Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Organizational Civilization

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Being civilized is commonly used to refer to a high state of refinement, but what really matters, what allows you to call one place or culture civilized and another uncivilized? Can one organization be deemed as civilized while another is deemed less so or uncivilized?

I just got back from a vacation in the Adirondack Mountains. The Adirondack’s, a Vermont-sized piece of real estate with a mix of public and private lands, from the standpoint of how nice the accommodations are can be described as a bit uneven. At one extreme you can rent your own private island on one of the spectacular lakes that along with luxurious “rustic” accommodations comes complete with a chef, boathouse, boatman, guide and will set you back in the mid 5-figures+ for a week. At the other end of the spectrum you can rent a cabin without running water or electricity, that may or may not have a bowed roofline that can cause anxious moments as you drift off to sleep regarding the likelihood of the place collapsing around you during the night. Most people, as we did, of course rent something in between those two extremes.

Our small cabin was built in the early 1900’s. At some point electricity was added as was running water. Later on a modernish bathroom was added off the front porch. In order to get to the bathroom you had to pass through the front porch (and a few spider webs). Heat in the uninsulated cabin was provided by a fireplace and air-conditioning consisted of windows. The galley kitchen had appliances dating back to the 1940’s-1950. At night we made use of a sleeping porch, a fairly common approach to sleeping in the mountains during the summer. It is essentially a screened outdoor porch with a bed. No television. No phone. No cell phone reception. No computer hookup or Wi-Fi. Isolated. Rustic. Uncivilized? 

Our living room consisted of a couch and a couple of chairs huddled around the fireplace. In one corner of the room was a piano which to my ear was well-tuned. In the adjacent corner bookshelves were filled with every manner of books (some likely left by previous renters as I found one to be a vile work of bigotry from the 1920’s). In another corner was a writing desk for penning notes to those left at home with an inkwell and quill pen. (The nearest post office was about 20 miles away).  A globe rested nearby on a pedestal. The globe reflected some long ago country names such as Siam, Dutch East Indies, and Persia.

The sleeping porch, in addition to the bed had a table and rocking chairs scattered around. It had a screen door leading outside that bounced shut as you let it go, no real barrier to any creature that wanted to get in. But at night as you drifted off to sleep you could hear the loons calling in the distance from the lake. In the morning the alarm clock consisted of a chorus of gifted song birds that seemed thrilled by the vision of the sun creeping over the edge of the lake and needed to sing about that wonderful sight. On a few mornings the temperature dipped in the low 50s, giving a pretty good reason to stay comfortably buried under the covers, yet a steaming cup of tea or coffee made on the 1940’s stove has never tasted quite as good as when consumed in the chilly cabin as the early morning sunlight begins streaming through the windows.

In the afternoon, after a day of hiking or canoeing, we would travel about ten miles or so to a soft ice cream shack that made one flavor a day. A big sign hung over the counter, “The flavor of the day has already been decided. What size would you like?” We got a schedule of flavors that were to be produced for the week we were there and Wednesday morning my daughter and I woke up raring to go for it was chocolate day (my wife preferred “mystery fruit day”. Uncivilized?

Amid all these rustic surroundings, I started to speculate regarding the nature of civilized vs. uncivilized organizations. What is the essence of an organization that will be successful? Does it have anything to do with its degree of refinement? Some organizations operate with a high degree of refinement, with rules and procedures in place, proper ways of doing things, forms to complete, approvals to be received, very buttoned up and proper. Other organizations operate with a much simpler approach, maybe an old-fashioned approach to procedures and policy; maybe they could be characterized as slightly uneven in their approach to things, lacking refinement. But you also have to wonder what the refined organizations with their policies and procedures, buttoned up practices have lost. Can they hear the call of the loons in the night through their sealed windows in their air conditioned offices? As we unrelentingly move our lifestyles to be more comfortable with modern conveniences and choices and we unrelentingly move our organizations to adopt more sophisticated approaches to how we get things done what do we lose, what do our organizations lose? Is there something to be gained by maintaining some of the old fashioned approach to getting things done, while adopting the best of modern practices?

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 9, 2009 at 8:00 am

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