In my front yard, a beautiful flowering vine grows. Each spring, it peaks out of the ground and within weeks, it covers a section of a flowerbed. Unfortunately, without proper direction and intentional scaffolding, it overshadows other plants, which experience stunted growth and premature death. The laws of gravity do not have mercy on the covered plants as the unattended vine continues its horizontal crawl. Unintentional damage and destruction take place not because the vine intends to do so. Rather, it is a by-product of growth and a lack of care by the gardener (me).
As any gardener knows, a vine will grow wherever it has a support. If there is no intentionality to its growth, it will quickly overtake an area. The best and healthiest option for all plants, vine included, is to insert a lattice. The lattice acts as a structured platform for the vine growth. No longer will it overshadow and kill off other plants. No longer will it grow out of control and overtake a flowerbed. The lattice is essential for the vine’s healthy growth, the flowerbed’s pleasing look, and the survival of surrounding plants. What happens, though, when the vine outgrows the lattice? Well, the gardener will either need to prune the vine, insert a larger or additional lattice, or let the vine take over the bed.
What a fantastic metaphor for organizational and cultural health! Now, before digging too deep into this subject, I must forewarn that all metaphors have weaknesses. I am not trying to define every part of a flowerbed and liken it to an organizational aspect. For purposes of this post, I want to liken...
- …the vine to an organization’s culture;
- …the lattice to an organization’s structures (e.g.—processes, procedures, policies, practices); and
- …the gardener to an organization’s leaders.
The Vine: Organizational Culture
Just like the vine, cultures exist and grow. Cultures are not fabricated entities. Rather, they are what an organization is. If an organizational culture is characterized by integrity, its people will live out integrity-driven decision-making and living. If an organizational culture is characterized by fear, its people will live in fear and react accordingly. Cultures exist, good or bad no matter how/when an organization grows or retracts. Cultures grow, healthily or unhealthily, depending upon what its’ people perceive the organization to be. When an organization grows, leaders must guard who they are as an organization and promote healthy cultural growth. If they do not, an unhealthy culture emerges.
Whether it is a clematis or wisteria, the plant is what it is with or without the name. The name helps to identify the plant and know how to care for it. Similarly, organizational cultures exist with or without names. Organizations develop mission, vision, and value statements to not only identify the culture but also determine what they want it to be. When the mission, vision, and values do not properly capture the true culture, disconnection and disengagement occurs. Yes, a disconnected mission, vision, and values can cast a compelling future state of being, but without proper structures and leadership, it will not come to fruition.
The Lattice: Organizational Structures
Every organization needs structures to provide clarity, direction, and purpose as well as minimize confusion. Great leaders understand when to add new structures as it is easy to over or underdo them. Too much structure at the wrong time leads to unnecessary bureaucracy, and it slows the needed speed of business. Too little structure, and people experience constant confusion leading to mistrust and missed opportunities. The key is to have the right structure(s) at the right time. Structures play a key role in upholding and strengthening an organization’s culture. Nurturing and tending to one’s culture takes place in part by being intentional with the right structures.
What do I mean by “structures?” Here are some examples: new reporting structures, formalized and purposeful recognition programs, defined job descriptions, SOPs, purposeful meetings, cascading messages from leadership, leadership development for new managers/leaders, updated handbooks and related policies and procedures. It is important to know what structures need implemented, tweaked, or tossed given the size of the organization. More importantly, and often overlooked, structures need to find connectedness to the organization’s culture and a determination must be made to see if the structures promote a vibrant and healthy culture.
The Gardener: Organizational Leaders
Healthy organizations have leaders who intentionally guard and nurture its culture. They hire people who embrace who they are (i.e.—mission, vision, values). They “prune” away people, who poison the culture. They remove old structures and add new ones to promote sustainable growth. They monitor key indicators to determine the organization’s well-being. Great leaders do these things at the right time and communicate what they do in the right way. Great leaders tell stories to reinforce their culture, and they tell them often! Do not be surprised if you hear the same stories over and over and over again. Great leaders do this! Just like a gardener, leaders see the possibilities of the vine/culture, and they do everything in their power to keep it healthy, vibrant, and strong.
What about poor gardeners and leaders? Well, they neglect the vine/culture. They let it run wild, and they deal with the inevitable chaos in quick and short-lasting bursts of “weeding,” “hacking,” and “replanting.” Such efforts look good for a short time, but they are not sustainable, and the underlying problems remain.
Any organization, which is growing, faces many challenges. Often, culture and processes are forgotten in the mix. When leaders do not keep these top of mind, dire consequences occur. To minimize this risk, organizations should consider the following:
- Review the current mission, vision, and values. Do they properly capture the culture of the organization, or are they outdated words? Do they provide a compelling future-oriented outlook for who the organization is and what it wants to become?
- Audit and update key processes. Do the current job descriptions capture what people should be doing? Does the current organizational structure and chart reflect what is needed?
- Ensure recognition, rewards, compensation, and benefit programs support and further the organization’s mission, vision, and values. If the mission, vision, and values truly reflect the organization’s culture, the aforementioned tools should act as reinforcing tools and accelerates to strengthen it.
- Get the right people in the right seats on the bus. Are the right leaders in place? Are there some people, who can no longer keep up with the current demands? With growth comes change, and this can be painful when reviewing, who should be in what position. However, it is vital. In the end, teams are stronger and people are happier.
Just like the gardener, organizational leaders must tend to their vine (culture). So, go out and put that green thumb to work!