There is a big difference between copying and reverse engineering. Many people in business wish they could copy the great successes, the visible achievers. Perhaps not the Google, Apple, Amazon etc., but other models and ways. After all, we have been told for years that ‘Best Practices’ are the most important source of learning. In the old days, we were told we needed to copy the GE workouts, or the Japanese Quality circles, or the Kaizen ways. Today, other models such as Agility, or Holacracy and Zappos, or both, all in one, reach the headlines of the ‘latest in management’.
There is an intrinsic difficulty in many models: their surprising lack of transferability. Some are more transferable than others, but most of the time doing the transplant is a dangerous business.
I think that reverse engineering and pausing (deconstruct, unbundle, think critically about what you see) has greater merit than the ‘model transplant’. Reverse engineering allows you to find out the principles before the outcomes, the rules of the game before the endgame, the deeper human dynamics before the organization chart.
When I launched Viral Change™ formally in 2006, we were already on a continuous process of reverse engineering people mobilization. And the two places to start the unbundling were unconventional (for management standards) : social movements and network theory. Close to 2008 and then until 2012 and beyond, it was obvious to me that we were missing the greatest source of knowledge for people mobilization: political (science, movement) marketing. You’ll recognise the milestones as the US presidential campaigns. Since then, we have been dissecting and reverse engineering the political mobilization platforms, including digital activism. This is what has given the Viral Change Mobilizing Platform the ability to host and provide an ‘operating system’ for things as diverse as ‘standard’ change management, employee engagement or cultural change. Viral Change is today a fully fleshed out mobilizing platform as opposed to a ‘change method’. (it has methods inside).
I see again and again in my consulting practice the presence of some organizational designs, in small or in big, that have been ‘installed’ in particular organizations with the hope that, being a mirror, or a copy, of what other successful people have done (typically in manufacturing) they per se will become the vehicle of success. Risky business, when deprived from context and culture. A good idea in A does not make the same good idea for B.
The old Best Practices and its sister Benchmarking were successful at pointing to what other people had achieved, but often created an illusion of solution by transplanting them or copying them. If I had to trace back my very early interest in the organizational world, coming from clinical psychiatry and academia, about hundred moons ago, I would say it was this question: how is it possible that organization A and B share more or less the same resources in size and market, similar culture, similar product portfolio, similar industry sector, but whilst A is extremely successful, B fails miserably?
Pretending to become A when you are B is the wrong way to approach it. Deconstructing success and reverse-engineering both, their success and our own failure, is a good start.