One of the things that many people don’t know about me is that at one point in my life I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. That’s right – a neurosurgeon.  When I first enrolled at the University of Rochester, I declared a Bio major as the first step to going Pre-med.  I was completely enthralled with how the brain works and to this day, I still am.  Unfortunately, freshman year chemistry put a rapid end to my dreams of being a doctor.  As a result, I ended up taking every single class of interest and ended up with a completely accidental (and completely on purpose) Psychology degree.

And thus began the rest of my career.

However, over the years, I’ve still dabbled in biology, especially the study of human development.  I’ve considered getting a PhD for fun, and have particular interest in Fielding’s Human and Organizational Behavior program, which brings me to the point of this post.

Organizations are just organized groups of people.  As people develop, so does the organization.  It’s why our business works.  People understand that in order to grow the company, you have to grow the people.

Examining the connection between human and organizational development got me thinking… how do we breathe life into an organization?  Are their similarities between human life and organizational life?

What it Means to Breathe Life into an Organization

Let’s take a look at the criteria for being considered “alive:”

“Life: the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.” 

How do we keep organizations alive?  Development, Reproduction, Functional Activity, Continual Change.

Let’s tackle each in more detail.

Development: Living organisms don’t start out the same way they end up.  Think of a tadpole.  Very different from a frog, no?  Organizations are no different.  As a matter of fact, I’ve often worked with organizationally aware leaders who use human development terminology to describe the corporate life form.

  • “We’ve been around for a long time. We’re past the mid-life crisis.  We know who we are, and chances are, were not going to change without a fight.”
  • “We’re an organization in our adolescence, and we’re acting like it. It’s time for us to mature our way of thinking.”
  • “This company could be thought of as pre-pubescent. We’re primed for huge changes in how we operate.”

The stages of organizational development, the organizational life cycle, are strikingly similar to those of human beings.  We start out young and eager, hungry to learn everything we can about life and business.  We fall down, scratch our knees and get better.

Ask any entrepreneur if there were painful lessons at the beginning.  At some point, we think we know everything (just ask a teenager), and then realize we don’t (ask a 35-year-old).  Eventually we hit our stride as adults, the profitable years, and then begin to think about retirement, the corporate analog to succession planning.

Along the way we are faced with challenges, victories and losses, and how we respond to those is determined by our human experience of being alive, in business and by our corporate culture.

When you think about it, the development of a person and the development of an organization walk hand in hand.

Reproduction: Living things reproduce.  They survive more than one generation.  They find a mate, and decide to bear young.  Leaders do the same thing in companies.  They band together, and determine that it is time to hire new talent, to prepare the high potentials for leadership, or to transfer human capital (otherwise known as corporate genetic material) to the next generation.

Companies who don’t reproduce have one of two fates: they either become extinct, or they evolve into something new and different than what they set out to be.  The language of reproduction finds its way into our conversations as well.

  • “We’ve been through multiple generations of leaders at this point, our identity is strong and we need a way to reproduce that identity for the next generation of up-and-comers.”
  • “We need to preserve who we are as we turn over the reins to the next level leaders.”

How are you going to pass the company, and your team, on to the next generation?

Functional Activity:  This one is a fairly straightforward parallel.  Living things have different centers of activity that keep them going and support life.  Like departments in organizations, every system has a function and with it, a specific set of activities for which it is accountable.

A breakdown in the system results in inefficiency and sometimes death.  For example, a human body needs a system for producing energy (metabolism), just as a corporation needs a sales system.  A human body needs a way to distribute that energy (circulation), just as a corporation needs a way to spread the wealth internally (finance and accounting).

Here’s the great part. In order for a life form to exist, all “Departments” have to work well together.  Ring a bell?  Enter collaboration, teambuilding, cross-functional events, interdepartmental mentoring programs, job rotations and the scores of other things that companies put in place to ensure their internal systems are in sync and providing feedback to each other.  When a human body short circuits, and systems stop talking to each other and a stay in ICU is in your future – the same is true for your company.

Change: From caveman to modern man, people, and all life forms change.  To fail to change it to fail to be alive.  It’s inevitable.  Some people like it and some don’t.  It’s no wonder that some organizations like it and some don’t.  History has shown that the companies that fail to change based upon the market (in biological terms, adapt to the environment) die.  Look at Kodak, Firestone, and Lycos.  Each failed to respond to the changing demands of their customers and lo and behold, where are they now?  Either completely extinct or on the endangered species list.

Business is as Life

It has often been said that the organizations that can change the fastest are the ones that will survive.  Even the word “survive” has a connection to life.  Charles Darwin proved to us that “only the fittest survive”, and the same is true for your corporate life.  Navigating change is a multi-billion dollar industry ranging from Corporate Innovation Consultants to Change Management certification programs.

As leaders, how do you ensure survival?  How do you breathe life into your organization?

Focus on the elements of life.  Develop people, systems and processes.  Identify the next generation and reproduce on purpose.  Keep your teams out of ICU by ensuring that your functional activities are well defined and highly collaborative.  And finally, you have to respond quickly to change.

Easy enough?  Right?  The good news is that very few organisms live in isolation.  Need support?  We’re here to help. Click HERE  to set up a time to speak with us directly.

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