Is your Culture a  Body or a Machine? Part 1


Car problems are not something I enjoy. Last year a suspected spark plug problem turned into something more serious. And expensive! I had to take the car to a mechanic and, after a few attempts, they sorted it out. 

While my wallet felt the pain, it was clear what needed doing and the impact our action would have. A step by step process to analyse the problem and then solve it.

But what happens when we approach our workplace culture in the same way? Analyse all the parts at a point in time (annual engagement surveys and ratings anyone? Don’t get me started).  We plan the step by step process to “fix ” the problem. Tell a bunch of people what they need to do.  Then wonder why nothing changes or it gets worse. 

Culture is made up of a complex web of interactions. It’s a complex system and we’re treating it like a stable, ordered system. Like a machine. See Dave Snowden‘s work on complex adaptive systems if you want to dive deeper into this.

What are some of the elements that make culture complex? For a start, it’s alive! It’s made up of people that are moving, changing and growing.  There are trends and patterns but it’s never completely predictable. No interaction is the same as the next.  

The things we try may have unintended consequences because there is so much we don’t know… and can’t know.

So how might you positively impact the workplace culture you’re in? If machines are an unhelpful metaphor, let’s think of how you would treat your body.

From time to time we try to make our bodies “better”. We intervene through prevention, cure or optimisation. Our interventions focus on interactions between the many parts rather than the parts themselves. Exercise, for example, focuses on the interaction between muscles, blood flow etc. 

In our culture we focus on the interactions between people. And the interactions between people and things. How are people connecting with each other? How is work done? How are we communicating?

A good place to start is to observe the behaviours that are at play. Which ones illicit positive responses? Maybe that’s a signal of what to encourage and try more of. 

When we intervene we start with small actions that help us learn most about the culture. Why? To reduce the impact of unintended consequences and gain confidence for what to try next.  

So, what are some small behaviours you’ve observed that you could do more of that might grow your culture to best support business strategy?

There’s a lot more I can say on this but I like to keep the read time around 2 minutes. We’ll have ‘part 2’ in few weeks. Let me know your thoughts on the ‘body’ metaphor.

In the meantime, let’s not treat our culture like something that we can pick a part, fix a piece and put it back together again. It’s not a machine. It’s living, exciting and brimming with untapped potential. 

I work with teams and organisations to help them grow a culture that unlocks the strengths and potential of what they have already. Please reach out to understand what that would look like in your workplace.

Doug Maarschalk guides workplace teams to become more ‘human’ by growing a culture of contribution, learning and empowerment. He is a facilitator, consultant and coach who helps teams get clear on their strategy and change their thinking to become high performing. He’s worked with clients in the horticulture, banking, logistics and manufacture sectors along with local government. Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.

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