Ameba™

Recently, I have been reading a book recommended to me by some new friends.  The book is called Multipliers:  How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman (HarperCollins, 2010).  The book takes aim at something we’ve all experienced in organizational life:  there are some people you like to work with because you feel (and ARE!) enlarged by the experience, and there are other people you hate to work with because you feel (and ARE) diminished by the experience.  The book provides some good, useful, and constructive advice for how to increase “multiplier” practices, and decrease “diminisher” practices in organizations.

As I was reading, I came across Wiseman’s example of the company Hexal AG, “maker of generic drugs…located in a small village close to Munich, Germany…founded in 1986 by twin brothers and self-made entrepreneurs, Thomas and Andreas Struengmann” (p. 41).  Wiseman describes one of the Struengmann’s multiplier practices:   “Once people joined Hexal, they discovered…one of the Struengmann’s unconventional practices.  Hexal doesn’t have jobs per se….Jobs were loosely created around people’s interests and unique capabilities.  They called their approach ‘the ameba model’” (p. 42).

The description of how “the ameba model” worked sounded very familiar to me, having worked at Gore.  Someone comes in to do something, sees something else that needs to be done, has an idea how it can be done, starts doing it.  As time goes by, their “job” morphs (like an amoeba) as they see an opportunity, extend their “pseudopod” into the opportunity space, and then “move” themselves into the new opportunity.  In fact, this concept—trademarked by Heinrich Flik in his article on “Ameba: The Concept” is fairly well known at Gore.  When Heinrich—who was a European leader for Gore and currently a member of the Gore Board of Directors, wrote the article, I asked him why he spelled “amoeba” as “ameba.”   He told me that “ameba” is a special variant of “amoeba” but, as it was less used, it would be more easily trade-marked.

Anyway, when I saw that the Struengmann’s were from a “small village close to Munich, Germany” and that they didn’t have job descriptions per se, but used “the ameba model,” I wondered if there was a Heinrich connection.  So I contacted Heinrich by email, and sure enough, he said that many years ago, he had lots of conversations with the brothers about the Ameba™ concept and culture, but hadn’t been in touch with them lately.  He did know that they had recently sold their company to Novartis.

The Ameba™ story reminded me of another episode from many years past.  I had read a book about ABB.  The company was quite admired when Percy Barnevik was CEO.  The book was written by a consultant who had worked for ABB (I can’t remember his name, or the title of the book).  In the book, he described a re-organization of ABB where all businesses were broken into “independent” business units of no more than 150 employees each.  I was surprised to read this about ABB, because at that time ABB was a huge company.  Gore had long been known for trying to keep its plants to a small size—150 was the optimum based on some back-of-the-envelope calculations that Bill Gore had done.  I was very curious about how ABB had come up with the idea of limiting its business units to 150.  As it turned out, ABB was a customer of Gore’s Electronic Products Division, and a colleague of mine in EPD, Volker Nebel, was the European sales leader for EPD.  He knew the consultant who wrote the book on ABB, and arranged for the three of us to meet on one of my trips to Germany.  When I asked the consultant how ABB settled on 150 as the ideal size of its business units, he said, “I had talked with Heinrich Flik, and Heinrich said that was what worked at Gore!”

I doubt that ABB ever had much of a Gore-like culture, even if it kept its business units to 150 employees.  And I don’t know if Hexal, now Novartis, still practices the “ameba model.”  But I like these two stories about Hexal and ABB because it shows the ways that a Gore-like approach can capture the imagination of those in other organizations, and inspire them to give a Gore-like practice a try.

Imagine what’s possible.

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