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Change Is Good, But It’s Also Really Hard

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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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56 Responses to “Change Is Good, But It’s Also Really Hard”

  1. Change doesn’t always have to be so hard, the iChing thrives on it after all, fwiw, :). Let no moss grow…

    Yeah, lots of good points on how strong the DNA of a business is, how hard it is to change it and usually it never really will unless forced to somehow, ideas in exile or something.

    FYI, not to be picky or anything, but one of the sub-headers, “Social Needs Socialablity”, needs an extra “i”.

    • Let’s see, 160 million iOS devices sold, 300 million iPods sold, 80% of PMP market, 80% of digital music market, 90% of tablet market, 400,000 iOS devices sold per day, etc etc.

      My word, the entire world must be made up of fashionistas *rolls eyes*


      • quite a number, but consider that Apple sells a new iPhone to the same fashionista, with more money than sense, every year since 2007 = not quite a number. Compared to the 2.7 billion people living on less than $2 a day, 160 million iOS devices sold are small numbers indeed.

      • Ok, let’s humour you for a second (not sure why I bother, but I must be bored).

        iPhone Sales in 2007 = 1.39 million
        iPhone Sales in 2010= 40 million

        So that means that the original “fashionistas” who bought the first iPhone must have bought 28.78 iPhones each again in 2010 to make up the 40 million iPhones sold in 2010.

        Considering there are less Android devices sold every day (300,000 vs 400,000 iOS devices every day) I guess that makes Android geeks an even smaller minority even less worth considering.


      • Original iPhone sold total of 6 million, 3G is 20, so together is 26 million

        3GS total sold is 33 million

        iPhone 4, Q4 2010 is 14.102 and Q1 2011 is 16.240, so far total sold is 30 million

        Most of iPhone buyers, estimated at 77%, are repeat buyers. Apple is not growing its buyer base- its mostly the same people buying iPhones over and over.

        Android devices sold every day 300,000 vs 400,000 iOS devices every day? Android geeks an even smaller minority? But there were only 16 million iPhones shipped in Q4 2010 versus 33 million Androids and that’s reflected, in that among featurephone users, Android was the most-preferred OS.

        for sure, Google or Bing it on your Apple iPhone

      • @Tim said:
        “Original iPhone sold total of 6 million, 3G is 20, so together is 26 million. 3GS total sold is 33 million. iPhone 4, Q4 2010 is 14.102 and Q1 2011 is 16.240, so far total sold is 30 million”

        Heh, neat trick comparing 2 year’s worth of iPhone & 3G sales against 6 months of iPhone 4 sales and saying it must be the same people buying them. I don’t think many people are misled by such shameful statistical gymnastics.

        Last quarter Apple sold 10 million iPod touches and 7 million iPads in addition to their 16 million iPhones. That makes 33 million iOS devices sold.

        The 33 million Android devices reported by Canalys sold last quarter included the millions of Chinese phones running the Tapas and OMS operating systems which are forks of Android that aren’t even necessarily compatible with Android and certainly don’t run the Android Marketplace or any Google services. Canalys’s stats also include tablets like the Dell Streak and Samsung Galaxy tab which have cell phone hardware in order to be allowed to have access to the Android Marketplace.

        With Android completely missing in action in media player/mini tablets like the iPod Touch (iPods still have 70% marketshare) and only a small percentage in the larger tablet market (the iPad still rules with 80-90% marketshare – we won’t go into how many of Samsung’s 2 million Galaxy Tabs were actually sold on to customers), it is easy to see how iOS sales have not yet been overtaken by Android. Of course the installed base for iOS (160 million with the vast majority sold in the last 2 years) is even larger than Android (60-70 million).

        Well Tim, you’ve certainly managed to derail the main point of the article (great article by the way Om). Sorry I was sucked in.



      • Oh, and the Munster and Oppenheimer surveys that found 77% of iPhone 4 buyers were already iPhone owners? The subjects in both surveys were the sort of iPhone enthusiasts who queued for days outside a number of Apple stores in the USA to get the new phone 4 the first day of release. Do you really think you can extrapolate this data to the entire iPhone buyer segment and maintain credibility?


      • >> millions of Chinese phones running the Tapas and OMS operating systems which are forks of Android <<
        Until one knows what these numbers are, it's hard to talk android market share. These probably shouldn't be included.
        One might not want to include any phones that don't include the Google apps and search – They don't help Google at all.

