The smell of organizations

To pay for my basic studies in Organisational Development during the 1980’s, I worked in a psychiatric hospital as a nurse assistant. One of the things that impacted me most was the ability of the most experienced nurses to diagnose somatic diseases just by the way the patient smelled. Without any tests, they were often accurate.

I remember too that they seldom shared their appreciations with the doctors, but shared it informally only with each other. When the results of the tests ordered by the doctor came back, I never heard any of them comment, but they indeed exchanged knowingly glances among themselves. Often it meant that they had been right from the beginning. Sometimes it was a tacit agreement that they would ask for a second opinion the moment the doctor in question finished his shift. Occasionally, the most senior nurses, past caring if they got fired, would take a risk and change the medication based on what their expertise told them was right. The junior nurses were awed and knew to soak in every bit of experience their seniors shared.

In the 2020’s, after more than three decades working as a consultant, I can say that organizations can also be diagnosed by how they smell.

There is the fragrances of well cared organisations. If it is a start up it smells as a spring meadow. If it is giving fruit in harmony with its environment of operations, it smells like an orchard in early autumn. If it’s in a growth crisis it smells of fresh sweat and tears, sometimes as a rainy evening in late fall or hail in spring. Or a well integrated strategy reminds me of artichokes in bloom.

Then we have the unpleasant smells and stenches.

It’s the smell of burnt rubber exuded by the organization that wants to grow beyond what is adequate for their business and environment of operations. It’s the smell of rotten wounds invading my nostrils when I go into an organization that states «our people are our best assets» while treating them as disposable commodities. No to say the smell of a stale water full of leeches, exuded by the organisation that extracts form their environment of operations more value than they add.

Then there is the organization that wants to be more available for their costumers, but to get to the exec floor I need to go through two security checks and ride a dedicated elevator. It smelled like a hotel room in which perfume has been sprayed to mask that it hasn’t been aired in a while.

Or the smell produced by zombie projects, neither alive nor dead. Or the smell of wet paper that characterises strategies that are never meant to be followed.

Then there is the eerie lack of smell of the organization that is full of leadership but there are no leaders to be found in them.

As the nurses above, often I need only some minutes in the premises to sense the smell and come with a tentative diagnose.

What’s the point of explaining this to organisational clients who want test-based assessments? Or to colleagues who are trapped by the idea that for a change effort to have effect, they need to compartmentalise the issues, define measurable KPIs and plan beforehand what will be done?

But trust me guys, it’s the smell.