One firm approach: learning from evolutionary biology

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Everybody knows that beer is produced from fermenting yeast. OK, good. Now, hands up all of you who knew that yeast is a single-celled creature that reproduces asexually?

And, what has that to do with the job of leadership in creating a cooperative one firm approach to business?

Well actually quite a lot. We can learn from experiments that evolutionary biologists have been doing with organisms such as yeast and bacteria. A multi-celled creature—a bee, a mouse or a human being—is simply a collection of single celled creatures that have learned, over time to cooperate so closely that they literally become one organism. They have evolved so radically over time that they have even changed their reproductive strategy from asexual division (which requires far less effort to produce a population) to sexual selection (which only a multi-celled creature can do).

Scientists have reproduced this transformation by creating the sort of environments in the lab that force the unicellular species in their test tubes to evolve into multicellular creatures. Their efforts were reported in the November 18 edition of Science. In one of the experiments they created what they called ‘big yeast’ where the yeast cells in test tubes had joined together to become one, much larger, multicellular living organism. The yeast cells took a kind of one firm approach to their environment and evolved into something quite different.

A human organization is not unlike yeast in a laboratory

Like yeast in the early stages of the experiment it is a collection of separate entities (employees) that when they cooperate, they do so rather loosely and without much coordination. The experimenters (senior management) attempt to make them into something different, something so unified that they are virtually one. The firm, the company, the organization becomes one entity with one purpose not hundreds of separate ones sharing real estate each with its own survival and personal growth (career etc) strategy.

To do the experiment with yeast, researchers control the environment (the test tube and the amount of glucose—yeast’s food) the cells are in. Under the right conditions over time (60 days and umpteen generations) the yeast cells conjoin to form big yeast, the ‘one firm’ that can prosper in its environment only by such close cooperation that a multi-celled organism is the answer.

So, what’s the food and environment that encourages human beings to join so closely that they act virtually as one?

Research has shown that there are two essential cooperation foods for humans: socializing[i] and a combination of external threat and internal safety[ii]. For a modern corporation and its employees the external threat is ever present. We live in times of constant and threatening change in market and regulatory conditions. That’s the test tubes which the single organisms are in. The internal safety which encourages the desired coalescence is the employees feeling that management cares for them and will look after their interests as opposed to just their own. The socializing comes when management realizes that employees are there primarily to form relationships and that productivity, and profit, follow when they are allowed to do so.

In many ways management has failed to either provide the safety or allow for adequate socializing and so the one firm has failed to materialize. Engagement scores are pitifully low and a sense of real collegiality is absent.

We can learn so much from yeast.


[i] Robison, J “The Business of Friends” Gallup Management Journal, 12/21/11

[ii] For example see O’Loughlan, T  “One Island, One People, One Nation” ITB Journal, 4:2001