  2. David Adams

    The thing that strikes me about change is that it implies moving from one behavior (“A”) to another behavior (“B”). What is so difficult about this type change is that organizations (and people) bring all the habits and ways of being from living in “A” to their changed way of living to “B”. That’s why change fails – because nothing really changes at all. What’s needed is complete transformation: a new way of being that leaves all that stuff, including the DNA that holds us back, in the past where it belongs. It’s ironic – we say that we can’t get away from our DNA, but when it comes to creating something new, I believe we can. Afterall, we say that DNA holds us back, but if you really look at it, the culprit is us – just because we say we are held back.

    As for your 39th day of change – try this: try telling yourself it’s easy and don’t make it too hard. Because the fact is that if you say it’s hard, then it will be hard. If you say it’s easy and stick to your new behavior, guess what. It’ll be easy!

    Thanks for your thought provoking post!

  3. Good article. Corporate branding – like personal branding – works best when done in harmony with actual corporate identity (or corporate DNA, as you put it). Business have “personalities” in the same way that people do, and thinking about the image that the business wants to project is actually quite an efficient way of fine-tuning its personality.

  4. In several years of reading you, Om, this post has to rank well near the top, one of your best ever, IMHO.

    PS> Must be the behavioral change(s) stimulating your keen insight? :-p

  5. Very interesting post. It reminded me of an interview I saw recently claiming that the America Intelligence juggernaut had put half a trillion dollars into its efforts to find Bin Laden. The problem (as proposed by the interviewee) was the people being hired by the intelligence agencies. They screen out people with ties to all of the regions they are interested in gaining intelligence in. They screen out people who are highly social and have far-reaching networks. The argument was that those are the people wanted.
    So perhaps they should as an organization, change their collective DNA and start a plan that incorporates the end-goal into their daily work. Rather than flounder with old programming, bleeding money and getting no results.
    It would seem they’ve never really heard of Apple or Jobs.

  6. Om, Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant!! Weaving your own experience into the story makes it compelling. Using several well known companies as examples makes it real…and undeniable.

    Oracle and Apple have always impressed me as companies that know exactly what they are. They play to their strengths. They don’t get side tracked by the latest fad. They lead…they don’t follow. They stay focused on what they do…and do it better than anyone else in the world.

    Great writing and insights!

    Don Dodge

  7. This was a very interesting post. I feel that there are many companies that need to re-look at their DNA and make sure that they are current and really understand customers and people and culture, which are consistently changing.

  8. I agree that there is something to what you are talking about, but I still think you are off the mark on Google. Saying Google can’t understand social is like saying Facebook can’t monetize. Let’s face it, understanding “social” isn’t hard (monetizing something novel is arguably a lot harder), nor is it is outside of the grasp of a giant like Google. Knowing what to do with something new and effectively integrating it with existing platforms is, however, very hard.

    Google’s difficulties/challenges involve taking something good (or great), but also (very) different, and integrating it effectively into a single vision. Imagine a team of artists painting a mural. An artist might produce an amazing portrait, only to realize that he’s been painting where the sky is supposed to be. Two artists at either side of the mural might end up painting the nearly the same subject matter, both brilliantly. Inevitably, this leads to situation where you burn talent and either end up wasting something great or exacerbating integration challenges.

    This issue is probably why the Apple vs Google comparisons tend to be so compelling. If there is one thing Apple tends to do quite well is bringing several good small ideas together to make something big great.

    Brown bag sessions aren’t enough. Google needs to put real resources towards this issue if they want to stay between the Web and the user (to dish ads).

  9. Hi Om, I like how you have made the comparison of personal behavior changes with company and corporate behaviors. An interesting play off of one another.

    And I’m glad that you have pointed out right away that although change is good, it’s not as easy as we would like it to be. It takes awareness, commitment, effort, and most often time. And without the first three it certainly won’t happen. Too often we want to believe the media messages of quick, instant, and effortless.

    For personal behavior changes I would suggest reading Dr. Ian Newby-Clark’s blog My Bad Habits the What Went Right Series of posts). He gives some good and practical advice on changing and making healthy habits stick.

  10. I would also add that corporate DNA, like human DNA cannot be ‘overridden’ – it’s innate.

    I’ve sat in a lot of startup meetings with people saying things like “this is in our DNA” when that is clearly what they want it to be, not what it actually is.

    As you point out, the corporate DNA comes from the employees, and if you employ the wrong people or adopt the wrong attitudes when starting out, you’ll never get it back on track.

  11. This is nothing new in the business world. Companies for a long time have resisted change and have gotten passed by. Recently think Blockbuster. A while ago think the Big 3 in Detroit. GM almost made the change with Saturn, but while they built a great entry level customer base back in the day there were bigger more expensive models for then current Saturn owners to move up to. Think newspapers.

