Managing Culture

On September 5, 2016, in HRExaminer, John Sumser, by John Sumser

Eileen Cregg featured on HRExaminer

If you’ve been a reader for a while, you might recall Eileen Clegg as the visual thinker who minted the metaphor of extremophiles. Extremophiles are biological organisms that thrive in environmental extremes: near a lava flow, at the bottom of the ocean, for example. Eileen’s very useful notion is that we have and need extremophiles in our organizations, that they are a part of organizational culture.

This short piece emerged from a conversation with Eileen Clegg. If you’ve been a reader for a while, you might recall her as the visual thinker who minted the metaphor of extremophiles. Extremophiles are biological organisms that thrive in environmental extremes: near a lava flow, at the bottom of the ocean, at the top of the highest mountain, in the boundaries between the ocean and the land.

Eileen’s very useful notion is that we have and need extremophiles in our organizations, that they are a part of organizational culture.

Like all great organizational ideals, there is paradox in the notion that a culture can be controlled. Our definitions of culture have the pretense of the belief that we can adequately articulate what a culture is. While we are pretty sure we have them, there are no comprehensive definitions of culture.

In the absence of clarity about what it is, our efforts to control look like amateurish attempts to move the pinball machine without tilting it. Most attempts to manage culture focus on the ball rather than the table. Culture is the obstacle, the behavior of the ball is the goal.

Cultures are most certainly not a lockstep recipe for the sort of straight ahead, single focus productivity that drive the dreams and ambitions of elite corporate managers. They are more lyrical and surreal than that. Somehow, great cultures require both true believers and heretics, worker bees and queens, extremophiles and centrists.

When you straightjacket a culture by tightening its focus and self definition, you get the regimentation that makes military organizations work. That’s perfect if you are headed out on a death march or building a railroad. It’s kind of a bad idea if you want new ideas to flourish.

And still, culture is a creature of the status quo. It is the arena in which people with shared costumes and language compete and cooperate. They always draw a line between us and them. That may be the ultimate defining characteristic of a culture. It will always be more regimented than a group of individuals milling around.

So, there is a tension between culture and diversity. Like a pendulum, it swings between inclusion and exclusion but always comes to rest at the place where you can clearly tell who is in and who isn’t. Over time, the border between the two pulses and varies. In the moment, it is rather firm.

From a distance, the fact that we need extremophiles of all types is very, very obvious. In the day to day entanglements of life in the culture, things are not so easy. We need them, perhaps. We don’t want to be them. They make us uncomfortable.

That’s the paradox. In the big picture, we require difference. In the little picture, we hope it will go away.



 
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