Organizational Culture and the Law of Evolution

As I mentioned in my previous article on Entropy and Employee Engagement, I have been reading the book “Management from the Masters” by Morgan Witzel where he has looked through history at what he terms Universal “laws”. This is the second in a series of articles trying to apply these laws to the area of employee engagement and organizational culture.

The second law that Witzel talks about (from the perspective of a Universal Law) is that of Darwin’s Rule, or as we commonly know it, the law of evolution (at least most of us think of it that way barring the creationists). According to this law all living beings evolve in order to survive in the environment in which they have been placed. 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 those beings that 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 even extinct and the dinosaurs would probably have still been lording it over the earth.

Organizational culture is also a living, breathing organism on its own. As mentioned in the previous column, the law of entropy or Time’s Arrow states that all things move towards a state of disorder and decay. This is also particularly true of organizational 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 organization’s culture, evolve and adapt with the changing environment.

Organizations 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, the superstars of the organization), tend to slowly leave the organization. As the exodus proceeds, it actually gathers momentum of its own and becomes even faster leaving behind an organization that is a hollow shell of its former self.

If this seems like a doomsday scenario, it is not necessarily that infrequent an occurance in the real world. On the other hand, organizational 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 recognized the need to diversify the group’s activities and to make it a truly multinational organization and succeeded spectacularly eventually.

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