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What Do Stickleback Fish Know About Changing Corporate Culture?


Business people love big ideas.  We like to hear, read and see people who have made the big decision and succeeded.  We love to hear about the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.  We strive to be the next game-changer, paradigm-shifter, ipad-maker person. 

We think with one idea we will change the world.  And we apply that same thinking in our companies. 

We read about these high profile “game-changing” ideas and people and think these stories are the “average.”  Because we hear about them in various places and we hear about them often we believe these stories are more common than they really are (see availability bias and availability cascade.)

They’re not.  They are outliers.  One and done is not the way most changes happen in our world – business or otherwise. 

You can read any number of articles that sell you on changing culture by simply running a program.  Want to have culture of innovation – reward it.  Want a culture of caring – model it.  Simple.  Easy-peasy.

And it’s BS. Don’t get me wrong.  These are important elements of the process.  But they will not get you across the finish line.

Follow the Stickleback Fish

Wait, what?  Yeah, weird.  I know.

The impetus for this post was an article on Futurity.org about adaptation of the stickleback fish to new environments.  I’ll let you jump out to the article if you want (it’s short) – but the money quote is the lead…

New research seems to confirm that adaptation to new environments is the result of many genes, each of relatively small effect, not just a few genes of large effect.

The leap I’d like to take is this…

Changing culture at a company is the result of many individuals changing in small ways, not just a few individual changing in big ways.

I think there is validity to that concept.

Culture is function of shared values.  If only a few people have them – it is less likely to move through the entire employee population.  The chances of a culture change are much greater IMHO – if you can demonstrate small changes in many people over time versus a simple “program” that’s launched in January and wrapped up in December.

Enlist the Many

If you want to really impact your corporate culture take a clue from the stickleback fish and plant many seeds of change throughout the organization.  If you do have a reward and recognition program make sure it can be accessed and leveraged by the greatest number of people as possible.  A single control point is like a single gene – it won’t have the impact that a 100 people will have doing small things every day.

Your culture is like an organism – it is made up of 100s and 1,000s of “genes” that need to be part of the overall change if adaptation is going to take place.

Don’t Make the Gamma Ray Mistake

Resist the urge to go all-in on one activity.  It never ends well. 

The 1950’s were full of movies about x-rays, gamma-rays, Stevie-Rays – that interacted with the cells of normal life and created problems – mutant ants (Them!) and 50 foot tall women (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.)  We thought a single burst of radiation could create an entirely new branch of evolution.

How’d that work out for them?

A single burst of change in your company won’t create the next stage in corporate evolution – but it might just create the next problem.

Okay – back to another real study on engagement.  Did you know it’s important? (Tongue firmly in cheek.)


Originally posted on on Incentive Intelligence