Deep in the Amazon rainforest, hidden amid the huge trees and the webs of vines, there is a wasp laying her eggs. It wouldn’t be remarkable if not for the fact that this particular wasp is laying her eggs inside the flesh of a caterpillar. As these Glyptapanteles larvae are born, they burst from their eggs inside the host. But they do not kill the caterpillar. They will eat the caterpillar’s body, bit by bit, but never enough to kill. In fact, if these wasp larvae were to kill their host, they, too, would die from a lack of fresh meat.
A good parasite does not kill its host. It knows that, even when locked in a biological war with its host, it must never destroy its rival entirely. It’s a phenomenon that mirrors one in the world of business and management and it’s called the Shirky Principle. The Shirky Principle is named after the writer Clay Shirky, and it states that “institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” In other words, organizations, like parasites, must be careful not to destroy the very problems they were designed to solve, lest they find themselves without purpose or resources.
It can be easy to point out the Shirky Principle in action. For example, you don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to notice that defense contractors quite enjoy it when there’s a war going on. Police officers need crime. Personal trainers need you to stay unfit. In short, it’s bad business to make yourself redundant.