A weird lesson from prozac-infused fish

Scientists report that the residual amounts of drugs, like Prozac, are affecting the fish that live in waste water in weird ways. Here is a report from ScienceAlert:

To probe further, Polverino and his team ran a two-year experiment in the lab, subjecting generations of guppies (Poecilia reticulata) to targeted concentrations of fluoxetine at low levels, on par with the chemical’s pollution in aquatic environments, as well as high levels.

The results were stark: the fish on antidepressants seemed to lose their capability for individuality as a result of their exposure, with variations in behaviour between separate animals diminishing as the dose got stronger.

Basically, they all started acting the same.

So this is interesting in a number of ways – it reminds us that second order effects of human actions (or third order) are affecting the world in a myriad of mostly unexplored ways – and argument for increased uncertainty. But it also forces us to ask the question of what happens with a group that starts behaving similarly – and this is where the really interesting results come out:

“For fish populations to thrive in the face of environmental change, members of a group need to behave differently from each other,” Polverino says.

“Unfortunately, we found that such behavioural diversity is eroded in fish populations exposed to fluoxetine, and might place large groups of fish at an increased risk of perishing in a changing and increasingly polluted world.”

Lack of diversity in behavioral patterns creates a brittle group, vulnerable to change in the environment – an environment that is changing rapidly. Now, if we follow this thought to its logical conclusion we could say that any system that loses in diversity as the diversity – uncertainty – in its environment is growing is doubly increasing its risk of catastrophic decline or collapse.

This brings us back to a more general lesson: that diversity – in behavior and composition – is key to searching complex and fluctuating fitness landscapes for solutions. So we should benefit from finding out what processes in an organization that reduce behavioral diversity. This brings us to an over-interpretation of these results that amounts to a real heresy in today’s management work: that a strong culture may be a force that increases the brittleness of an organization.

Fish need behavioral diversity to thrive.

Modern organisations pride themselves on having and building strong cultures – and these cultures are routinely hailed as the engine of success for companies like Google, Netflix, Apple and smaller start ups as well. But what if there is a point at which a culture becomes too strong and results in a reduction of diversity in behavior?

A point where the company culture makes us behave as fish on prozac?

Maybe the real insight here is this: a company should ensure that it has a culture for all of the reasons we have heard again and again – it strengthens the organization, creates purpose and encourages innovation – but companies should also encourage counter-cultures, real differences in culture between different parts of the company, like geographical regions or different functions, to ensure behavioral diversity?

Thinking back at Google you could see this emerging: EMEA had a different culture, an organizational dialect, and YouTube, again, had its own culture within the company. Over time that may turn out to be an interesting strength.

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