Growth versus Protection – A lesson from Biology

The other day a regular technical book vendor to our company flashed a new book which dealt with Fundamentals of Fire fighting and wanted to know whether we were interested to buy. I said jokingly:”We don’t need it because we are masters in the art of fire fighting”. Then I realized that I was only stating the obvious which holds good not only for our company but for most of us Indians. Indian corporates in fact take pride in their fire fighting capabilities whether it is completion of an important project on time, procurement of a critical raw material or attending to a cutomer complaint or service. Part of the reason for our tendency to fire fight is our inclination to do the urgent things in preference to the important ones all the time.The organization of recent Common wealth games in Delhi is a wonderful example of our great fire fighting qualities. We are possibly hard wired(thanks to our DNA)to postpone things to the last minute so that we can exhibit skills at fire fighting.
While we may be great at fire fighting,it is important to realize the biological and biochemical side-effects of continuous fire fighting.

Should we opt for Growth or Protection,should we choose to do the Important over the Urgent,Should we prefer Fire fighting over System based actions – these are the choices we are faced with on a daily basis. Unfortunately,our choice is not intelligent or based on what is good for the long term. Interestingly,biology provides us with very useful insights on this issue.

Our cells operate by two mechanisms – namely growth and protection. At any point of time,they are programmed to act either in the growth mode or protection mode – they do not operate in both modes simultaneously. Growth is a process that uses up energy but nevertheless is critically needed to produce enegy. For instance energy is consumed in the process of digesion but digesion is critical for producing energy subsequently. Growth is needed as much for a growing child as it is for an adult. (For example in an adult,all cells forming the entire gut lining is replaced every 72 hours). Let us now turn to PROTECTION mechanism. It is essentially a mechanism for emergency response. Ideally,therefore,we need the right balance between growth and protection. Any bias for one over the other can affect our very survival.
Let us take an extreme example – let us say there is an emergency situation calling for urgent action to be performed for our protection. This is ahieved by our body by activationg what is known as HPA axis(HPA stands for Hypothalamus-Pituitary -Adrenalin glands)which releases Stress harmones into the blood stream. Instantly,the blood vessels supplying blood for digestive system would get constricted in order to divert blood supply to organs(legs or hands)which are required to perform emergency actions. This helps the protection mechanism at the expense of growth.
This is perfectly ok if the emergency situation arises once in a way because the moment the occasional emegency is over,the system goes back to growth mode.
However,think of a situation like our modern society where one has to face moderate levels of stress on a continuous basis. Such constant stressors will force our HPA axis to release stress harmones into the blood.
In order to appreciate the ill-effects our present day life style,let us take an example of a crucial cricket match ,say,between India & Pakistan. What would be the atmosphere like before the first ball is bowled? Very tense,lots of excitement and anticipation. Right? This state of highest tension will continue till the first ball is bowled. After that,gradually the excitement would give way to enjoyment of the game barring some moments of tension during the match. However,in real life,we are all constantly competing and racing every day of our lives but the much anticipated FIRST BALL is never bowled! That means we put ourselves all the time in a constant state of stress filled with fear,excitement and anticipation. In other words,our HPA axis is in a state of constant alertness.One can easily visualize what damage it can cause to our growth mechanism which is so vital for our long term survival. Evidently,we have to consciously strive to make our lives stress free and joyful to facilitate growth processes.

One can extend the above lesson from biology into our corporate context. Most unsuccesful companies have a marked tendency to practice management by fire fighting. On a daily basis they would give priority to URGENT matters over IMPORTANT matters. It is obvious that IMPORTANT matters are the equivalents of Growth mechanism discussed in our biology lesson above whereas URGENT matters are those to do with Protection mechanism operating in our biological systems.
The choice is ours to make depending on whether we want to grow as a human being,as a society,as a company or as a nation!

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Published in: on October 24, 2010 at 6:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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