Bad Culture is Like a Forest Fire


Bad culture is like a forest fire. It’s destructive, extremely expensive to fight and recover from, causes fear, anxiety, stress, and can stall or completely arrest the growth of the community. Bad cultures can destroy strategy, increase operating costs, cause stress, destroy trust, and ultimately cause a company to fail. But the parallels don’t stop there. If you talk with someone in the forest industry (as I have) about forest fires, they tend to take a big inhale before launching into the discussion primarily because they are so complex, dangerous, and (in some cases) fires are necessary. The same thing seems to happen when you ask an OD professional about culture and for many of the same reasons.

Abundance of Fuel Through Mismanagement

One of the most frightening things about forest fires in recent years is the abundance of fuel that is simply waiting to ignite which makes the fires grow more quickly, burn more intensely, and make them much more difficult to fight. Much of the abundance is due to mismanagement and misunderstandings of how forests renew themselves and self-sustain. The same can be said about organizations in the past 20-30 years.

In the 1980s there was a huge economic boom with the rise of the “Baby Boomer” generation. 75 million strong in the US and in terms of economic history the first generation that saw both genders contributing to the workforce. The 80s were an era of huge prosperity and saw the emergence and growth of YUPpies (Young Urban Professionals.) These new and budding managers grew up fast, worked their ways to the top in an era of prosperity and growth, and became titans of industry. And they still lead many of organizations today. But like the mismanagement of the forest, failure to focus on sustainable growth has lead to a scattered undergrowth of managers with fewer developed skills, I am talking about the leadership gap. While not consciously so, this proliferous cadre of under-skilled managers has created a bed of fuel that is susceptible to spreading bad culture quickly and with greater intensity.

Changes in Climate and Heat

Larger global factors play into this as well. With forest fires, global climate change in the past 20-30 years has created hotter and drier summers. 6 of the 10 hottest summers since 1950 have occurred in the last 8 years.

Organizationally we have seen huge climate shifts as well. Generation X gave the US only half the working population (25-30 million) of the Baby Boomers. And much like water is the lifeblood for an ecosystem, people are the lifeblood of an organization. With less water Our talent pool has very effectively dried up. This effectively spreads too many people under ill-equipped managers. The ability to mitigate sparks and fires as they pop up get harder causing them to become unmanageable much faster.

The pressure of growth and global expansion for companies is another climate factor. In the wake of the Dot.com era where successes were made overnight, results and achievements are desired much faster. It’s notable that the average lifespan of a company today is only 15 years compared to 67 years in 1920. That is the heat. The business climate today is faster and successes expected sooner than ever before. Organizations are hurriedly developed with little thought to sustainability further adding to the dangers of a cultural fire.

Creating Your Own Bad Weather

Another very startling and scary element to a forest fire, especially large fires, is its ability to create its own weather or micro-climate. In effect, a forest fire can grow so hot and so fast, it literally creates weather that feeds its growth. It can generate lightening-riddled thunderheads with no precipitation, huge amounts of wind, more heat, and increased dryness.

Organizations do this too. Whether individuals are aware of it or not, they can feed the culture that they so wish to change. Take for example how a spark (revenue downturn, product launch failure, catastrophe, tsunami, etc.) sets in motion a culture of fear. So to protect ourselves from that fear we create controls, measurements, attention to details, so controlling that people start hiding information for fear of failure or exposure. Transparency becomes opaque, results trump integrity, speaking up becomes perilous. As people feel less informed, more cynical, and less a part of the process they become more fearful of what they are unaware of…so they introduce more policies, more reviews, more measurements, and so on. The micro-climate starts to feed the culture.

Prevention v  Sustainability

Another element of forest mismanagement that is similar to organizational behavior is the short-term vs long-term policy. In the early 20th century a forest management strategy was enacted to stop forest fires as soon as possible. It was highly effective and average forest fire size saw its lowest levels in the 1950s-1980s. Then the long-term game showed up and 8 of the 9 largest fire seasons have occurred in the last 12 years. The undeniable fact is, forest fires play a necessary part of renewal and sustainability. And creating a policy that only focuses on the immediate term sets the stage for large-scale tragedy.

When organizations manage from quarter to quarter and make decisions based off short-term data or events rather than trends, bad things happen to culture. The climate and environment are built around policies that focus on protection not sustainability. The concern then becomes how manageable will a cultural fire be when (not if) a negative event (revenue shortfall, product failure, see above) occurs. These negative events, just like forest fires are impetus for renewal, a chance to learn, grow, and sustain. Viewed in a long-term sustainability perspective, these negative events can make company cultures stronger; viewed negatively as something that needs to avoided at all costs, sets the climate for a cultural forest fire.

Learning from Science (and our mistakes)

Over the past decade, fire management policy has taken a radical turn in strategy and focus. Small fires that pose little or no threat to human life or large structural loss are regarded as part of the natural cycle and allowed to occur within manageable limits. In areas where there are large amounts of fuel and dead trees, forest manicuring and mitigation is occurring, and long-term sustainability has become the focus.

Organizational science has evolved as well. Glimmers of these evolved strategies have proven successful. Google and Apple (two companies wildly lauded for their positive culture and huge business successes) do things that run counter to short-term protectionist policy. They embrace failure, see them as a part of organizational sustainability and create shelters for people who voice concerns, try new things and make mistakes. And while Wall Street blood pressures may raise and fall with each day, the small and sometimes even large-scale negative events do not produce knee-jerk measures from these cultural and global leaders. In essence, these companies have chosen very intently to NOT feed the fires and have created climates that allow the smaller “fires” to burn when it serves the greater good. This is not to say the smaller “fires” are not monitored and extinguished when they become a greater threat, but they are not instantly tamped out at the first sign of smoke.

Creating Healthier Forests

You can “clean” your organizational environment much in the same way a forest ecosystems is manicured. Part of the strategy is creating healthier “emergents.” Provide your new and burgeoning leaders and talent with the training they need to create trust, remove fear, and increase reasonable risk taking. Either coach existing leaders to be healthier contributors to the environment or remove them from your organization. Step 1 is about building a safe environment by removing the fuel before it ignites.

Step 2 is about climate control. Encourage policies that protect risk takers, people who question, and endeavors that tried mightily but failed. Focus on long-term sustainability rather than quarterly forecasts. Be honest and transparent when people make errors, we learn from them, and move on. Show people mistakes happen and it is safe for them to try new things. Focus on the growth and health sustainability of the organization not the prevention of negative events. Less control, more observation. Learn from organizational science and create climates and environments where people and projects that fail are regarded as a part of the renewal process instead of something that needs to be prevented, controlled, and overly managed.

And should a large cultural forest fire spring up, don’t feed it with fear, protective measures, and reactive policy making. Face it, fight it (bring in the air support and “hotshots” if you need to), then recover. (more on how to fight cultural fires in my next post!)

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One thought on “Bad Culture is Like a Forest Fire

  1. Pingback: Dealing with Culture Fires | Peak Alignment

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