Let me give you an example… I have been working with a volunteer organization that wants to build trails. About a year ago, the group met with a state agency that manages both state parks and state forest. They were meeting with the state forest side of this organization. The whole group went to look at a proposed new section of trail. It became clear very quickly that the state agency had not considered extending this particular trail for lots of reasons. When they looked at this “problem” (the termination of the existing trail and how bad a shape the trail was in), the choices they identified were: build a 20 foot wide path through a very rocky area or go straight over private property. Further the existing trail was in bad shape and the choices to fix it were—fill in the holes, dig ditches and culverts. These were quite limited choices and all of them were very expensive and would disturb significant areas, wide swaths of earth which triggered other concerns about habitat for species. Can you see the box that the agency created for itself? In the end, from their perspective there was no feasible solution.
The volunteer group, on the other hand, envisioned the new section of trail as about 5 to 7 feet wide and able to go between many of the rocks, not move them. Further, they envisioned improving the existing trail using ‘armoring’ techniques with flat stone that would allow water drain without using culverts and ditches. The volunteer group had a different perspective about what the trail could be.
So, why did the agency and the volunteer group have different perspectives about the trail? You could just say they came from different traditions, or had different experiences with trails. That is moderately helpful. It suggests giving groups new experiences, exposing them to different types of trails. However, if we add what we know from organizational culture, we know that just giving them the new experience or exposing them to new trail options, doesn’t result in the group being able to identify new options next time a similar problem comes along. Why is that? Because just showing them something doesn’t get at the underlying assumptions on which their original ‘box’ was built. If we are lucky, new experiences trigger groups own thinking about assumptions, but way too often, groups don’t have the skills or the time to reflect so deeply on their own.
Very briefly, the managing agencies culture has a core set of beliefs around managing forest and habitat that at best ignore recreational interests, and at worst see recreational interest as antithetical to their core beliefs around need to preserve and manage the forest. These are deeply rooted in their culture and can be easily pointed out in their creation stories and in stories of survival. These beliefs and assumptions have been reinforced overtime by the professional training of most of those hired by the agency.
How do organizations define the choices that are available to them? Their organizational cultures will put boundaries around the kinds of choices they see as viable. Even seeing other options that other groups have come up with won’t automatically make additional choices relevant. By more deeply understanding the organizational culture, and helping members of the organization understand its culture, new possibilities can be raised.