There has been a something bubbling under the surface with me for some time now. I wanted to ruminate on it a bit before I actually put it on the blog. The reason is that it is confronting by nature to how the majority of western business thinking has developed and is currently focused. It is based on organizational culture – How we approach it. How we measure it. How we develop it en masse.

We love to take ideas and figure them out. We want to see what makes them tick and what is the best solution for these ideas or problems. We then usually package them – and often monetize them – so they are structured to be used as this plug and play mechanism meant to replicate a desired solution. Many times they are presented as complicated, and occasionally complex, and so the solution is facilitated by a professional who has been certified through an 8 week certification course.  In other words, we take something dynamic and chaotic and present it as linear and complicated (or perhaps complex at most). No offense to anyone who has a certificate that had an 8 week course. More of a sarcastic rant than passing judgment.

Chaos TheoryBecause of the increased attention organizational culture is getting these days, it is beginning to fall victim to this mentality and approach. According to Chaos Theory (a mathematical field of study), its main premise is gaining understanding of the “behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions“. This is nearly a definition of organizational culture in its most simplistic form.

The dynamic nature of culture is what makes it intrinsically chaotic. To simplify the chaotic nature of culture is to ignore its very essence and, being “highly sensitive to initial conditions”, to set the stage for failure – or a less than desired result. There are drivers of culture, and they do have a linear aspect to them. However, the nearly infinite possible combinations of human behavior, leadership styles, organizational needs and individual professional goals make it impossible to create some linear solution that fits in a box, has some catchy nomenclature and can be generically mass produced in companies across the globe (or across the street for that matter).

I know this isn’t my usual “here are 4 tips to make things better” type of post. I believe challenging people to pause and become aware of this is the best thing for the betterment of organizational culture efforts that I can do right now. I have spoken with a number of professionals, whom I highly respect, and the overall undertone and current studies that are taking place are trying to craft and develop a linear solution to create a chaotic system solution. Not going to happen.

The more important thing to recognize is that there are processes that accommodate the chaotic nature of dynamic systems. Documenting that process: what worked, what didn’t work, why it worked, why it didn’t work, etc. is much more effective in describing and defining the process. Applying a process that is sensitive to and permissive of the existence of chaos is much more effective than any static plug and play mechanism.

So, to stick to my writing style a bit…here are some suggestions to stay away from linear cultural “solutions”.

  • Embrace the dynamism – Dynamic anything is usually slightly abstract and a bit of a challenge to fully get your head around it. Live with that creative tension. Embrace the unique qualities of organizational culture. Its fluidity is what keeps it flexible. The moment it is forced to be linear, it becomes rigid and non-malleable.
  • Stop looking for a magic bullet – We all know we shouldn’t do this, but when faced with the financial impact of something we tend to panic. We have our “jobs” to do and so we look for the fastest way to rectify the interruption so we can get back to our jobs. Our brains fall out of our head and we hop on the next magic bullet bandwagon we see. Culture is an every day part of whatever your job is. It is not an exclusionary element that only gets attention when it misbehaves.
  • Be wary of models – I just torqued off half of my colleagues, but this is important. Models are great for helping to understand concepts. We even have our own Organizational Atmosphere Model on the website. It’s not a solution, but a tool to facilitate understanding. Processes develop solutions. Models don’t. Models are typically static and well crafted processes have a higher likelihood of being more fluid…much like cultural systems.
  • Be a student of your chaos – Every organization has its quirks and nuances and that all influences the chaotic dynamic of culture. Know what that is. The drivers of culture are established. Use them as starting points to understand what makes the chaos of your organization special and unique. Gaining this awareness will help you to discover the best course of action to properly develop the culture that works best for your organization.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. I’m fairly certain I may have stepped on a few proverbial toes, but I think we are ready to begin stretching ourselves by understanding this more. What do you think?

  • Andreas Odhage

    William, love your post. This is a good one and I think you’re right on it. Your Organizational Atmosphere Model is brilliant and displays the linkage between leadership, culture and engagement in a very legible way. Thanx for sharing your wisdom.

  • Thanks for the kudos Andreas. I appreciate it and the feedback on the model!

  • Pingback: Culture Doesn’t Play Well With Business()

  • I see companies all the time who are chaotic but pretend they’re not. Processes are created to manage everything (and I like a good process) – but process cannot contain or keep up with cultural chaos. It takes a more dynamic approach (appreciate your language here) and the ability to see and know chaos. Thank you for your illuminating post!

  • Great points Achim. Processes should facilitate, not enclose. Thanks for your thoughts!!

  • Hi William,

    The only problem with using the idea of mathematical chaos is that culture, strictly speaking, isn’t chaotic.

    The term you are looking for is the idea of a “complex adaptive system”, still in the field of systems theory, but where nondeterminism, emergence and coherence are the most important concepts.

    Your advice is sound, but I do get a bee in my bonnet about the incorrect usage of chaos to describe systems 🙂

    I’m not sure why you’re dismissive of “complex” as a concept — it sounds like you’ve had a bad experience?

  • Hi Stephen and thanks for your comment. I wasn’t equating the chaotic nature of culture to the mathematical concept, simply as a point of reference. Culture is dynamic in nature because of the near infinite possible combinations of behavior from the players which contribute to its existence. The initial conditions set by leadership influence the behavior and this system is highly sensitive to the initial conditions (as well as changes). There are complex components within culture and adaptability is definitely one of those components, but my experience forces me to maintain my position that, as a system, culture is very much chaotic. I appreciate the bee in your bonnet, however I feel it may be a bit misplaced. I’m not dismissive of complex as a concept, I just find it not applicable in this context. No bad experience, just ample experience. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts!