whole different beast. Stephen Elop’s mission to save what he calls a “burning platform” is well-nigh impossible. From what we have learned from our reporting and covering Nokia for years, the company has a bureaucracy that rivals the British Raj. The Creatives — folks who design user experience, craft innovative services, and use software as their modeling clay are viewed as children of a lesser god.

And the truly perplexing aspect is that we’re not even fighting with the right weapons. We are still too often trying to approach each price range on a device-to-device basis. The battle of devices has now become a war of ecosystems, where ecosystems include not only the hardware and software of the device, but developers, applications, ecommerce, advertising, search, social applications, location-based services, unified communications and many other things. Our competitors aren’t taking our market share with devices; they are taking our market share with an entire ecosystem. This means we’re going to have to decide how we either build, catalyse or join an ecosystem. This is one of the decisions we need to make. In the meantime, we’ve lost market share, we’ve lost mind share and we’ve lost time. (Elop’s Memo to Nokia Team)

If you read Elop’s words, it is fairly easy to see how bad things are. Nokia is and has always been a company that is all about hardware — that’s its DNA. It fundamentally can’t comprehend the software-driven changes being wrought in the phone industry. Imagine this: Nokia is a company that was doing beautiful tablets almost half a decade ago. They were well engineered, had great industrial design and more importantly were able to connect to the Internet. It just couldn’t get the software mix right. And more importantly, they ignored little things which make iPhone such a joy — you know things like no one liked resistive touch screens and need for a smoother, tighter experience. It is that ingrained non-software thinking that is part of the company’s problem.

Let’s just say, whether it adopts Microsoft Windows 7 Phone (mobile) or further develops MeeGo, the mission to save Nokia from software-centric attacks by rivals has a sense of futility to it. Moving its base to London, Silicon Valley or Timbuktu isn’t going to change a thing. In fact, what Elop is trying to do — embrace an outside OS platform — is part of that realization. He knows Nokia’s hardware DNA is akin to being a mammoth at the end of the Ice Age. It is desperately looking for a way to survive by finding a partnership that will help survive in the new era.

Change & Culture

In an episode of my favorite television show, House, Gregory House, a cranky, genius doctor who solves medical and diagnostic mysteries, remarked, “Almost dying doesn’t change anything. Dying changes everything.” That line made me realize how difficult it is for us to change. We fail because we try to change the very essence of ourselves, instead of getting rid of bad behaviors. One of the reasons why companies fail is that they try and change without knowing why or toward what end. They are not self-aware. They don’t quite understand their corporate DNA, and so they don’t see how they can use it as a springboard to become a better organization.

On the flipside you have a company like Apple, which knows exactly what it stands for, why it does what it does and never allows the vagaries of the market, or trends to decide what it will or should do. At its very core Apple is a company that is focused on building an entire experience that is meant to elicit joy from the end users. My friend, Steve Crandall, who knows a thing or two about technology, says Apple is more than just features and products, instead it is a company whose craft is making devices that interact with people and other objects in a simple fashion. Of course, it is not perfect. Jeez, only an imperfect Steve Jobs would sign-up for a pokey network partner like AT&T.

For the longest time Apple was a company everyone joked about. Did it care? No, it didn’t, and eventually the world came around to its way of thinking.  Is it all Steve Jobs? I doubt that. But there is a lot of Jobs, who has infused his way of thinking into Apple’s DNA.

The corporate DNA is not formed overnight. Instead, it is a sum of many parts. Founders and early employees set the tone for a company. A company’s early focus determines how its internal systems are built. For good or for bad, a company is stuck with its DNA. What it can change is its behavior. But too often, companies try and buy their way into getting a new kind of corporate DNA. But grafting almost never works.

Look at Yahoo and its attempts at buying mojo. Others are trying to do the same. In the end, grafting DNA, to become a brand new company doesn’t work. A company has to accept its true nature, adapt to its new combined reality and actively — and constantly — work to change its behavior. If Elsop wants to change how Nokia is affected by its DNA, he would need more than a memo or a OS partner — he would need to change how the entire organization thinks and behaves.

I am into my 39th day of behavior change, and I can tell you, it is not easy. Old behaviors and patterns start coming back and I need to fight them off, one day at a time. My motivation is not to be a brand new person — just to be me without bad behavior patterns.

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