Almost exactly seven years ago (amazing how long I have been blogging) I wrote an extended piece about how hard it is to change corporate DNA. I was writing about GM but also used Wal-Mart as an example. Part of this piece read:
A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential. These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc. In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys. This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot. You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.
All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA*. And DNA is very hard to change. Walmart may be freaking brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I don't think they would ever get there. Its just too much change in the DNA. Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or knowledge of fashion, etc. etc. I would bet you any amount of money I could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from Walmart. For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to shop. And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart. Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their experience may overtax their DNA.
Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier. The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation. When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment. Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not. Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.
But things change. Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet. DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you. When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one. The corporation is killing the value of its assets. Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture. In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.
Changing your DNA is tough. It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years. One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur. GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough. GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do. If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.
Megan McArdle makes some very similar points as I about Wal-Mart and how hard it is to change corporate DNA. I recommend you read the whole thing.