An Introduction to Memes and Management

I’ve been musing over margaritas in Mexico on two topics: why some religions act like contagious diseases, and why attempts by IT companies to buy or build management consultancies never, ever work. And it struck me – perhaps as a result of the margaritas – that the cause is the same. In this edition, I’m going to talk about memes – viruses of the mind.

What is a meme?

In his book ‘The Selfish Gene’, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins pointed out that the gene (a self-replicating unit of biological information) explains racial differences but not cultural differences, so he coined the term ‘meme’ as a unit of cultural information which can be transferred from one mind to another. Fads, from hula-hoops to platform soles, are trivial examples of memes. Other memes carry useful information, such as ‘how to brew beer’ or ‘how to build a bridge’.

Now this all sounds pretty trite, but the idea of the meme has been taken up by philosophers (particularly Daniel Dennett) and researchers into human consciousness (particularly Susan Blackmore) and a number of other evolutionary biologists. It turns out that the meme is analogous in many ways to the behaviour of the gene – memes compete, they replicate, they can mutate (inheriting characteristics from their forebears), and they die out.

Memes are transmitted vertically from generation to generation via our parents and our schooling, and horizontally via our peer groups and through all forms of media. Memes are not unique to humans: other apes, dolphins and birds all exhibit memetic copying. We do, however, seem to be very good at transmitting them, and the evolution of human language has been described as a way of carrying ever more complex memes.

The memes we share

Human culture propagates through meme transmission, and our culture is defined by a set of dominant memes that drive the way we see things. We are no more aware of them than a fish is of water, but memes like money, crop rotation, democracy and equality of women have, in their turn, transformed our society. Differences between cultures can be explained as differences between the set of memes that we run – the ‘better’ the set of memes, the more persistent the culture. You’ve heard of the Mayans? They had a good set of building memes. What about the Teotihuacán? No? Quite.

And because not everybody within a culture is running the same set of memes (because they weren’t exposed to them or they didn’t stick) they exhibit differences in personality. You could say that a lot of psychotherapy is concerned with eliminating bad memes and substituting good memes, similar to reinstalling a corrupted operating system.

This is not exactly a new idea. The Sumerians believed that there were sacred laws that represented the sum total of knowledge in a certain field (such as farming or raising children), and only when these laws were stolen from the gods could civilization really get going.

Interestingly, what little has been written about memes in business is around memetic marketing. Quite obviously, a self-propagating idea that drives purchasing behaviour is worth a lot of money, and there have been some great successes here - our older readers will recognise “Guinness is good for you”).

Memes, like genes, do not have intention or free will — they either get replicated or they don’t. Just like any inherited trait, memes are more likely to survive if they are beneficial (or at least, not actively harmful) to the host organism. So memes for washing your hands before eating, or avoiding wild mushrooms persist because they help the host survive to spread them. What makes a meme most likely to survive, though, is not its usefulness but its virulence – its ability to reproduce itself. That explains the Macarena and why we keep having to stamp out dumb ideas like racial superiority.

Did I mention that memes flock together into sets, just as genes do? A plumber will be running memes for soldering, finding leaks, installing radiators, ripping off customers etc but probably not memes for knitting or growing wheat, because they are not useful to him.

Sets of mutually supportive memes are a good explanation for structures such as monotheistic (and atheistic) beliefs. As well as a set of core beliefs they contain a meme that acts as a strong immune system (usually called something like heresy) and an advanced replication mechanism (evangelism). We are now in territory I really don’t want to go into, as I can see some of my friends collecting firewood and cutting eye-holes in their sheets. Opinions vary as to whether these sets of memes are beneficial or harmful, but we cannot deny that they are virulent as almost everybody is running one of them.

Corporations as sets of memes

Now I know that you find this interesting (or you wouldn’t have got as far as this paragraph) but you are probably wondering where I am going with this.

You won’t be surprised to hear that corporations have cultures (just like nations have distinct cultures). These cultures consist of, and are transmitted as, sets of memes that drive the way that the owners and employees behave.

So here are three implications of our memes in business.

Change the memes, change the culture

Corporate cultures are traditionally regarded as immutable, because they are regarded as intangible. The idea of memes allows you to codify the core values of a corporation and to look at the way that it behaves (or doesn’t behave) and to start to change it. This is important because corporate cultures drive, and simultaneously limit, the behaviour of workers, suppliers and customers.

