You are not who you were 2 years ago: organisational identity

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You are not who you were 2 years ago: organisational identity

I remember watching a TED video of Richard Dawkins (I think) who said that the cells in our body are always replacing themselves, so much so that after about 18 years, our body has an entirely new set of cells. How’s that for a thought: I am not who I was 18 years ago!But surely I am? I am still Aiden, am I not?

Theseus shipThis is a big question for us as humans, but what about for the organisations and companies we lead and manage? Is our organisation the same one it was a few years back? Sure, it has the same name (maybe), and there’s been some personnel changes, but at its heart, does it still have the same identity?

I’ve found a story, Theseus’s paradox, that is very powerful and is a challenge to managers as they try to create sustainable and adaptable businesses (which I think is what we need to do in the face of the global economic meltdown) …

Theseus, the legendary king of Athens, is said to have just returned from one of his journeys during which he had slain the Minotaur. The thirty-oared ship, in which Theseus sailed with the youths, and came back safe, was kept by the Athenians up to the time of Demetrius Phalereus (about 400 years). The Athenians constantly removed the decayed part of the ship’s timbers, and renewed them with sound wood. In so doing, the ship remained and became an illustration to philosophers of the doctrine of growth and changes. Some argued that Theseus’ ship remained the same, and others, that it did not remain the same at all.

Apart from the metaphorical ship, there are also other analogies that pose the same question:

Locke’s socks

John Locke had a pair of favourite socks that repeatedly developed holes over several years. The holes were continuously patched to the extent that after several years of patching, the socks no longer had any of the original material left in them. Is it still the same pair of socks?

Grandfather’s old axe

Claimed to be an original axe, grandfather’s axe had it’s head and handle replaced with new items on three of four time respectively. Is it still the same axe?

These analogies could have you thinking in circles for a very long time. Here’s the crux though: in the face of the change we’re facing globally, how do you retain your organisational identity. Research shows that companies with clear and certain organisational identities are more resilient and adaptable to change. What is your organisational identity and how can you use it to shield your business from the dramatic effects of the economic meltdown?

Or, to put it another way …

What’s is your organisation’s Story? What is your corporate history and how do you draw resilience from that Story? More importantly, what “old timbers” will you be removing AND what “sound wood” will you replace them with?

Hat-tip to Professor Chris van Tonder at University of Johannesburg for the stories.

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