The “Ship of Theseus” is a thought experiment that takes place in the metaphysics of identity. The concept of this koan ponders what happens to an object if all of its parts are replaced. In Theseus’ case, which gave the name to the concept, the ship’s identity is challenged in a scenario wherein all parts of the vessel are replaced for newer or stronger components over time until none of the original parts remain. If every piece of wood, metal, sail, and sailor is exchanged, is it still the same ship? If this is done year by year, it would be a modern cruise ship by now. This can’t be the original ship, or can it be? There is no single right answer to this question. It’s an unsolved matter that puzzles philosophers since the time of Ancient Greece.
What happens, however, if you project this thought experiment to a modern age company? First, let’s set the scene for this. Consider that a mature company that has been running operations for many years in a stable way would suddenly undergo changes. Though we know that changes are generally a catalyst for opportunity and innovation, it’s not clear what would happen with the company if not just one or two aspects would change, but everything.
In Theseus Inc we see that the entire staff is changed. All property, assets, and real estate are changed. The whole brand is changed, as well as the vision and goals of the organization. The leadership team is swapped out for new people. All of the technology is replaced. What sort of impact would that have?
The workforce changes
One of the most critical aspects here is all change that happens within the workforce, including supervision and management. If a proper knowledge management and operations documentation had been prepared, a new crew could take over, following the same steps, certainly slower, but in a similar fashion. If this never happened, the knowledge to run the business is tacit and will be lost with each person leaving the organization.
But where and how are the records and documentation made available? Since all technology and all inventory assets are also changed, both digital and analog records would be ultimately affected, even if they were originally prepared for changes. Work culture is also an aspect that relates to the employees and is a key aspect to the company’s vibe for the workforce, partners, clients, and other stakeholders.
The processes change
Changes in the work culture often can take up to a decade of turning around, but if everybody is just gone from one day to the next, the work culture, unlike any records of clients or processes, has no hope to remain. Since business happens between people and not between companies, all people who leave will also represent a sort of disconnect with clients and partners.
Relationships that have been built up over the years are back to zero, and there is no trust to begin with. This would naturally also lead to many long-time clients and partners reconsidering working with Theseus Inc. Possibly they’d find a better company to serve their needs better and maybe at a better price point? Nothing stops them from checking now. In either way, this is something that should be generally avoided. But how?
The strategy changes
The CEO, along with all board members, has been replaced by new people. It’s unlikely that all of these share the same visions that would have been the case for their predecessors. Depending on the company’s structure and legal setup, they would then all need to discuss how to go forward. To make good strategic decisions, it would be wise to consult historical data, yet no data is available to make use of.
There will be many meetings and brainstorming, and arguments with stakeholders, but eventually, they will agree on a strategy and tactics to support their goals. It is, however, possible that the business model would undergo critical changes, and the product or service could pivot into something completely different going forward. Whatever costs the least and promises the most profit could be considered the new way to go forward.
The brand and reputation changes
As far as branding goes, this would also not be a problem. The whole marketing team as well starts over from scratch with a new logo, and maybe even with a new business name if we want to stay true to the scenario of changing everything that makes a company. That’s certainly critical, but what would be a good example to check through? Look at social media, for instance. If a company was known with its name, logo, product, or services, it established a certain reputation for its brand over time. They gather followers, and those will eventually turn into prospects, leads, and maybe clients if they are lucky.
But now, suddenly, all the followers are confused with this company that keeps posting to their timeline about a product or service they have no idea about. Maybe the whole industry they were previously in has now also been repositioned to match the business model. Not recognizing the brand and being confused about the posts or not having an interest or need for these new solutions, they would likely end up unfollowing and discarding this handle on the social media platform.
The only thing that remains is a faint memory of Theseus Inc as it once existed and thrived. “Wasn’t there this great company who had a good solution for this problem? What was their name again? Whatever happened to them?”
Four-dimensionalism means time is of the essence
The only possible way to mitigate the risks of such changes to impact the operations of the company in a negative way would be to stretch out the event of the changes happening. This means that the longer time you can put between every single change, the better the chances of maintaining the identity of the company and everything it entails. Even outside of our thought experiment, we can see change happening, and that’s fine.
They avoid the risk of losing their identity and their whole business by pacing these changes logically. A new person comes in, learns everything, eventually takes over the role of someone else leaving at some point. New joiners have sufficient time to soak in the work culture and later be an ambassador to walk the talk as well. Analog systems become digital in a phased program with various projects to make sure risk is minimal.
Aging technology will be replaced by newer technology, but ideally, they coexist for some time, and the old equipment is not kicked out before the new kit has been proven to work without problems. So the challenge for companies here is not to prevent change from happening but to ensure they persist over time, and that’s the only way how they could possibly also maintain their identity.
If you are interested in the concept of the Ship of Theseus, you can also have a look at this neat explainer video by Jennifer Wang (Stanford University) below. It doesn’t bounce off all the ideas from above, but it certainly adds some interesting twists to think about. Certainly, you can also have a look at the Wikipedia article, which provides a great resource to learn more about the thought experiment and its history.
YouTube: Philosophy – Metaphysics – Ship of Theseus
Photo credit: The feature image has been done by Zoltan Tasi. The photo “woman holding her hair” was taken by Sharon McCutcheon. The picture “man standing in front of wall” has been prepared by Mag Pole. The image “woman in blue long sleeve shirt” was shot by Intricate Explorer. The last image “brown analog clock” was done by Kevin Ku.