Guts, Gory and the Organization

Giulia Enders has written a delightful book on our Guts.  If the title was not sufficient the sub-title describes it all: Gut: The Inside Story of Our Bodys Most Underrated Organ.

Gut is a good read for anyone who digests food (which pretty much covers everyone living) and is a potential lesson for organizations that there is more complexity in a system then we can ever imagine.

Have Some Guts, Read Gut

Gut is a pretty easy read.  Enders presents the physiology of the Gut in a very accessible manner and explains the key functions of the major organs (e.g. stomach, small/large intestines, liver, etc.).  Originally published in German, the English translation has great cheek and humour.  In fact, Gut would make an excellent text-book for junior or senior high school biology given its easy accessibility.

As a microbiologist, Enders delves into the other organ of our body, the microbiota of the gut.  Based on current research, Enders makes the case that the dividing line between where our cells start and bacteria and other germs end is not as clear cut as we may think. For example:

  • Children born via Caesarean section are not endowed with the bugs found within their mothers’ birth canal.  As a result they must source their bugs from the environment and these may not be the most beneficial.  These children take months or years to develop a healthy gut microbiota.  They are also at a risk of developing asthma or allergies.
  • Breast feeding has a similar impact on allergies and the like.  Mothers milk not only feeds the baby but also contains nutrients galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) to feed the child’s gut.
  • The gut’s bacteria helps to train our immune system to not only recognize threats but to also not over-react to them.  As a result, this reduces allergies, asthma and potentially juvenile diabetes.
  • We periodically wipe out all or portions of our microbiota through the use of antibiotics, poor diet and stress.  When the good bugs depart their spots can be replaced by the less than desirable who then can be difficult to displace.
  • The appendix is not a slacker who does not realize its time has passed.  Current research indicates that the appendix is a store house of good bacteria that can repopulate the gut if the intestines have been flushed due to diarrhea.

Organization’s Need Guts

Ender has not only written a very accessible book that discusses such delicate matters as what our poop should look like, she has reminded us that perceptions of systems are based on best available information at a point in time.  For the gut, bacteria are necessary to not only break down food but to also stress the immune system so it does not over or under react.  Structures such as appendices may appear useless but turn out to be vital to our long term health.

The gut can be used as an analog for organizations.  Poop jokes aside, a healthy organization is more complex and mysterious then it first appears.  While we may be inclined to oversimplify them, organizations have interactions and systems that may not be immediately apparent.

Elevators are Like Guts – They Mix and Separate

Here is one small example: riding elevators.  In my building a new system has replaced the traditional ‘up’ button with destination buttons.  Rather then jumping on the first elevator going up, you select your floor and proceed to that lift going exactly to that floor plus perhaps a few floors above and below yours.

This system has dramatically improved the speed by which people are carried to their floors – and it has cut the accidental and random interactions of people.  Previously who you got on with was chance.  As a result, there was an opportunity to interact with a variety of people who you may only see intermittently.  Now the elevator ride is much more homogenous – you ride with people from one floor above or below.

More efficient, yes – beneficial to the organization – not necessarily.  In as much as good bacteria trains our immune system and a diverse flora is better for us, random interactions and non-sterile organizational mixing is also of value.  Good organizations need slight agitation, a diverse culture and some randomness to be effective and healthy – just like a good gut.  In addition, organizations should recognize that individuals who may not seem to be part of a main structures may in fact have a disproportionate impact on the health of the culture.  Introducing the occasional disruptive employees/contractors, the mail room clerk who is a clearing house of information across many floors or a cafeteria that promotes chance encounters vertically and horizontally across the organization.

Embrace your Internal and Organizational Micro-biota

The gut is more complex than we ever imagined and has a stronger influence well beyond converting food to energy and nutrition.  In the same way, organizations are more complex then we can imagine and elements we may think of being without use can turn out to be instrumental to its health.  Enjoy Enders’ gut and good luck with your biotas – both the micro and organizational varieties.