When I ask the executives I work with: “How plastic is your organization?” I’m met with a mixture of blank looks and responses that relate to their environmental or sustainability policy. But plasticity in organizational terms, and based on cognitive science, is the adaptability, efficiency and structural resilience of a business.
A large business, when you stop to think about it, has a lot in common with the human brain. Complex networks interconnect the different parts and functions and ensure the free flow of information, ideas and operations. The pre-frontal cortex, which I like to call the CEO of the brain, predicts and plans for the future. Whilst the senior management team must (like the brain’s cerebellum) pivot pro-actively, keeping the business moving in a way that ensures it can thrive. This article is the first in what will be a series of posts about Organisational Plasticity and Epi-Cultures.
I’d like to begin by explaining a few core concepts that sit within the larger metaphor, asking you to ponder a few questions that relate to each of them.
In the brain: A fatty coating that insulates the axons of neurons – the ‘wires’ that connect neurons to other neurons via synapses. This essential sheath strengthens and protects your neural connections, speeding communication along different pathways in the brain.
In a business: Future-proofing measures to factor-in changes that are ahead and ensure an organization remains agile. Clarity of goals, vision, mission and purpose all act as myelinating factors, helping keep an organization’s decision making on track, avoiding distractions and navigating potential pitfalls or side-tracks.
In the brain: Strengthening connections between existing neurons through repetition of desired behaviors.
In a business: The quality of your business-critical relationships. This is supported by the procedures, checks and balances that keep your business running smoothly, including management style, HR policy and organizational chain-of-command. When this is done well, the payoff is good relationships between teams, and between the business and key stakeholders, as well as customers, where communication flows both ways throughout the organization. Healthy organizations foster upward feedback as well as downward management just as brain pathways move information in both directions. An organization that is thriving in this way will foster high levels of trust and excitement as higher levels of the bonding hormone oxytocin are free to flourish. This flow happens when the supporting factors are in place and research shows that organizations with high levels of oxytocin are more innovative.
In the brain: The growth of embryonic neurons that connect up with existing neurons to strengthen existing pathways and build new pathways.
In a business: Innovation in all its forms.
Innovation is most likely to flourish in an environment where risk-taking is supported, even if it leads to failure. Mistakes should be learned from and the desire to improve and innovate should be celebrated. Where a blame-culture takes hold, ‘lack’ thinking kicks in, where team members only see what might go wrong, and may miss exciting opportunities or ideas out of a subconscious desire to stay safe.
In the brain: This describes the influence of the environment on the expression of your genes, and the impact of this on a range of behaviors and measures of mental and physical wellbeing.
In a business: In the same way, an active lifestyle and regular meditation will reduce your risk of depression, dementia and diabetes, so your workplace culture impacts on the future direction of your business.
There is always room for improvement when it comes to the Epi-Cultureã of a business. I ask my clients:
- What does your organization need to stop doing?
- What should it continue doing that it does well?
- What should your organization start doing that it isn’t doing already?
Asking these fundamental questions to key stakeholders across the business should provide rich food for thought, and action – firing up your organization’s neurons!