The earth is covered in ecosystems, each a complex natural relationship between the plants, animals, microorganisms and their natural environment. Wetlands, rainforests, prairies and ponds … regardless of the type of environment, in all healthy, biodiverse ecosystems each living organism is interconnected.
When ecosystems function as a unit they maintain balance in all these relationships, are healthy and sustainable. When they do not – or when some external force throws them out of balance – they suffer, and sometimes die.
It is the same in business. Whether you recognize it or not, your company has its own natural ecosystem.
Consider the oyster: oyster reefs once covered more than 220,000 acres of the Hudson River estuary in New York Harbor. They were valuable participants in their ecosystem. One oyster filters over 50 gallons of water a day and they (and their shells) provide a habitat for other marine species. (They are also delicious, but that’s another subject entirely.)
Over time, oysters in New York harbor became functionally extinct due to over-harvesting, pollution and dredging. The result? “The absence of oysters has impaired our estuary’s ability to clean the water and absorb excess nitrogen; the loss of reefs has reduced protective habitat, destabilized the sea floor and left our shoreline vulnerable to destructive wave action,” reports the researchers at The Billion Oyster Project who are working to restore oysters to their rightful place in harbor’s ecology.
Now consider your own ecosystem: your company’s culture. A business culture is no less complex and fragile. Small changes can throw it out of balance and some changes can happen slowly over time and be almost imperceptible to the naked eye, like growing pollution in the water. Even overuse of strengths can do great harm, as NY found as they over-harvested their oysters. Company cultures are like ecosystems in one other important way: each is unique, with a different balance necessary for every culture and different solutions needed when things go awry.
To ensure you maintain a healthy and sustainable Cultural Ecosystem, be intentional and don’t leave it to chance.
Follow these five steps:
1. Explore – consider why your Cultural Ecosystem exists, and what makes it different from others. Natural ecosystems just ‘are’ but business ecosystems are built (albeit sometimes unconsciously). What is your company’s purpose? What are you here to do? Why are you unique? By understanding your company’s purpose, mission, vision and values you will be able to gauge whether the ecosystem is working in healthy ways to realize this purpose, or is being thwarted.
2. Study – dedicate time to observe your ecosystem and understand how it works. What are the complex natural relationships that exist within it? What does proper bio-diversity look like to achieve health in your organization? How do the different people, systems and processes work together to keep it healthy?
3. Assess – evaluate your culture’s health, scientifically and objectively. Examine (or if necessary, introduce) opinion surveys, look at retention numbers and exit interview data. Interview employees and leaders at all levels to understand the culture and determine what is producing results, and what is getting in the way. How have the things you have introduced – like HR policies, compensation and recognition programs or organization design changes – impacted your ecosystem? Where are behaviors or dysfunctions damaging it?
4. Balance – take steps to put the ecosystem back in balance. Use what you have learned to seek support from your leadership team to create real change, for themselves and their teams. Commit to making changes in people, programs and process and be discipled about enforcing your purpose and values. Don’t be reluctant to make bold changes.
5. Protect – devote resources (both human and otherwise) to be responsible for protecting the ecosystem, and give them permission to sound the call when something is out of balance. Be vigilant and continuously explore your ecosystem to monitor its health. At least yearly, pledge to follow these steps – study, assess, balance and protect – to maintain a healthy Cultural Ecosystem.
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Haley Boehning is a principal at Storyforge. Building on 20+ years driving change and creating alignment for Fortune 500 clients, non-profits and start-ups, Haley has developed a pragmatic approach to change through storytelling, developing relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages and targeted communications strategies that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.