From the Archives: Extremophiles

On December 4, 2014, in HRExaminer, by John Sumser

photo of Eileen Clegg illustration on HRM

“Extremophiles” – literally, “lover of extremes.” Eileen Clegg’s notion, that “certain individuals rise to the fore under threatening circumstances” points in a direction we rarely consider in the Recruiting and Human prescriptions Capital arenas.

In a world of writers and verbal intellects, Eileen Clegg is a visual thinker. She is a prototypical Renaissance person with broad interests and deep networks.

The seasoned newspaper reporter (10 years at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat) spent an additional chunk of her life working at the Institute for the Future. You may have run across her at a Future of Talent get together. Eileen is the one making the visuals, capturing the essence of a conversation in a picture. (Here’s an image she developed with old friend Hank Stringer).

Ideas are big things. The narrative form (written word) has some pretty serious limitations. Eileen makes the picture clearer, so to speak.

Interestingly, she has a range of her own notions that haven’t mapped onto a visual somewhere. With a pile of books under her belt, she’s at least as accomplished as an author as she is as a visual clarifier.

I’ve been fortunate enough to get to spend some time learning about one of her most powerful notions: Extremophiles. There are a class of organisms that inhabit the toughest parts of our planet…under the poles, in the salt desert, near or in volcanos, in the intertidal areas. Clegg uses these organisms as a metaphor for a range of people who inhabit the harshest parts of our organizations.

Extremophiles are nature’s pioneers, organisms that not only survive but thrive in the harshest environments. Some live undersea in hot volcanic vents at temperatures above 200 degrees Fahrenheit, others in sub-zero Antarctic waters. There are Extremophiles in saline waters where other life forms shrivel, and those living in acid where all other organisms instantly break down. They are thought to be the oldest form of life on Earth. Yet the scientific inquiry is fairly recent. The term “extremophile” – literally, “lover of extremes” – is less than 30 years old.” From Extremophiles

And then,

Extremophiles are simple organisms; they are single-celled or in a filament of identical cells in alignment. Although their structure does not immediately appear analogous to a corporation or a country, their brilliant survival mechanisms raise questions how certain individuals or groups might rise to the fore (or should be brought into the organization) in threatening times, and how leaders can promote an “extremophile response” within their companies to fend off threats and thrive where others may succumb.” FromExtremophiles

The military, over its 10,000 year history has learned to cultivate
just this sort of thing.

In order to function effectively, the military has two operational modes. In peacetime, decisions are made by consensus and politics is a well refined sport. In Wartime, decisions have to be made in a hurry by people who understand the implications and remain able to act. The military employs a group of people who are known as “Wartime Generals”. These people are terrible peacetime leaders and great at the job during a war. If you let them be in charge during peacetime, they’d destroy the place. Good wartime leadership and good peacetime administration are really different from each other.

Human Extremophiles are like that.

Clegg’s notion, that “certain individuals rise to the fore under threatening circumstances” points in a direction we rarely consider in the Recruiting and Human prescriptions Capital arenas. The idea that our people are more than a list of skills and credentials, the notion that they may behave in unpredictably positive ways during stressful times, is simply not a part of our evaluation protocol.

Somehow, we’ve come to believe that a job is a set of requirements. We think that the person who does the job is a set of skills that match those requirements. That’s some kind of weird, don’t you think?

Last week, when I was talking with Josh Kahn about Best Buy, I asked him how things worked when there were cutbacks. Everyone has cutbacks. Because the Best Buy architecture depends on a relatively ad hoc network, I was sure that there would be drawbacks. I guessed that the network would break when key players moved around or left.

Kahn’s answer surprised me. He told me a story about a very key network contributor leaving (he took the buyout, Best Buy doesn’t really do traditional layoffs.) He wasn’t replaced. How did the network work get done? Kahn says that other people filled in and the complexion of the network changed just a little bit.

That’s the thing about people who are trusted and encouraged. They pick up the slack. It’s just like the hidden characteristics that Clegg thinks we can learn to tap.



 

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