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Organizational DNA: What does your organization look like?

Organizational DNA: What does your organization look like?

The information encoded in your DNA determines your unique biological characteristics, such as sex, eye color, age and Social Security number.

—Dave Barry

“Daddy, how tall will I be when I grow up?”

Okay, maybe your DNA doesn’t determine your Social Security number, but it is a marvelous bit of our biological structure. These days everyone knows what DNA is. Truth be told, I think very few of us really remember enough of our high school biology to actually know what it is, but we have seen enough television shows and read enough mystery books to know that DNA is what often catches the “bad guy.” Or, sometimes eliminates the “good guy.”

Our personal DNA is the building block from which our body is constructed. Our hair color, eye color, height, and individual build are all determined by our DNA. There are “markers” for our basic health that are determined by our DNA. Do you gain weight too easily? Blame your DNA! Are you blessed with a “naturally” strong body, and seem to be able to eat whatever you wish? Thank your DNA!

Not so fast. We all have a great deal of personal responsibility. Our DNA may set the stage, but we are responsible for maintaining, and protecting, what our DNA has mapped out for us. You may be blessed with that “naturally” strong body that I mentioned. But if you do continue to eat foods that are unhealthy, consume alcohol beyond moderation, smoke cigarettes, and fail to exercise, you might find that your DNA is not enough to “save” you. You haven’t protected and maintained it.

Additionally, you may live or work in an environment that poisons your “natural” health.  Some areas have high levels of air pollution, lead in our paint or insulation, or perhaps pesticides in the ground water that are eventually passed through to our drinking water.

Not all of us are blessed with “good” DNA. Many of us have inherited physical characteristics or propensities that we are not happy with, and may even be hazardous to our health. There is evidence today that some may be genetically predisposed to disease or addictions. Fortunately for those, that personal responsibility that I mentioned can be a tremendous asset. Regular exercise, a nutritional diet, and making sure we live in a healthy environment (physically, mentally, and emotionally) can have a significant positive impact on our general health and happiness. This “clean living” may have a tremendous payoff in our quality of life as well as our quantity of life.

That said, however, for those who must work against our inherited DNA, we find that the battle is long, hard, continual, and tiring. Maybe even exhausting. We can’t let our guard down for a moment, or our “genes” start to catch up. Eat one dessert, and it’s okay. But eat two desserts? Skip the gym today, okay; but skip the gym for a few days?

Mega to Meta

Our personal DNA is set by our father and mother, the two people that “created” us. DNA is the reason that many of us have such striking family resemblance. For instance, to look at me you would see an almost mirror image of my father at the same age. He was a good looking guy, by the way. We have all heard the nature/nurture arguments. With that in mind, I confess that I learned many of my mothers’ behaviors over the years. But those behaviors are changeable. Some naturally change with time, some change because I set out to change them. But the characteristics determined by my DNA are there to stay. I have no control over how tall I am. I can dye my hair, but left to its own, it will revert back to its natural color.

Height, hair and eye color, are all readily apparent. But what about the “meta” effect of my DNA? As we all know from the police dramas, we can take a single hair, a drop of blood, a fingernail clipping, or even a tiny scrape of skin, and determine the DNA of an individual. Siblings have very similar DNA, but only similar. A DNA test can conclusively determine whether that drop of blood came from you, or from your brother. Even in the case of identical twins, as science progress, they have been able to isolate infinitesimal markers that distinguish between the twins. They may look alike, they may sound alike. They may even walk alike. But a good lab, with the right equipment, can distinguish between the two.

Our DNA is foundational. It is the primary building block, the cornerstone, from which the course is set. While we may be able to prepare for and guard against some of the negative implications of our DNA, it is unchangeable. Our DNA is determined by, and a reflection of, those that “created” us.

Organizational DNA

In the same way, organizations have there own individual DNA. The DNA of an organization is reflected in the core values of that organization. I’m not necessarily speaking of those lofty ideals cited in the Core Values Statement. I’m speaking of the core values that are lived out every day within the organization.

The core values, that is, the values that go to the very core of the organization, are reflected in every policy and procedure of that organization. How the organization appears, how people are treated, even the selection (hiring) process reflects the DNA of that organization. How does an organization spend their time, spend their money, and make decisions? What gets rewarded within this organization?

Additionally, the DNA of an organization is determined by the “creators” of that organization. The “creators” determine how we will look, how we will behave, and our functional health. Just like human DNA, the DNA of an organization is present in the very smallest part of that organization.

While the “creation” of the founders of the organization may have had very admirable DNA, the DNA of that organization is also susceptible to environmental factors. Stressors and demands of the market may result in a change in the way business is done, thereby endangering an otherwise healthy DNA. Policies and procedures may be put into place that seem, on the surface, to be good and valid business decisions, but they may be in conflict with the DNA (core values) of the organization. Individuals may be hired that have conflicting personal DNA (core values) to that of the organization, resulting in actions or treatment that insidiously, perhaps unknowingly, undermines the DNA intended by the “creators.”

The DNA of the organization faces constant pressure from environmental factors both inside and outside the organization.

My how you’ve changed!

I have family members with whom I grew up that today, many years later, I barely recognize. The effects of environmental factors, and poor decisions, have overridden the “good genes” with which these individuals were born.

In the same way, we all probably know of businesses and organizations where care was not taken to guard the DNA of the “creators” and environmental factors, from both inside and out, sometimes knowingly and sometimes surreptitiously, have eroded the DNA of that organization to the point where it is barely recognizable.


Entropy is a simple law of physics that states that the quality of energy continually degrades. We must realize that that same law, a law of nature, applies to the core values of an organization. Left to their own, due to the forces of nature, these precious core values, the Organizational DNA, will degrade. These core values must be protected, fed, exercised, and constantly developed in order to recognizably survive.


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