Category Archives: Organizational Effectiveness

A few thoughts on organizational culture.


Culture is the way we create solutions to shared problems.

Consider how human groups have evolved over the millennia.  Bands of individuals find themselves repeatedly faced with common problems – how to communicate, how to divide labor, how to show respect for one another.  Each group chooses to solve these problems in its own way.  And these unique combinations of beliefs and behaviors become the defining elements of human cultures.

At the organizational level, we can view culture in a similar way.  Organizational culture evolves as its members find solutions to everyday problems.  How do we interact with one another?  How do we best serve our customers?   How do we prioritize our time?

Your organization has a culture, whether you’re conscious of it or not.

Your people have been asking and answering these kinds of questions since day one, and in doing so, have established what is expected and accepted within your organization.

The big question, then, is how is this culture driving behavior that serves your mission?

Is it making your organization more effective or is it dragging you down?


Revised from original post – June 22, 2013


Combating a culture of scarcity.

Water drop in glass by Nick Kean

Growing up poor, I understand the scarcity mentality.  Never having enough money makes you view the world in a particular way.  There’s the sense of impermanence – what you have today likely won’t be there tomorrow.  The constant fear of upheaval.  Learning not to expect much.  Decision-fatigue.  You hear stories of hardship making you stronger, and maybe that’s true, but mostly it makes you anxious and unsettled, even when things are good.

The same is true in an organization.  An atmosphere of scarcity leads to an underdeveloped infrastructure and undervalued employees.  It also creates limiting behaviors across your team.  Scarcity makes people risk-averse.  It teaches them to protect what they have.  To fear failure.  And these are not characteristics you want in your team.  You want your team focused on what they CAN do, not on what they don’t have.  Your team needs the confidence to try new things, to risk failure, to shoot for crazy goals.  Without that, you’re not going to get the results you need as a manager.

So how do you combat a culture of scarcity?  You probably don’t have control over resource allocation decisions at an organizational level.  But you can have an impact on how your team responds to their situation.

Start with yourself and recognize when you use scarcity language.  Stop talking only about what you lack and focus on articulating what is possible.  The “Yes, and…” technique is amazing for reframing your language and opening up creative possibilities.  Share your grand vision and set bold goals.

We often respond to a sense of scarcity by assuming we need more help.  Have you ever been on a team that didn’t feel overworked?  I haven’t.  We always assume that if we could just hire one more person – maybe an admin to pick up all the little tasks that bog us down – we could get on top of it.  But work expands to fit the number of people there are to do it.  So look for efficiencies within your current head count.  Perhaps it’s training on time management.  Or a workflow analysis to highlight non-value-added activities.  Find the person on your team with the most effective approach to a process and then share that out.  Encourage your team to learn from each other to foster a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment.

A scarcity mentality is fed by a lack of information.  Human nature tends toward worst-case scenario thinking.  When we don’t have all the details about a given situation, we fill in the blanks from our imagination.  Or from past experience – Last time we fell short of quarterly numbers, there was a layoff.  So this time, the same thing will happen.  Avoid this by creating a culture of transparency and share as much information as you can with your staff.  You may not control all the decisions that affect your team but you can earn their trust and respect by being a resource and an ally.


How about you?  How have you experienced a culture of scarcity?


(Photo by Nick Kean via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)


My Best Possible Workplace

green grasses

I am surrounded by organic textures and natural light.  The space is modern, open, and well-maintained.  The design reflects our organization’s core values and there are visible reminders of our shared mission.

My personal workspace is comfortable, and the tools I need are readily accessible and in good repair.  I am able to interact with those around me, while still having a private space for deep work and thoughtful downtime.  I am surrounded by things that inspire me.

Community areas are flexible, offering distinct spaces for private conversation, casual interaction and team engagement.  The atmosphere is professional but relaxed.  I am proud to welcome visitors.

This is my vision of my best possible workplace.

What is yours?


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(Photo by jinterwas via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)


What HGTV has taught me about creating a great place to work.

pink post it

Yes, your HGTV addiction is a management tool.  It can help you turn your office into an inspiring and functional workplace that makes your employees like coming to work.

Here’s how:

Have a Clear Focal Point.  If you’re a fan of just about any of the home makeover programs, you know that the biggest crime a room can commit is not having a focal point.  The focal point is the place the eye goes first, the spot where people gravitate, the central element that defines the space.  In the home, this is usually a fireplace.  Sadly, in the office, it’s usually the copy machine.

What should the office focal point be?  It really depends on your organization.  Maybe it’s the inspirational view outside the window.  Or maybe it’s your central meeting area.  Or your system for tracking performance metrics.  Maybe it’s a visual representation of your mission. (I love this open plan office at charity: water with the vibrant photos of the people they serve.)  Whatever you choose as your focal point, it’s the heart of your design.  It should represent the culture and vision of your organization.

Create an Open Floor Plan.  Tune in to House Hunters or House Hunters International and you quickly learn that the one thing everyone is looking is an “open floor plan”.  Chopped up, closed off rooms are out.  The great room is in.  Why?  Because it promotes interaction.  (And, as every house hunter points out, it’s “great for entertaining”.)  Thus, the open floor plan is a must in real estate.  And it defines the modern office as well.

But…as an introvert, I know that open concept can be very draining. So to make it comfortable and functional for everyone, you need to have defined areas for different types of interaction. Create activity zones (a la the ubiquitous “conversation area” beloved by all designers). Allow your team to choose what they need at a particular time, whether it’s a space for focused, individual work, a comfortable spot for a one-on-one, or a flexible room for group brainstorming.

