Organisational culture and the law of evolution

This post first appeared in DNA India on September, 14th, 2017.

Morgan Witzel, in his book “Management from the Masters”, has looked through history at what he terms Universal ‘laws’.

The second law that Witzel talks about is that of Darwin’s Rule, or as we commonly know it, the law of evolution. According to this law, all living beings evolve in order to survive in the environment they have been placed in. A common misconception, as Witzel points out, is that this law implies that only the strong and powerful can survive. Rather, what this law suggests is that beings which are able to best adapt to the situation and the circumstances survive. If only the strong and powerful survived, we would still have been living amongst the trees or may have gone extinct and the dinosaurs would probably have been lording it over the earth.

Organisational culture is also a living, breathing organism on its own. The law of entropy or arrow of time states that all things move towards a state of disorder and decay. This is also particularly true of organisational culture.

However, from the perspective of Darwin’s rule, it is never the case that only the “best” culture survives. What happens is that over time, the people, ideas, thoughts and processes that together form an organisation’s culture, evolve and adapt to the changing environment.

Organisations in which the culture has markedly “deteriorated” over time are a particular case in point. As leadership weakens and ideas and thoughts atrophy, people try and find ways to survive in an increasingly hostile environment. This results in processes getting adapted to deal with the changed circumstances.

Since things evolve towards the survival of the fittest (note again, the fittest in dealing with a particular situation or environment, not necessarily the best), only people who can deal with such an environment tend to hang on. Others who are ill-equipped to deal with a rapidly deteriorating situation (and these most often do involve the best and the brightest of the organisation), tend to slowly leave the organisation. As the exodus proceeds, it actually gathers a momentum of its own and becomes even faster leaving behind an organisation that is a hollow shell of its former self.

It may seem like a doomsday scenario, but it is not that infrequent an occurrence in the real world.

On the other hand, organisational culture can evolve towards a more positive direction. Witzel provides an example of the Tata Group in the early 80s when JRD Tata, the legendary Tata Group head, was old and failing. The group had lost its effervescence and the advent of a dynamic young Ratan Tata to head the group gave it fresh life.

Ratan Tata recognised the need to diversify the group’s activities and make it a truly multinational organisation, and succeeded spectacularly.

Similarly, culture can be revived and can evolve away from its current state provided the leadership at the top aligns the organisational culture with its vision and values.