The Importance of a Balanced Internal Environment
“Nothing is more critical to the survival and independence of an organism – be they elephant or protozoa – than the maintenance of a constant internal environment.” wrote famed neurologist and author Oliver Sacks in a 2015 essay entitled A General Feeling of Disorder.
I believe we can confidently extend his illustrative examples of organisms beyond elephants and protozoa to organizations as well, which after all, share the same root word.
I’m sure we have all seen from direct experience that the internal environment of an organization often determines its ability to achieve and sustain success. Yet very little meaningful effort is expended on addressing issues in that environment. There is a vague sense that it is important and often the word “culture” is used to address this sense.
“Culture” however is too amorphous and ill-fitting a concept to enable a meaningful understanding of the internal environment. The word “culture has a variety of interpretations:
Some too superficial (foosball tables in break rooms or bagel Fridays)
Some merely vapidly descriptive (lists of values printed on coffee cups or corporate tchotchkes)
Still others pejorative, used to connote the “too soft” foil to a bottom line results orientation
All of these interpretations treat the internal environment, described as culture, as a topic separate from performance, results, and the “real work” of an organization. Thus, efforts to meaningfully address the internal environment rarely move beyond executive lip service. Yet properly understood, the internal environment determines performance and results and is integral to the “real work.”
Further in the same 2015 essay, Sacks uses a migraine as an example of when the internal environment is out of balance. He points out, “They are not associated with any tissue damage or trauma or infection. Migraines therefore provide the essential features of being ill without actual illness.” Yet patients during the onset of a migraine can be completely debilitated and unable to perform even the simplest activity.
Here too, the analogy to organizations applies. An organization may have no defect in its structures or in the quality of its talent, there may be no ineffectiveness in its processes, yet if the internal environment is out of balance it will still be unable to execute and achieve its goals.
It will exhibit the essential features of operational problems in the absence of any such problems.
A structured examination of the dynamics that comprise the internal environment is the only way to restore the balance essential to success.