People + Environment = Culture

Organizational Chemistry

It’s possible that in college you took an organic chemistry class. It’s possible you took business management classes and perhaps if you were lucky a leadership or entrepreneurship class. However, no one has taken an organizational chemistry class – because there aren’t organizational chemistry classes available. There’s no degree in the understanding of the make up and structure of organizations. Instead we struggle with experts who are trying to express how they believe organizations work and how to improve performance.

The challenge came when I was writing my review for Creativity, Inc. and I wanted to refer to a solid post that could crystalize what culture is – and what its components are. I was quickly taken aback when I realized I had never talked about it at any level of depth. I looked through my notes from the books I’ve read and couldn’t find anyone who articulated what composed culture. When I looked for public blog posts and web sites I couldn’t find anything there either.

Culture is all around us. We don’t see it. We can’t taste it. We simply don’t know it’s there. That’s part of what makes it difficult to describe. We take it for granted that it exists – just like the air we’re breathing.

Before I could create the more comprehensive analogy I started with a simple division into two main parts – two parts that made up the culture of an organization.

Components of Culture

When most folks speak about culture they’re talking about some amorphous animal that they can’t put their finger on. It seems to have been created by the mystic forces that created life out of nothingness. However, in truth there are only two components to culture. They’re two components like hydrogen and oxygen forming water. These two components are: people and environment.

Jim Collins in his book Good to Great implores us to “get the right people on the bus” as a starting point for the journey to greatness. Books like Who: The “A” Method for Hiring attempt to teach you how to get the right people. Bill Hybels speaks about hiring from the perspective of character, competency, and chemistry. An industry has developed – and redeveloped – itself around matching organizations and the right people.

People are, however, volatile. That is, they’re constantly changing at both a micro level and at a macro level. Perhaps they had a fight with their spouse on their way to the office this morning. Perhaps they took a course in Karate or Judo and have learned better emotional control. (See Emotional Intelligence for more on emotional control and Primal Leadership for using it in leadership.) The experiences the people in the organization – through the culture – can give feedback and change the person. (This leads to a wicked problem – for more on that see Dialogue Mapping.)

More than that people are more than the sum of persons. People form relationships and groups and teams. Richard Hackman talks about the importance and structure of forming effective teams in Collaborative Intelligence. Morten Hansen discusses the pitfalls of getting groups together in Collaboration. Robert Putnam describes how culturally we’ve changed from group members to isolated individualists in Bowling Alone. Chris Lowney focuses on improving the world through personal responsibility in Heroic Leadership.

Environment is everything that you do to structure the people that you have. It’s the policies, hierarchies, forms, buildings, and procedures that make up the environment of your organization. John Kotter talks about organizational change in The Heart of Change, Leading Change and how to get buy-in for your ideas in Buy-In. Patrick Lencioni focuses on creating and communicating clarity in The Advantage.

While I firmly believe in this as a basic model for understanding the components of culture it fails to capture the richness of feedback loops and different kinds of relationships. For that I needed a powerful analogy that could stand up to review from multiple dimensions. That took me back to my high-school years and how I learned chemistry.

The Unifying Analogy

What I realized is that having an organizing analogy that described how organizations are formed, how they work, and how they break down would be immensely helpful as a way to organize the concepts as I read different leaders describe their experiences and different pundits push their thoughts.

Ultimately, I began to see organizations like I see chemistry. Chemistry is rich with situations analogous to organizations. Let’s start by the formation of molecules.

Men, Women, and Molecules

Inside every organization your basic building block is people. While it’s cliché to say that people are the most important resource in an organization, it’s certainly true that without people there would be no organization. There’s no way to have a company where no people are involved. So at the most basic level every organization has people. Every molecule begins with a set of atoms.

Molecules are held together by bonds between the atoms. There are in fact several different kinds of bonds. That is that two atoms can have a different relationships with each other just like different people have different relationships with one another. You may have a great relationship with one of your sisters but barely any relationship with another sister. The relationship you have with your parents is different than the relationship that you have with your friends.

If we start with an oxygen molecule – which is two oxygen atoms hanging on to each other like a couple who get married to share their experience of the world. There’s a special bond of marriage that joins them – unlike any other kind of bond that humans have.

However, there are all sorts of relationships – bonds – between people. Folks who have gone to college together have a bond around their college time. People who work together have a bond around their shared employment. People in the same department have a stronger bond.

All organizations are built on people – but they get interesting based on the relationships (bonds) that those people have with one another.

Disruptive Changes

Bonds between people are in a constant state of flux. There are times when people – even a married couple – are closer to one another and times when they’re further apart. Over the short term there may be minor differences in the relationships. In the long term it is possible for relationships to drift closer together or further apart. In general, however, the changes in relationships are largely driven by external factors – and most of the time those external factors are people.

