Cultural Wilderness

The only “sport” I’ve ever truly loved is hiking. Is hiking a sport? Probably not the way I do it, which includes naps and/or snacks at the summit. I started early – as an only child with working parents and access to acres of woods, I spent hours exploring nature and talking to myself. I hacked hiking paths and built secret forts. I don’t remember ever being lost – the trees in those woods were more familiar than the freckles on my face.
Living in Manhattan didn’t often afford me the same escape until I met my husband, Ed. He wasn’t such a nature buff then, but was easily cajoled into driving us out of the city and spending weekends tromping through the hills of New England. He grew to love the day long, many mile hikes as much as I do.
For the last ten years, nature is where we’ve discussed our future, brainstormed on our businesses and made plans. Recently, on a hike near Falls Lake, NC, I was telling Ed about recent client work – I was brought in to assess organizational culture and present recommendations on design. As I interviewed team members, it became clear that there were as many definitions of culture as there were employees. And, that many of the well-trod explanations they had heard didn’t connect emotionally to what most recognized as the energy of the place. So Ed and I made a metaphor. While in the woods. So meta.
Imagine the wilderness. Not the kind with designated picnic areas – we’ll get to that… The unspoiled, rugged, beautiful, immense kind. Maybe when you’ve seen it – dense, feral, uncultivated, it left you a bit short of breath.
The wild is full of, well, wild things. Critters know the efficient routes to travel to the places worth the journey. They traverse the forest floor toward food, water and shelter, trailing tiny imprints of their tiny feet.
Over time, these collected tracks create a disturbance in the landscape. Larger animals, perhaps hunting these tiny pioneers, follow their footsteps. The heavier beasts leave bigger tracks, broken brush, marking their treks. Paths form and are followed; they go to the places that need going and become solidified over time.
Then someone somewhere decides this forest should be a park. Paths made by animals are transformed into trails blazed by humans. Large obstacles are cleared for the bipeds. Over time, small brush is tamped down and dies. Popularity increases, railroad ties are placed on either side of the trails, stone steps replace perilous drops, bridges cross streams.
The animals create new routes, their unofficial trails criss-cross the colorfully blazed hiking paths. Rangers are hired and a ranger station is built. Maps are drawn to identify notable sights and routes by which to see them.
Rules are written. Signs of enforcement are posted. More rangers are added to monitor the park, its infrastructure and visitors’ behavior.  Penalties are determined, fines are imposed. For everyone to enjoy the park, we must stay on the official trails, enjoy the chosen destinations, be out by sundown.
This evolution from wilderness to park is strikingly similar to how organizational culture forms. Those early paths are the informal ways of getting things done. As the system grows, new structure tames chaos, then becomes formalized and codified. Policies are written, goals agreed upon.
There must be a balance between establishment and exploration. Goals set in the early days – like the trail to the summit – formalized by the founders and followed by the first ten/hundred/thousand employees may need to be adapted as complexity increases. This notion holds true for every aspect of cultural evolution.
New members of the organization will bring diverse experience – with fresh perspective they will question accepted routes, test unmarked shortcuts and encourage new norms. Some innovations will become popular, some will create friction with the ways of the past. The frustration with organizational culture nearly always lives in the gap between the marked paths (stated) and the ways things are actually done (implicit).
A very wise person from my last company said “Before you go breaking processes in an organization, try to find out why they were created in the first place. There’s a good chance that they made sense at the time.” I’ve often reflected on his wisdom, particularly in transformation work where its tempting to diminish what has gone before as outdated or irrelevant.
As we design a cultural future, we attempt to harness opportunities in the present and cultivate value from the past. I often refer to this simple four block chart to help clients identify parse this idea. We fill in these boxes and, as a collective awareness of the culture emerges, decide what new trails to blaze. And, perhaps, which paths lead to places we no longer need to go…
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Cultural Wilderness

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