The organizational ecosystem

“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.” - John W. Gardner


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It happens all the time. Organizations change at exponential levels, sometimes too fast for their intact culture to meaningfully keep up with it. So it may bring out the worst because perhaps nothing looks the same as it did at the outset, or the reality is ultimately so different than the expectations.

The result? We begin to feel divided and not unified. We feel as though we are separate entities and not connected to the whole. We forget why we’re here. There is a certain quiet desperation in the company, although no one admits it. Certainly, no one wants to feel helpless, or have “golden handcuff” employees. We want our people to be invested and engaged.

Culture collision, such as in generational or diversity issues, is simply a red flag of sorts. It means that “the way things are done around here” isn’t working and something is trying to emerge in the organization. The impact? People grumble, issues fester, productivity declines, or worse, people leave.

Perhaps there has been an influx of new positions at the organization with role ambiguity or role nausea. Or there are new promotions to leadership positions to which a sincere ownership and leadership skill set is still lacking.

But what if a collision of cultures is the wake up call for the organization to take a closer look? A chance to keep our organization fresh and relevant?

In my experience, organizations that experience culture collisions in their ecosystem have a rare and wonderful opportunity. If they do it right, they can use the ecosystem to have real dialogue, planning and action about the present and future of the company. It is a good thing and an indicator of emerging sustainability.

Underlying this dialogue is also an assumption that we want to be on the same page. We have the organization’s best interests in mind – and we want to remain part of it as it grows.

Although we can’t force systemic change overnight, we can certainly begin somewhere. Consider these ideas to get started:

1. Acknowledge the system. It has a collective presence and wisdom. It has a personality and ways of operating that serve, and ways that don’t. Simply name and acknowledge all of it.

2. Gather a meaningful group. These are your people who, when together, could represent the organization as a whole. Begin with a small group to have dialogue on meaningful and sometimes sticky topics.

3. Courageously ask. Choose to gather your evidence and data – as objectively as you can. Choose to value others’ thought processes and do not dismiss them if they are not the same as yours. Hard to do, admittedly; you can’t pretend here. Notice your thoughts before each encounter. How are you holding the opportunity to have real dialogue? Is it objective? Can you hold it in a learning place (rather than judging)?

4. Listen in. This is also about you. Let your intuition inform you at the deepest level about your organization. Go outside. Get quiet. Choose to be away from daily distractions so you can really listen to know what you already know.

This is just the beginning. The real roll-up-your-sleeves work with the team happens with compiling the research and presenting it company-wide in a systematic and meaningful way.

For example, one organization began with its leadership team to get a sense of their collective belief systems and thought processes. Then they created meaningful actions to take from there. Another organization found that telling the company’s story was a great way to bring people together. Stories from the tradition-holders to the mid-level managers to new partners to new hires formed what the organization was today and gave it a good sense of their history and their future.

The culture collision itself is just the signal that something is trying to happen in the organization’s ecosystem. Then it’s simply a matter of courage.

Trinnie Houghton is a partner and executive and organizational coach with Sojourn Partners, Bedford. She can be reached at trinnie@sojournpartners.com.

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