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I work for a well-diversified multinational company that has been around for ages. Recently at a business dinner, the casual talk about company performance morphed into multiple rounds of pessimistic discussion about excess process, unrealistic policies, slow market response, and a plateaued stock price. At the tail end of it, a distinguished colleague commented “…but our company has been around for years, and is a de facto leader in many areas; so we must be doing something right to be surviving all along”.

I offered a biological analogy for the apparent success of big corporations inspite of obvious internal chaos and inefficiencies. I called it my ‘Unicellular Organism Theory’ of business, (hope the name catches on someday 🙂 ).

A unicellular organism (amoeba, for example) has only a couple of aims in life- eat and survive. Likewise, big corporations (fortune top 10, for example) are in a blind race for growth and (implicitly) survival. An amoeba will make progress (move) in a direction by extending a shapeless mass of cytoplasm, and if it gets a pin prick in that process; the shapeless arm quickly retracts and another one projects out in a different direction. In a similar way, big organizations with their inherent chaos make apparent ‘progress’ in a given domain/market in a giant, often shapeless move. But as soon as they get a stimulus painful enough, the ‘progress’ improvises and starts in a different direction. But the overall game remains the same- eat and survive.

So what is the tieback to my colleague’s question? Simple. It’s not ‘we must be doing something right to survive all along’, it’s more like ‘we can’t do anything wrong enough to die’. My theory is that corporations have a dominance threshold- after reaching a level of market dominance, they simply can’t make a mistake big enough to perish. If a major project goes sour, you throw some executives at it, get the press to take a positive spin on your failure and move on in another direction. The enormous size ensures that there is always a positive balance, no matter how serious the insult/injury. Just like the unicellular organism- it consumes food much smaller than itself, and works around any painful stimuli it encounters…eating and surviving forever.