Snails, Big Companies and Bureaucracies

I’ve always held the opinion that big organizations move at a snail’s pace. Every day, we see or read about bureaucracy – government is the biggest offender. But anyone who has worked with large NGOs (non-government, not for profit organizations), or giant corporations has tasted it. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule. The most valuable business on the planet has set a wonderful example for getting things done. But unlike Apple, most big companies don’t have the will or the way to cut through the quagmire of red tape to “just do it.”  Even Procter & Gamble, a perennial success and a company I greatly admire, struggles to find nimbleness.


Check out my complete list of similarities between big companies and snails. 

Snails are slow. While the speed of a snail is the most common knock against big-company bureaucracy, there are several other similarities between the species.

Snails can’t hear. Neither can some of the largest companies on the globe. I’d suggest hearing aids for the executives of BP, AT&T, Bank of America, American Airlines, and Charter Communications (cable TV provider). Consumers are telling these companies what they want, but no one is listening.

Snails live in a protective shell. The shell for big companies is not bricks and mortar. It is clout. Clout comes from cash. We see this in the rash of acquisitions that fuel scale economies. Look at Kraft Foods. Nimble? Hardly. Mighty? Definitely. Here are just some of the acquisitions added to the Kraft portfolio since 1985 – General Foods, Tombstone Pizza, Jacobs Suchard, Nabisco, DANONE Biscuits and Cadbury.

Snails live in cool, dark environments. Companies like Halliburton and Monsanto inhabit similar environments. Despite consumer concern over its practices (particularly with regard to genetically modified foods), Monsanto doesn’t deviate from its unwavering vision to dominate. The power of Monsanto's market share (much of it gained through acquisition of independent seed companies) has left farmers with fewer and fewer seed choices. A massive legal department has proven itself awfully good at pursuing those who challenge the company's dominance.

One last question: What happens when you take away a snail’s shell?

Answer: You are left with a slug.

PS:  For those of you in HR who are frustrated by bureaucracy in your organization, I offer this advice:

  1. Bureaucracy or not, if you can’t support the organization’s ethics, get out.
  2. If you are supportive of the ethics and see a better future, I suggest you make a concerted effort to clean your own house. HR is often considered the most bureaucratic of all departments. Show the way by simplifying and/or systematizing.
  3. Operate as a service department. Your clients are the other departments. Chances are, they don’t like bureaucracy any more than you do. Know the workings of those functions, and you’ll be more effective at helping them reach their goals.
  4. Ensure your focus is on the growth of talent. Care about employee spirit, ambition, competencies and productivity. Sure, you work for the company. But you can be more effective and more fulfilled as an HR professional if you work for the employees.
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