Greg Dyke was widely mocked for introducing flash cards saying “cut the crap” at the BBC but when he was fired a year or two later support from his staff was overwhelming. He was widely credited at reintroducing pride back into the organisation, encouraging creativity and launching an antigen to bureaucracy. The structural changes he made reduced administration costs from 24% of total income to 15% in four years, but the organisation would have rejected the changes if he hadn’t changed the meme set first.


Changing the memes can make your business more effective

There has been a great deal of rubbish written over the years about ‘learning organisations’ and how difficult they are to create. Just to add to it, here are Farncombe’s four laws on organisational learning:

1) Don’t be promiscuous. Be sceptical about new memes (including this one). If you are going to adopt a meme, do it consciously and not as a result of an infection from some disease-ridden management consultant. Examine the idea critically and insist on seeing proof that it has worked in organisations like yours (similar size, similar culture etc).

2) Quarantine the meme - try it out in a small area of the business. If it doesn’t work, obliterate all traces of it.

3) If it does work, adopt it wholeheartedly and completely and make sure every employee is running the new meme as part of their core set. Remember that ‘they way we do things’ contains its own immune system designed to reject new ideas, so you may have to treat the culture as an obstacle rather than an asset.

4) Prune your memes. Old ways of doing things have to be actively discarded in make way for new ideas (like paperless trading and next-day delivery). Unlearning might require another active override of the corporate immune system, but if you don’t do it you will doubtless go the way of the Teotihuacán.

And most important:

Meme clashes lead to disaster

At the risk of triggering a heresy meme from my friends in business schools, I think that successful businesses are not those which are best managed, but those which maintain the most consistent set of beneficial memes.

I may surprise you by saying that ‘consistent’ is more important that ‘beneficial’. A recent meme, ‘six sigma’, is an interesting case in point. It can certainly provide competitive advantage by virtually eliminating defects, but Fortune magazine famously reported that "of 58 large companies that have announced Six Sigma programs, 91% have trailed the S&P 500 since”. I think this is because in the majority of cases the infection with six sigma was superficial and inconsistent with most of the memes that the businesses ran (autonomy, efficiency etc). The resulting meme clash disrupted the business and led to the high failure rate. A cynical little corner of me would just like to say that since most companies who say are running corporate social responsibility are just paying it lip service, it can’t be an essential part of the corporate meme set.

We know that simpler companies work so much better than complex ones – perhaps because there is less room for mutually incompatable memes. I know I would say that (because I’m running the Atomisation meme) but it might explain why diverse conglomerates like GE, BT, and IBM have to spend more management time on internal communication and alignment than they do on client service.

It also explains why mergers so rarely succeed. OK, lots of mergers don’t succeed because they were a stupid idea in the first place, but lots of apparently sensible mergers destroy value through endless internal wrangling – meme wars. Cisco is famously good at acquisition because it keeps the products of the companies it buys, but ruthlessly crushes their cultures.

We are now back to my second margarita. Management consultancies thrived by promoting individuals who ran the client service meme, which can be described as “I will make sure the client is delighted with this piece of work, whatever it takes”. They also exhibited the farming meme (“I will become his trusted advisor, and he will buy something eventually”) and the creating new ideas meme with its tolerance for intellectual growth at the cost of chargeability. When EDS bought AT Kearney, or CAP bought Gemini, or CAP bought Ernst & Young, or Atos Origin bought KPMG, or CSC bought Butler Cox, or IBM bought PwC, these memes could not run within the culture of the new organisation (with its ideas of sales commissions, quarterly targets, and product pull-through) The consultants were faced with staying with the new company and being reprogrammed or choosing the old meme over the new organisation – most chose the meme.

Finally, it’s not just meme wars within the corporate culture you have to watch. Memes are NOT universally transferable – a concept that Americans and Scandinavians have particular problems with (a topic for another day). Management-by-objectives - setting objectives for individual employees and rewarding them on the basis of achievement - is deeply embedded in individualist western ways of thinking, but in highly-structured collective societies (China, Russia, Japan and even France) it will utterly destroy your ability to manage.

If this post has interested you, you might be interested to know I have recently written a book on memes in business, “The Success Virus”. You can find out more about it here.