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The secret recipe for organizational culture is no recipe

Organizational culture emerges from a variety of ingredients within your organization, and cookie-cutter approaches won’t get it right.

Written by: Eric J. McNulty

Imagine a chocolate chip cookie. Better yet, get one. Take a bite. Savor the flavor and texture. What makes a chocolate chip cookie so delicious? Save for the chocolate chips, most of the ingredients aren’t that appealing on their own. Few people reach for a big spoonful of flour to satisfy a craving. Other ingredients are not obvious except to bakers: salt, vanilla, baking soda. Yet each is essential to the final product.

This cookie exercise, first shown to me by leadership consultant Margaret Wheatley at a workshop, is an excellent (and delectable) demonstration of the emergent properties of a system: The whole has characteristics not found in any of the individual elements that comprise it. This point is helpful in beginning to explore organizational culture. To understand why a culture is either working or in need of repair, you have to understand the whole and the parts. Your organization’s culture emerges from the unique combination of your people, principles, policies, and practices — all of them — in your distinct operational context.

The events of the past year have many leaders concerned that the cookie is crumbling. Pandemic-induced disruption within workforces has seemed to weaken culture as a unifying organizational force. And because culture emerges, it is difficult to remedy this weakening or other ills by importing “best” practices from one organization to another — simply appropriating admirable principles or practices on innovation, for example, will not yield the same result, because the people and operating environment will be different. Thus, the cookie metaphor only takes us so far.

A cookie is a bounded and, once baked, static system. If you combine specific ingredients in precise amounts and prepare them according to exact directions, you will get a generally predictable result. By contrast, organizations are complex, adaptive systems. They are always in some state of flux as people come and go, investor and customer demands shift, technologies arise, and so on. This makes culture impossible to dictate from the top, and as a result, culture is less a matter of following a recipe than mastering the craft of baking so you spot challenges and opportunities early and are able to adapt. If you have ever seen the segments on cooking competition shows in which the contestants are given five random ingredients and told to create something wonderful on a deadline, you get the idea. There is no recipe, per se, though there is a method.

Here are five actions leaders can take to coax a beneficial culture out of the unique ingredients within your organization.

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