Why Organizations Blink



Organizations Have Lizard Brains


From the Panama Canal Museum



It took ten years to build the Panama Canal with shovels and steam power over a century ago. Many people lost their fortunes and lives digging the “Trench.” The end result was an engineering marvel: a continent was severed in half and two oceans were conjoined. Humanity did what Nature takes eons to do. Determination, focus and courage saw the project to completion. Gaia said “WOW!”

George Will wrote about the latest Panama Canal expansion in his column last Sunday. Today, there is another project  to expand the Panama for larger, modern container ships. Building new locks will take eight years to complete. Sad to say, many of  the eastern U.S. ports cannot accept the new ‘post-Panamax’ ships once they start chugging through. Their harbors are not deep enough to accommodate the behemoth’s larger drafts.

Savannah,Georgia, knew this would be a problem back in 1999, but thirteen years later, the city has yet to complete any dredging studies. Assuming Savannah starts the five-year project immediately, she loses three years of large ship commerce. Mr. Will goes on to blame bureaucracy and litigation, (the point of his column), but at a deeper level, Savannah’s problems are based in civic fear and hesitation. Environmentalists toss lawsuits, governments commission additional studies and bankers prolong reviews. Everyone seems afraid to commit. Why?

Savannah’s lizard brain has taken over. If you don’t know about lizard brains, you probably haven’t read any Seth Godin. He knows that every person has primitive reptilian brain underneath their highly advanced mammalian lobes. This lizard brain is concerned with self-preservation at all costs. Lizard brains were useful for dealing with velociraptors; today they convince us to stonewall projects, insist on workflows, and demand approvals and second opinions. It keeps scary things away.

Resistance to change, to bold action, is a natural consequence of age. When cities, countries, companies or people get comfortable, they tend to resist bold action. And self-interest relies on the lizard to keep a status quo. As the decades pass, large groups become more inert. Barricades of process-based bureaucracy insure stability. Sameness is rewarded.

Eventually Savannah may dredge its harbors, but it may take a while. In the meantime, the post-Supermax ships will be happily unloading cargo in the nice, deep harbors of a hungrier, (younger?) port city.


“The successful completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 was a great psychological moment for the United States, providing powerful evidence that this country could do anything it set its mind to. That attitude built the Hoover Dam, produced the industrial miracle that won World War II, constructed the Interstate Highway System, and sent men to the moon. Today, it seems, we can’t even dredge a harbor, a technology that goes back centuries.”

John Gordon Steel




Obey Your Lizard — DON’T!



Photo courtesy of Nick Land

We Homo sapiens have a complicated brain. Our neocortex controls the higher brain functions of  learning and memory. The frontal lobes give us abstract thought for creativity. We have all kinds of smarts in our cranium.

But as you look down the brain stem you will find the older reptilian brain. It’s there under all those grand mammalian folds of intelligence. This brain controls our more basic animal responses. The reptilian brain tells us to fight, flee or mate. It  is very powerful. It is your lizard. It controls you every day, nearly every wakeful hour.
Surprised? Sure, we don’t run from predators anymore and we no longer guard our nests. But our urge to flee is always there. 
Some examples:
  • Do you have a project you’re been avoiding because it’s difficult to start? Maybe it’s not well defined. Perhaps a sponsor is missing, or worse, hostile to your idea?
  • How about a customer complaint? You see the name appear on your phone, but you let them go to voice mail every time. 
  • Or do you ‘somehow’ sabotage an important project by stalling? Maybe adding superfluous requirements you know are impossible?
  • Do you insist on spreadsheets and flowcharts? Formality? Do you argue for ‘consistency’  when you really want to avoid a challenging process?
We can see a lot of lizards these days. They’re in the cubicle down the hall. They’re across the conference table. They’re in the mirror.

Companies are facing challenging times today, yet our biggest opportunities happen during crises. This is when being our most  human makes a difference. Humans are audacious and bold. Lizards want to run away.  Lizards blend in. Lizards freeze.

Here’s a wonderful short article ,”Quieting The Lizard Brain,” by the observant  Seth Godin.  He talks about the contradictions we impose on ourselves. He says “Your lizard brain is here to stay, and your job is to figure out how to quiet it and ignore it.”
If each of us has a built-in lizard, what can we do to keep it at bay?