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Cultural Clues: Who Is Watering The Plants?

Office Plant
Image Credit: © vege – #149241625

As business analysts and practitioners of strategic change, we probably all find ourselves ‘parachuted’ into new organisational situations from time to time.  Whether we are working with a new client, business unit, team or department, there is a need to get up to speed with the domain and the culture quickly.  In these situations it’s important to learn as much as we can about the organisational situation—whether that’s through document analysis, ad-hoc conversations or other more formal analysis techniques.  Yet understanding organisational culture can be much harder, but it is crucial that we try to do so.


A thorough understanding of culture can only really be achieved through spending time in the organisational environment, but there are sometimes signs that can be useful indicators of cultural norms.  It is almost like our stakeholders leave a trail of clues for us to follow.  And that might even start by looking at the office plants…


Looking for Cultural Clues

This probably sounds crazy, right?  What can office plants tell you about the corporate culture? Well, whilst they certainly won’t tell us anything conclusive, they potentially provide some very useful hints.  Imagine the following situation:  the facilities management for a large office is outsourced.  The cleaning staff that used to water the plants are no longer part of the team, and the new contract cleaning staff are given a strict ‘checklist’ that they are not allowed to deviate from.  Unfortunately, whoever specified the cleaning checklist was not aware that the cleaning staff also watered the plants….


Over time the plants start to droop.  People in the office start to notice—and then, at some point, somebody has to make a conscious decision.  Yet the types of decisions that will be taken will be—to some extent—shaped by the culture of the teams.  There are many possible outcomes, but two short-term outcomes are:


1. Each plant is ‘adopted’ by someone nearby who waters them, whilst working out a longer-term approach for other plants in the building

2. The plants are ignored, and droop further


We could draw some potentially useful inferences from these scenarios.  In scenario (a) there is an element of pride in surroundings, ownership and taking responsibility for problems even if they are outside of an immediate job specification.   In scenario (b) people are willingly watching plants die in front of them and—for whatever reason—don’t feel able or compelled to take action.  There will be a reason behind this—perhaps they have too much work, are not supported by their managers, or perhaps there is a strict, tall hierarchy and doing anything that isn’t within a job specification is frowned upon. Or perhaps it is another reason. It would be useful for us to probe further and find out more.


Even if we know little about the organisation, signs like drooping, brown, dying plants will help us ask questions.  They are useful indicators of potential cultural habits—although it is important that we see them as indicators to prompt our attention—to be used alongside a range of other techniques.  Yet when ‘parachuted in’ all of this insight, including the level of attention to things as seemingly irrelevant as plants, can help us achieve a richer understanding.


If we find ourselves in an organisation where the staff willingly let the plants die around them (because there are either too overworked to do so, or feel it’s ‘not their job’ to water them), this is a potential indicator that we might find that we are in an organisation where work is stockpiled in backlogs, where teams have strict delineations and if a customer demand doesn’t fit the specification then it is shunted between teams until it goes away.  This would be a very different culture to one where people felt empowered to tactically solve problem whilst looking for longer term solutions.


Of course, it’s not just about plants there are many other useful clues that we can observe.   Whether it’s out of date posters on a notice board, phones left ringing, rubbish left in meeting rooms or overflowing drip trays on water-coolers, all act as useful indicators.  All of this is all an approximation—culture is a tricky thing to read.  But there are clues all around us, and it is worth looking out for them!


What are your views on the topics in this post? Do you have any tips, perspectives or anything to add?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.   Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing! 

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About the author:

Adrian ReedAdrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

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