Keep it Updated.  Every HGTV fan knows that the kiss of death for any design is to look “dated”.  Brass fixtures, tiled countertops, shag carpeting.  No sale.  Why?  Because no one wants to live in a time capsule.  But more importantly, it’s a red flag that other, non-cosmetic, maintenance has been neglected as well.

It’s the same in your office.  Giving the workplace a face lift every now and then indicates that your organization invests in its employees, cares about their needs, and wants them to feel that work is a nice place to be.  A can of paint, some fresh art on the walls and decent technology can go a long way.


(Photo by theilr via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)


Are you making space for your introverts?

cube land

I love the idea of an open-plan workspace.  No walls, no barriers to communication.  Total synergy, total creativity.  But then there is the reality of an open-plan workspace. Noise. Chaos. People constantly up in my grill. Trying to get something done in this environment drives me absolutely bonkers.

Welcome to the world of the introvert.

Although we often think of the introvert as shy and the extrovert as outgoing, the difference really lies in how individuals manage their energy, how they refuel and recharge. Introverts are most comfortable exploring ideas internally and they recharge by being alone. They live inside their head and they like to think through problems before acting. Extroverts are drawn to activity, interacting with and drawing energy from lots of different people. They learn by doing and enjoy “thinking out loud”.

As a manager, you likely have a mix of introverts and extroverts on your team, and all to varying degrees. And you probably don’t have a lot of design control as far as office architecture goes. (If you do, you can create an environment like this.) But there are many ways to insure that your introverts have the space they need, both physically and mentally.

Allow individual or small group projects. Introverts aren’t sociopaths; they like people. But they may find working with large groups draining. Working in smaller groups will allow them to be at their best.

Utilize a variety of meeting formats. Introverts prefer the structure of presentations and formal meetings, where the conversational flow is controlled.  The free-for-all of traditional brainstorming sessions can be frustrating for introverts.  They also like to have a planSo utilize calendars, create agendas and allow time for preparation.

Let them speak. If you’re an extrovert, make sure you’re allowing an introvert to participate in the conversation. They think before speaking, so curb your need to jump in until they’ve had time to contribute. Schedule plenty of one-on-ones and include discussion of ideas, not just tasks and projects.

Respect the cube. When people are in their cubes, treat it as a no-fly zone. As an introvert, I despise the “drop-by”. At home, nothing sets me on edge more than an unannounced visit, when I’m in the middle of a project, my hair is a mess and toys are strewn everywhere. It’s the same in the workplace. Call first. (And we’ll screen you. But get over it.)

Allow and encourage use of headphones. If you have an open-plan layout, headphones are the universal “Do Not Disturb” sign.

Acknowledge that inspiration and creativity don’t only happen in high-stimulation environments.
We tend to idealize these types of environments in modern workplaces, the same way we idealize the extrovert as the creative leader. Introverts are great information processors and excel at connecting ideas. They just need some low-stimulation space to do it in.


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Assessing your organizational culture? Start by looking around.


(Photo by Sonny Abesamis via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)


Assessing your organizational culture? Start by looking around.


Observing the office around you can be quite telling. Try these prompts to get you started.

Picture your staff’s individual workstations. What do they all have in common?
Is every desk covered in personal photos and other mementos? Techie toys and gadgets? Or is it all neat, tidy and nothing but business?

It’s lunch time on an average weekday. Where are your staff?
Is everyone out grabbing a bite together? Meeting in a conference room for a brown bag learning session? Or are they all hunched over a Cup-O-Noodles at their desks?

It’s 5:30 pm on a Friday. Where are your staff?
Did everyone go their separate ways at 5:00 on the dot? Maybe they’re all at the corner bar for some team karaoke? Or are they still at their desks, with miles to go before they sleep?

(Photo by yoppy via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

Non-profits and the pitfalls of crappy technology.

old floppy disks

I’ve been thinking a lot about the need to address culture change at the process level.

While leaders often try to kick-start culture change with broad, company-wide initiatives, the reality of culture is in the processes and procedures of the day to day.  Individuals draw conclusions about what an organization values by observing work processes, evaluation systems and resource allocation decisions.  So as a leader, you have a much better chance of making meaningful change by focusing your attention on those things.

What does this have to do with the antiquated computers, piecemeal reporting systems and hand-me-down phone systems that are found in many non-profits?  I believe the lack of proper tools illustrates the culture of scarcity that pervades those organizations and can also be a first step in mitigating it.

As a former non-profit administrator, I am well aware that scarcity is a reality.  There are rarely enough funds to meet the community need, leaders are under pressure from funders to keep administrative costs unrealistically low, and the funds that are available are rightly prioritized for direct service.  I get all that.  But I also think that the scarcity mentality leads to complacency and the acceptance of a lower standard.

Team members need the proper tools and resources to do their jobs.  Ignoring this leads to a culture that undervalues employees while simultaneously expecting them to perform miracles.  Mission-driven organizations depend on the passion of committed employees and volunteers.  But passion only goes so far. Hit too many roadblocks in your daily work and eventually passion will burn out.

If you want to change your culture of scarcity, start at the most basic level.  Consider what tools would help your team do their job better and focus your attention there.  Is top-of-the-line hardware realistic, or even necessary?  Probably not.  But demonstrating to employees, even in small ways, that you care about making their jobs easier goes a long way.


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Are you meeting your team’s needs?