Author: Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD
Early this summer I was minding my own business, shoveling mulch in my community garden plot, when a man came down the sidewalk and spoke to me across the fence. “Hello,” he hollered, as though we were old friends. He gave me a small tray of pepper seedlings and a bag of assorted seeds. He wanted me to give him some mulch for his own potted plants at home. Learning that he would become my gardening neighbor the next season, as his name was on the waiting list for a plot, I agreed to fill up the plastic bag he brought with our community mulch.
While the man has not yet reappeared, the pepper plants live in my garden, and a few live on my apartment balcony. Some got planted in the large blue pot you see in this picture, with four or five gallons of good soil. I never managed to obtain more large pots and soil for the remaining seedlings, which, well, remain seedlings. You can see them in the small, dark green pot: pale and stunted.
I have never grown peppers before, so I did not know what to expect. In fact, the three well-nourished plants are nearly three feet tall and have three dozen buds that will grow into peppers. Those in the small green pot are 1/2 foot tall and, needless to say, will not be producing buds or peppers. For comparison, the peppers I grew in the community garden (not pictured) are one to 1 1/2 feet tall. I gave them all as much water as their soil could hold and plenty of sunshine.
Why such a difference? Did I pick the three healthiest plants to go in the large blue pot? Possibly, but that doesn’t seem to explain the huge difference. Is it the quality of soil? Or the quanity of soil? Something supported the innate potential in those three seedlings to grow vibrant and strong.
The stunning difference in outcomes made me think of how organizational culture is like soil. a healthy culture, organizational members can grow and thrive, and help the organization generate revenue and positive impact. They produce ideas which serve as seeds for an innovative future. While every organization needs a culture unique to its mission, purpose, history, context, and values, certain qualities are often present in the healthiest, most productive organizational cultures.
One key quality is the shared ability to use simple concepts to keep ourselves and our colleagues from falling into pitfalls, and conversely, to be constructive together. They are methods of tracking what is happening in a group so that we don’t run through the guardrails together by proceeding without questioning faulty assumptions. Or supporting each other by building on what others have said to create the strongest ideas and outcomes. It’s the shared understanding that we all bring gifts and goodwill to a process, even if it doesn’t look like it on the surface. Here’s an example:
Imagine you are in a meeting where one person (Sally) is being contentious. Most people are rolling their eyes, because they’ve heard it all before from Sally. Yet one person, Ahmed, seeks to understand Sally’s motivations, and asks, “what are you trying to protect?” Sally, who happens to be the Controller, says, “I am not against innovation and trying new things, and I want to protect the sound financial management which we have worked so hard to build. I don’t want to get in the way of progress, and I don’t want us to lose our sterling financial reputation.” Once this is out on the table, everyone relaxes and realizes that many had assumed that the financial management would be protected, but this had not been clear in their ideas or statements. Others hadn’t really thought about it. Together the group then explores how to keep necessary safeguards in place while allowing new space and possibilty for innovation.
This example highlights how one person can use a simple concept (e.g., that people who resist change may be trying to protect something that genuinely needs to be protected) to create a more positive outcome for all. No one simple concept or framework can serve in every circumstance, so it is good to know many of them. Likewise, no single person will be in the right frame of mind to step in and make this helpful inquiry all the time. So it’s good for many people to gain skill and confidence in making such inquiries. In fact, we can productively use such concepts with our own thoughts as well.
This kind of culture (e.g., soil) allows everyone to grow strong and productive, and provides helpful balance so that when exciting change is happening, what is good and valuable to the organization is not forgotten and lost. Indeed, positive tradition and innovative change can work synergistically to support growth that sustains over time, and avoids “overshoot and collapse,” which is painful and costly.
Opening Creativity, based in the Washington DC Metro Area, helps nonprofit organizations develop these kinds of healthy cultures with engagement of leaders and members so that the outcomes are their own, and not something designed or imposed from the outside. What people own, they will support. Please share this post with other nonprofit organizations who may benefit from these ideas. Contact Opening Creativity to learn how your nonprofit can strengthen its cultural soil and encourage its members to be as healthy and productive as those big pepper plants. Usually the investment of time and resources will pay for itself by re-engaging distracted or disgruntled staff members, reducing loss of resources due to unproductive tensions, building leadership capacity across the organization, and increasing revenue and impact through enhanced strategy, collaboration, and teamwork.