Siddhartha Mukerjee, the brilliant Columbia oncologist and Pulitzer-winning writer, has struck again. In a recent New Yorker magazine (September 11), his article “The Invasion Equation” describes a striking leap of insight that could transform cancer research. This insight, called “seed and soil,” brings ecological or systems thinking to studies of cancer research — and could equally be applied to management interventions.
Mukerjee is, as always, dazzling in the depth of his historical knowledge that brings us to any given point. A key issue in cancer treatment is whether any given cancer will stay in place — and be treatable there by surgery and/or chemotherapy — or whether it will metastasize into cancers in other parts of the body. It turns out that this has less to do with the nature of the cancer itself, and more with the nature of the host tissue. The fundamental research question Mukerjee addresses is, “Why do cancers spread more often to certain parts of the body than to others?”
Mukerjee traces his work back to that of a 19th-century doctor Stephen Paget, who noticed that cancers spread more often, for example, to the liver than to the spleen, in spite of the many similarities of these two organs. The characteristics of the cancer cells, in other words, play only part of the role. It is also something about the tissue that plays “host” to the tumor that makes metastasis more or less likely.
Paget termed this “seed and soil,” a concept that will be resonant with those who have studied ecology or systems thinking. Mukerjee claims that this is coming back as an avenue of inquiry after lying largely dormant for the past century.
Mukerjee displays leaps of insight that would delight any creative artist. He goes on to show how the seed and soil metaphor applies to other areas of biology — the overbreeding of mollusk populations in the Great Lakes, for example.
Organizations are made up of people, and people are biological entities — so it often makes sense to apply biological models and metaphors to organizational phenomena. When I read about this breakthrough thinking, it occurred to me that the seed and soil concept also translates directly to the work we do as consultants. We have our favorite techniques and interventions, things that have worked with other clients, things that are heralded widely as “best practices”. This has become a whole industry, with books and articles advising organizations on how to replicate the success of their peers.
A more experienced consulting practitioner will realize that it is often the characteristics of the host — the client ecology — that determine whether a given intervention will succeed, as much as the intervention itself. The client (the “soil”) may be receptive, it may be skeptical, or it may be dead set against change, or even hostile to it. These factors, every bit as much as the design and execution of the invention itself (the “seed”), determine whether any given intervention will take root (to extend the metaphor) and eventually succeed.
I’m always amused by the study of “change management” as if this were some specialized branch of consulting. All consulting is change, or at least intended to be so — and all consulting must therefore consider how to effectively catalyze and manage that change. The goal of any meaningful intervention is to move your client from Point A (the current client state) to Point B (the desired future client state.) Any intervention plan that fails to describe clearly the conditions and actions that will enable this movement — for that individual client — is fundamentally flawed.
Why does a consulting intervention that worked in one client situation fail to produce the same result elsewhere? The seed may have been right, but the soil was not receptive. Knowing how to assess and condition the soil (i.e., the enterprise culture) thus become critically important in creating successful client outcomes.