    Change can only suceed if the people at the top embrace and back the change. The problem is those people usually are very set in their ways and while they may let a few consultants come in and have some meetings usually they won’t breakdown the entire system.

    Think about this say you are a college football head coach. You get a new job at a college that has been running a pro-style offense, but you want to install the Spread. That won’t be easy. Some players will have to go and you will need plenty of new players with different skill sets. That takes time and most of the time people aren’t patient enough.

    That is why large companies should have groups that do nothing but sit around and think about changing products and services of said company. Paying attention to the marketplace. See it is hard to keep up with the trends when you are focused on squeezing every penny out of a current product by lowering production costs.

  12. At lot of people think big brains (mammals) equates to smart. Well Magpies are visually self aware, Crows use Cars to break nuts at traffic lights …
    Point is if you look at humans brains we are not so special, we are actually lousy at a lot of things compared with specialized species. But there is one big advantage of it, we have an incredible diversified brain. In other words diversification would make a company smart.

    To make a long story short:
    Google is like a Blood Hound (breed for search) asked to herd Sheep [cats] when it comes to social.

    As to Apple, I think they are one of the very few companies who have realized that rationalization is not a process of action reaction and doing it faster and faster (subconscious behavior) it’s a process of elimination of what not to do over time. I come to believe (knowing without the facts) that it’s not only Steve alone who created the new Apple, it’s with the team around him. But somebody “realized” that most companies action reaction model of behavior is a dead end.

    Did I just say what you said? Oh well where is the coffee.

  13. Great article, Om, but I have to disagree with the House remark: “Almost dying doesn’t change anything. Dying changes everything”. I’ve been there and things do change when you realize you have a second chance at life.

    • Same here. I think being able to change because of near death experience is much harder in the long term, though in short term we all make radical changes. Anyway glad to see you are still here and making changes.

  14. Great post. I think you basically set out why Stephen Elop needed to send the “burning platform” email.

    He needed Nokians to accept the need for change. The response from former Nokian Tomi Ahonen exemplified, at length, why that memo was so necessary. He set out why there was no need for change, why Nokia was actually winning, why the CEO was wrong.

    To embrace change, you have to stop denying that you need it.

  15. Trevor Godman

    This seems a great analysis to me, but I wonder if it misses one critical point.

    It is really hard to change a corporate culture or DNA, but so many of the corporations you cite have been successful as a consequence of their ingrained cultures. The culture fits the times brilliantly for a while (Google and Nokia’s engineering and manufacturing; Facebook and Apple’s focus on social and experience) and then competitors capture something new.

    Yes, it’s very difficult to change DNA, but it’s also tough to really succeed in the way these businesses have without that deep cultural mindset.

    • Trevor

      I think it is my point. However if you are a company like Cisco whose core competency is sales, then you know how to build your future around that. Selling switches, routers or data center servers — it is merely an extension of that. That is one of the reason why they are failing at consumer — it is not in part of their DNA.

      Apple on the other hand has stated true to its mission and found ways to apply its DNA to newer opportunities, that are parallel to its core. Nvidia is another one. Broadcom, I would argue is another good example.

      Company that is failing completely – Starbucks. I think they have not quite thought through their whole “offering” just yet.

      • Trevor Godman

        I agree entirely that it’s a about the clarity of purpose for the brand – what value they bring to customers. For tech companies, that’s often missing – they are built on technology that happens to coincide with a consumer need, rather than being born in response to one.

  16. Hard – yes. But as you point out, not impossible – right? In order to survive companies have done made radical changes, but when not in concert with the “DNA” (ala the Spindler era at AAPl) the body – i.e. corporate DNA/culture rejected the new executives “from the body”.

    Seems like it works early on when companies are a few people who take the time to become self-aware and determine what they both love, and are good at. Those “second business model” stage when so many took a quick pivot and took off.

    But your central theme – that it’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks – is spot on.

  17. Beautifully written. Can hardly disagree.
    It is true for every industry – CPG brands to software service providers to product companies to retailers.
    There a so few examples, if any, of radical shifts that have worked for organizations.
    Cash rich companies (MicroSoft, Cisco, Google) can landscape their environment by buying out innovators. But it is a race that is hard to win.

  18. Great post Om…

    Been expressing (Tweeting/Commenting) the same about Google, they’ll never get a right-brain, it’s not in their DNA, it’s not in their hiring test, and no matter how many creatives they try to hire it won’t help. Their products will always trail Apple and others. In fact, they wouldn’t be as good as they are if they hadn’t had Apple show them their way.