Let’s take a look at water. It is two hydrogen atoms connected to an oxygen atom in a “Mickey Mouse ears” type orientation. We’re all familiar with water and the fact that it’s essential to life. However, the introduction of another oxygen atom in the molecule changes the chemical formula from H2O to H2O2 and radically changes the way that the molecule behaves. H2O2 is Hydrogen peroxide which has radically different properties from water as anyone who has tried to turn their hair blonde can attest.

The Structure of Relationships

If you look at organizations as simply a set of people joined in relationship you might believe that every organization is created the same. At some level this is true. Every organization needs to address the same issues and therefore most have functions like accounting and human resources. However, at a different level organizations have their own unique structure. In some organizations, where marketing is critical to the success of the organization, there is a chief marketing officer. However, in other organizations, like a chemical manufacturer they’re more likely to have a chief chemist than a chief marketing officer. The organization itself controls the key people that are needed.

However, even in organizations that have the same makeup there are differences. As a consultant I’ve seen organizations that are driven by their legal departments, their procurement departments, product development departments, and so on. They have the same components as other organizations – but the relationships and power of those components are different.

In chemistry you can have the same chemical formula – that is the same number of the same types of atoms – but a radically different structure. In chemistry these formulas with different structures are called isomers. Neither structure is better – or worse than the other – but they are different. Consider that the chemical formula C3H8O is the formula for both alcohol and isopropyl alcohol. They have very different uses, a slightly different structure, but are the same chemical formula. More confusing, however, is Methoxyethane which is an ether – that is that it can be used to subdue someone. Same formula – different structure.

A Group of Dissimilar Parts

Organizations are not, however, homogeneous. The accounting department and the sales department are made up of people with radically different personalities. The departments themselves are different. They make up different kinds of molecules. These molecules come together in the organization as a compound.

Chemical compounds can take on different characteristics than any of the individual molecules. Consider an epoxy which is made up of two interacting molecules. An epoxy provides strong adhesive, binding, and sealing qualities. While the individual chemicals remain separate they’re relatively inert. When placed together they quickly form their bond.

Organizations need the differences between departments to form together to perform the larger purpose. No half of an epoxy is more important than the other. In fact both are required to be functional.

Explaining Radical Behavior

Chemistry also offers up two different dimensions under which reactions behave differently. The easiest to look at corresponds to organizational pressure. When an organization is in a state of low competition, it tends to stagnate. Things freeze into place and it becomes difficult to get the organization to change. During normal operations things are relatively fluid – though not completely able to be changed. During times of crisis due to changing economies, market competition, or threat of bankruptcy, the rules seem to bend instantly to allow for innovations to try to help save the organization.

Viewed from the chemical lens this makes sense. When there’s a low amount of thermal energy things tend to settle down into a solid state. With a normal amount of energy the molecules are liquid. They can move freely – but not without friction. In high states of energy the molecules are gaseous and therefore move around with relatively little friction. This explains why countries need to break up monopolies – to spur innovation and get things moving. They’ve got to “turn up the heat” on the situation. The organization of AT&T behaved very differently as a monopoly than it did after its break up.

However, there’s also another important way that organizations can be shaped – and that has a relationship to chemistry. That is the willingness to change. This is certainly influenced by the belief that the organization needs to change – as expressed as the heat or pressure that the organization is under. However, there’s a separate willingness to change that transcends the temperature of the organization.

In chemistry there’s the concept of Ph. We’re all familiar with litmus paper that changes color based on the Ph of a liquid and with the concept that some things like orange juice are acidic. Acids have a low Ph. In chemistry what this really means is that the number of electrons floating around is lower than it should be naturally given the atoms involved. In other words, there aren’t any (or are few) free-radical electrons to mix things up. Most chemical reactions only take place inside of a specific Ph range. If you’re outside of that range the reaction won’t ever happen.

Organizations who have stripped themselves of the “trouble makers”, those who “rock the boat”, and those who “challenge the status quo” may find that they’ve deprived themselves of the very things that they need to be able to grow and change. This is why one of the things that often happens when an organization is under threat of bankruptcy is that the president of the organization is replaced – and replaced with someone who is willing to disrupt things to turn the organization around.

Catalytic Consultants

Another interesting thing about the transformation of organizations is how they can be accelerated through the introduction of the catalyst. In chemistry a catalyst accelerates a reaction without becoming bound up in it. When the right molecules are present, the catalyst can make the reaction happen much faster than would be possible without the catalyst – even if the heat is turned up.

In organizational chemistry, consultants are the catalyst. They can bring ideas and techniques from other organizations and industries to the organization – quickly. I’ve spent most of my professional career as a consultant and my clients can tell you how the solutions that we co-created are radically different than anything they could have conceived on their own – much less created.