Monday, February 22, 2010

Evolution of a Work Culture

Company cultures do not develop with the familiar analyze-plan-direct process used for operational issues. They develop with an evolutionary process. An evolved work culture is good for people and excellent for business. Here are the principles of evolution.

What Is Evolution?

In its broadest sense evolution is change over time. In its more technical“ Darwinian" usage, biological evolution occurs when a genetic change spreads to large populations of a species, because it helps the species survive. In everyday usage we say “evolution” occurs in organisms, galaxies, languages, and politics.

Evolution Requires Adapting to the Environment

Billions of years ago when Earth's temperature dropped and the right chemicals were present, life emerged. Life was a response to a changed environment. Organisms became complex, in response to complex environments, eventually occupying every conceivable ecological niche.

Organisms survive when they are well adapted. If the environment changes and the organism does not change, it will die. Dinosaurs expired when a large meteor hit the Earth, dramatically changing the climate. You don't want this to happen to your company. As the Boy Scouts say, "Be Prepared."

Human Evolution

"Human evolution" has three common meanings.

  • Biological evolution that took us from early primates to modern man. Notable additions were the large brain, the upright gait, and the opposable thumb.
  • Personal development of the individual from childhood to adulthood, from relative simplicity to psychological complexity.
  • Social evolution with our highly developed communication and social skills. Outstanding among these are language and culture.
Company Evolution

A company culture evolves if it develops in a direction that is good for people, and good for business. The process mirrors biological evolution, where genetic changes survive because they are advantageous to the species. Similarly, desirable corporate changes are those that ensure the long-term survival of the company.

When people bring more of themselves to the task, the company will be more productive, profitable, and competitive. In evolutionary terms, this means the company will be stronger, more vital, more robust. When changes occur in the marketplace, the more evolved company will be more responsive and adaptable. It will thrive, while less developed companies falter.

A Well Developed Company Culture

Culture and personality are very similar. A well-developed company culture would be similar to a mature adult. It might be:

Open, secure, confident, responsible, empathetic, tolerant, self-aware, caring, engaged and engaging, trusting and trustable, productive, complex, self-directed, with actions based on a good and clear set of values.

A poorly developed company culture would be similar to a poorly developed person. For example it might be described as:

Impulsive, exploitive, aggressive, manipulative, blaming, fearful, controlling, dependent, retaliatory and having conceptual simplicity (e.g. sees things in black and white terms instead of shades of gray, or, blames a person instead of looking at the situation).

Evolution Is Not a Motivational Session

While seminars and motivational events may be part of a company's culture, such events will not change a work culture. There is no quick fix. Evolution is a long-term process of change, where desired characteristics are retained, and new ones encouraged.

Ironically, attempts to change the culture by directives or motivational events may actually move the culture backwards. Top-down actions reinforce the strong authoritarian qualities typical of most underdeveloped work cultures.

Evolution Is Unpredictable

At the start of the universe, who could have imagined life, people, or cultures? Evolution is certainly unpredictable, a real surprise. There are infinite ways:

  • the world could have evolved.
  • the day might turn out.
  • to be a mature person.
  • to become a well-developed company culture.

To illustrate unpredictability, let's say managers decide to open decisions to the participation of people affected. What happens is usually a surprise, e.g.

A group of engineers at a chemical plant made a presentation to a work crew about a new system they were planning to install in the crew’s area. Then they opened the meeting to questions. One of the long-term employees casually mentioned that a similar system was currently accessible if they modified the existing equipment’s supply pipes. Surprised at the new information, the engineers cancelled their proposed project, saving $85,000.

You might induce a work culture to evolve, but you cannot force a work culture to evolve.

Evolution Works With Opportunity, With Readiness, Never Against Resistance

Because evolution always occurs in response to the environment, it never works against resistance, only with opportunity. You might induce a work culture to evolve, but you cannot force a work culture to evolve. Leaders can induce a work culture to evolve by changing the cultural “force-field”. They can do this easily and simply, by changing how they lead. When leaders, show openness, trust, and participation in their actions, they change the work environment, and the culture evolves to better suit it.

Cultures Evolve Because People Want Them to Evolve

People want to be more productive, more involved, communicate better, and have stronger working relationships. There is a natural pressure for the company to move in that direction. When leaders show that they want the culture to evolve, people quickly join them. You might say that leadership's challenge is to get out of the way and let it happen.

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