Organizations, organisms, and intelligence (some thoughts)

Some thoughts inspired by  The Genius Within: Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living Thing by Frank Vertosick, Jr., and other sources.

In the introduction to The Genius Within, Vertosick sets up the book with these comments:

To survive, all living beings must respond to an incessant barrage of stimuli: good, bad, and neutral. Some stimuli are so potently bad they provoke an immediate, reflexive response…. [M]ost hazards can’t be handled so simplistically. If I blindly leapt from every threat, I would soon exhaust myself. Moreover, some threats, such as a menacing animal, are better handled by walking slowly away.

Of course, even better would be to avoid running into menacing animals in the first place.

I couldn’t help thinking of this passage when I came across If it’s urgent, ignore it on McGee’s Musings (which in turn points to the original FastCompany article by Seth Godin and a posting about the article on Frank Patrick’s Focused Performance Weblog.) A couple of quick excerpts:

Urgent issues are easy to address. They are the ones that get everyone in the room for the final go-ahead. They are the ones we need to decide on right now, before it’s too late.

Smart organizations understand that important issues are the ones to deal with. If you focus on the important stuff, the urgent will take care of itself.

Organizations manage to justify draconian measures–laying people off, declaring bankruptcy, stiffing their suppliers, and closing stores–by pointing out the urgency of the situation. They refuse to make the difficult decisions when the difficult decisions are cheap. They don’t want to expend the effort to respond to their competition or fire the intransigent VP of development. Instead, they focus on the events that are urgent at that moment and let the important stuff slide.

Or in other words they are, to use Dr. Vertosick’s words, blindly leaping from every threat, and will soon exhaust themselves. This is another sign of a “stupid,” or in this case non-intelligent, organization.

A few more words on “intelligence” in organisms from Dr. Vertosick:

No creature can make it through life equipped solely with dumb reflexes. Reflexes alone do not constitute intelligence. Organisms must temper their reflexes with judgment, and that implies reason.

When reflex alone proves inadequate or counterproductive, living things resort to more subtle ways of dealing with environmental data. They begin by determining the predictive value of their experiences and storing those experiences for later application.

In other words, organisms learn from experience and apply this knowledge to future challenges. Learning is central to all intelligent behavior.

Since the organization that focuses on the urgent, instead of the important, is apparently not learning from the past, it stands to reason they are un-intelligent and doomed to an earlier demise than might otherwise occur if they could start learning. Unfortunately, this type of organization takes a lot of people, money, and other resources and capabilities down with it.*

* Of course, you can look at this as a kind of “circle of life” kind of thing, as most of those resources will eventually find their way back into the system. Unfortunately for the “human resources” involved, though, this will be a very unenjoyable process.

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