EMBED: The Company Force-Field that Impedes Innovation


David Foster Wallace has this haunting line in his profound 2005 commencement speech, “This is Water.” He talks about “day in, day out.” He was addressing graduating seniors from Kenyon College and his reference of day in, day out refers to how adult life turns from spontaneity into going through the motions. When I heard the line, instead of thinking about adult life, I thought about companies.

There are mechanisms that work in the backstory of companies that keeps it performing day in, day out; it’s the churn of big companies. These organization mechanisms, which I call endosystems, are efficient and relentless at eliminating anything that is new and potentially threatening to the mix.

The endosystems are working even when you are not, keeping things operating, stable and predictable; rolling out reports, numbers, warnings, comparisons and day-to-day operational data that allows managers to do their jobs. The endosystems are tacitly communicating what it takes to score and what decisions are necessary for success. If innovation is counter to what the endosystems are trying to do, they will see will see it as a threat and will work behind the scenes to eliminate it.

Endosystems are the result of a billion linkages made over time. You know the front end of endosystems of if you ever started a company or worked for one in its infancy. At each turn in the new company, you are creating and documenting new processes, standardizing, digitizing and building systems that hold it all so that it is at your disposal. You are putting in place management systems and business processes that make up endosystems. Endosystems are invisible to all but those who look for them. They are shellacked with layers of veneer from standard operating procedures put in place over the lifetime of your company. Endosystems are vital to the company. They exist for a good reason; to proliferate data that drives desired behaviors and decisions and to ensure your company against total operational meltdown. You need endosystems, without it everything would be a one-off and your competitors or regulators would kill you. Make no mistake, endosystems represent the day in, day out of organizations.

Enter Innovation