Unlike the vacations depicted in the movies by National Lampoon, my recent two-week hiatus was restful and enjoyable.  But it also produced for me a moment of important insight about the way we respond to change in our organizations.

Our family stayed in a log cabin – no telephone, no television, thank you – in a remote area of the Appalachian mountains, which gave us the chance to re-establish close bonds and a greater appreciation for each other – all worn thin after many months of hectic urban, work, and school lives.

We also experienced our natural environment in its most direct form of contact, as we walked on steep mountain trails, hiked down ravines ruggedly carved by fast-flowing creeks, and explored our way through countless acres of tree-covered slopes.

Each turn in our path was met with a “wow!” or “neat!” or “What’s that?!”  There were no moments of boredom – a snake slithering into the leaves, just inches away from our surprised 7-year old daughter; a scarlet tanager’s brilliant red body contrasted against a dark tree limb; the incredible amount of wood chips left by at least one hyperactive beaver.

And questions!  “Was this piece of flint also an arrowhead?” wondered our son.  “Where does coal come from?”  “What happens to the creek if it rains real hard?”   “What makes a rapid?”

Like a naturalist, we allowed our senses to take in all that surrounded us.   And like a naturalist, we ended each day with profound appreciation and better understanding of our environment.

The organizational insight

We were constantly encountering something new, something full of wonder.  But all of this was happening because we had become, somehow, more receptive to such cues.

Perhaps the insight came to me during one of our walks.  Maybe it was during one of my quiet, reflective moments in our cabin.  Or it might have been a result of all these experiences combined.

I noticed that when we took the time to act like naturalists and observe our natural surroundings, the more we understood and enjoyed what it has to offer.

And it occurred to me that we don’t do enough of this, if at all, in our own organizations.  We tend to desensitize ourselves to the point where we no longer observe or have direct contact with the signals of change present in our work environment.

In the world of work, it’s easy to ignore events which, by themselves, are often fascinating.  We become immune to the surprise and elation that follow the discovery of something we didn’t know or realize before.  Too often, our preoccupation with action and results drowns out the very cues we should observe in order to adapt and remain effective.

Perhaps, I concluded, we all have an occasional need to become an Organizational Naturalist —

  • One who keenly observes what’s happening in our work environment.
  • One who devotes time simply to studying our organization as events happen – just as a naturalist sits and observes an animal in its habitat, unaware itself that it is being watched.
  • One who exhibits boundless curiosity: wonders about things, asks questions, experiments just to learn how things work and why things happen.

Finding calm amidst turbulence

This new role, it seems to me, encourages us to have more direct contact with the events and forces that really affect our organization’s performance.  It is a more natural way to understand and respond to cues of change, at the time they actually happen.

And just as a dedicated naturalist can sit unperturbed in the midst of a storm, the role of organizational naturalist provides a framework for staying focused and maintaining a sense of calm, even during times of chaotic change.

Ironically, it is the very nature of this calm that keeps you attentive to the change and makes you more receptive  to exploring new options.

Characteristics of an Organizational Naturalist

Besides the traits mentioned above, what else might describe an Organizational Naturalist?  You might see someone in this role:

  • Stress the relatedness, the interconnectedness, of everything that makes up the organization; recognize that everything is a part of a larger whole (or system).
  • Display patience in order to let the full story of the change unfold.
  • Expand the use of all senses in order to gain a better  intuition for change.
  • Pay more attention to things other people tend to overlook.
  • Be resourceful – learn to use what is given to you by your environment
  • Accept risk of failure as part of the process that leads to innovation and organization improvement;
  • Regard new learnings about the organization and its work environment as tentative;
  • Employ inquiry thinking skills to develop hypotheses and learn to draw generalizations useful in adapting to change;
  • Discover patterns (the new “laws of nature”) as they emerge from the various events and phenomena that occur in a work environment;
  • Take the time to wander, or roam, through the work environment [take occasional “organizational hikes”; visit other units, customers, vendors, competitors, etc.];
  • Test; to gather data to support the decisions; to make certain assumptions are valid;
  • Keep a journal or notebook or electronic database to record ideas, discoveries, observations, and generalizations.

A forgotten, but instinctive, skill

You’ve been a naturalist – of some sort – all your life; it is part of your inborn process of learning and developing as a human.

But few organizations support or take advantage of this kind of innate learning by discovery.  Rather, they set up barriers which prevent people from noticing things outside the immediate job; they discourage experimenting; they invariably choose activity over pausing for reflective thought.

There is little wonder, then, that people may not quickly or easily adopt a role of Organizational Naturalist –  for many, the skills have been dormant too long.  But take  an opportunity to use inquiry thinking, and you’ll quickly  re-acquire these skills and feel at home with them.

Copyright 2015,  Wargo-Brock,  Columbus OH