Organizational Culture and the Built Environment

For any given organization, culture is the essence of success, failure, growth, and decline. Interestingly, all four of those forces occur at roughly the same time.

Essentially, the way any individual or group of individuals contributes to the well being of an organization is in how they add value. How they add that value, the processes, beliefs, and actions that surround their daily functions becomes that “cultural fabric” that guides and affirms their actions.

How can something so natural and supportive be at the same time so caustic and limiting?  

Simply put, we’re habitual beings – we rely on what’s know as “context dependent cognition.” We make decision based on the current situation and past performance. In the sports world, it’s the notion that “practice makes perfect” that causes the athlete to excel and affords [his] opponent a predictable pattern to observe and then use in defeating [him].

In business, it’s not much different. We become proficient and eventually profitable in some market segment, and then we find that honing our skills and attention to that success somehow made us unable to respond to new threats, opportunities, and ideas.

What made us successful in the past is now causing our demise.

We begin to hire based on “sure bets” and best value, we enact procedures that ensure continuing predictability and we optimize and reap the benefits.

What we’ve slowly done is to simultaneously reduce the diversity, the rich thoughts, the broad perspectives, and all other things “risky.” Risk becomes the enemy and therein signals the beginning of the end.

Creativity and innovation while still present, take on a far different face. They begin to look more like an incremental improvement of something and less a game-changing breakthrough that established you in the marketplace to begin with.

Things surrounding our worlds begin to attune their particular behavior to this maturing perspective as well. Our relationships, our mentoring, the things we pay attention to, truths we share, the way we solve problems all begin to show a changing color.

The things we as an organization choose to remember and rely upon tend to err on the side of internal metrics rather than true market reflection of value. Our processes become a little less flexible and far more stable. Our understanding of position becomes clear and the reverence we display for it becomes more acute.

Our employees and the very spaces we inhabit begin to reflect the persistent drive towards perfection, predictability, and process improvements.

The single largest physical artifact of any organization is its real estate.  

  • Study ancient Greece and you see a reflection of mathematical values in her architecture.
  • Study a long house in Indonesia and you’ll see the communal values of her people reflected in those living arrangements.
  • Study a creative company in North America and you’ll see reflected in its architecture the need for communicating and germinating new ideas with a sense of urgency and passion that literally covers the walls.
  • Study a mature company in the same nation; one that’s in a shrinking market and refusing to address the need for change and you’ll see a physical and social architecture that is efficient and effective by definition but one that is clinically dying.

This relationship and reflection between organizational values and the physical environment surrounding those lives is a fascinating and powerful force. We both place meaning into and draw meaning from that environment.   We then reinforce our values by what we experience and in kind embed our memory back into the same. Disrupt that balance in the physical environment and confusion ensues; disrupt it greatly and you break a sacred trust.

That breaking point is the point of change, of transformation.  

Change is always difficult and the only way to truly innovate is to try something different but as agents of habitual practice we are both impaired and uniquely capable of overcoming and adapting, yet without prior reference to guide our response we tend to fill in the blank with any past mental model handy.

How we’re informed and supported through that time of change makes the difference between successful and coherent cultural transformation and another poorly understood and poorly executed plan.

Changing the environment as a way to underscore the “new way to add value” is one small and yet important piece in a large and complex puzzle. Change it with sensitivity to the way people make sense of their particular organization and you have two powerful allies that are well positioned to help your organization grow into “the next great thing.”

David Fik

David Fik is a Senior Strategist with the Ideation Group, located in Holland, Michigan. He researches how buildings affect and reflect the characteristics of the people that inhabit them and how best that effect can be aligned with business goals.

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