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  • Thomas Thurston

Corporate Antibodies

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

It started out like a sniffle.  An itchy nose.  Kelly began to wonder if her business was coming down with something.  She’d launched her “internal startup” within a Fortune 500 company.  The goal was to turn innovative new technology into a “billion dollar business,” generate desperately needed growth and propel the firm into new markets.  Now, three years later, her group was on its deathbed.  Sick.  Wounded.  You could smell it a mile away.  The business had been viciously assailed by… antibodies.

In biology, antibodies are cells used by the immune system to identify and neutralize foreign objects like bacteria and viruses. Antibodies float around, directly eliminating things that don’t belong or tagging intruders to be attacked by other parts of the immune system. They’re the body’s equivalent of a hall monitor. Corporations have antibodies too. Beware of coworkers bearing gifts.

At first Kelly was asked to find huge new opportunities “away from the core.”  Her boss didn’t want humdrum incremental ideas or meek feature improvements.  No, he wanted “big” ideas.  “Bold!”  He used words like “diversify,” “disruptive,” and “find me the next Google.”  He wanted… you can feel it coming can’t you… something “out of the box!”

So Kelly hand-picked her team.  They found a killer idea and ran with it.  Customers loved it.  Competitors feared it.  Excitement ran high.  Then one day her team decided to get a website.

Enter Ricardo.  Ricardo was from Strategic Marketing.  “If you want a website,” he said, “here’s a list of approved URLs and product names.”  Whoa there!  Kelly’s team had spent two days brainstorming their URL and product name.  Who was this Ricardo guy anyway?  He explained how unapproved names required trademarks, which the legal department said cost $5 million each so they were only used for “billion dollar businesses.”  Huh?  No part of that made sense.

Then it was time to build distribution channels.  Enter Tammy, who told Kelly “this is our list of approved distributors.  You can’t use anyone else.  Please make it work.”  Kelly’s team later leased a couple vans but the fleet department found out and said “we don’t lease. We only buy vehicles.  Please make it work.”  She wanted to hire key engineers but HR found out and said “sorry, there’s a corporate freeze on external hires right now.  Please make it work.”  Then Kelly wanted to use for the sales team’s CRM system.  The IT department found out and said “sorry, there’s a policy against hosting our company’s data on other people’s servers.  You can’t use our corporate system either because we don’t want to confuse the core business sales teams.  Please make it work.”  I won’t even bother you with what Finance had to say.  Like zombies smelling live flesh, the antibodies had begun to circle.

Kelly expected things to get better once initial roadblocks were navigated.  It didn’t get better.  It got worse.  Her parent company had a bad quarter and started looking for things to cut.  “We’re refocusing on our core competence” was the edict from above.  Only two years after being hired (and funded) to go “out of the box,” Kelly was now being told her funding was in jeopardy unless she could be… well… back in the box.  She needed to be “strategic,” “core,” to create “synergy” and to be “aligned.”

Kelly’s team pulled hard on the rudder and changed their strategy to be more in tune with the core business.  It was either this or lose their funding.  Problem was, they’d spent the last two years going in exactly the opposite direction.  Changing course was no trivial matter.  Now they had a disjointed strategy, confused customers, marketing contradictions, a stupid URL and product name, irrational distribution channels, two vans, not enough engineers to hit their milestones and a lousy CRM system that the sales team hated.  Things were septic.  Kelly’s team looked like “flip floppers.”  Incompetent.  At first they’d chased a big idea and were accused of being too remote from the core.  Now they’d obediently refocused on the incremental core roadmap but were hearing “we don’t need a special team to do something the core can – and should – do for itself.  What’s the point?  Why don’t we dissolve this group?”

While the general structure of all antibodies is similar, their protein tips are highly variable allowing them to come in millions of shapes and sizes.  This enormous diversity lets immune systems identify wide varieties of foreign objects for termination.  Antibodies can also misfire, leading to autoimmune diseases where the immune system mistakes some part of the body (ex. the thyroid, lung or kidney) as a pathogen and attacks its own cells.  Just ask Kelly.


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