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A research stay at a leading American Life Sciences company as part of my Management & Economics undergraduate studies at Zeppelin University in 2019 has changed my life profoundly. Had I been fairly driven by a mechanistic view on people, businesses and their success drivers, my ethnographic work on ‘Innovation Culture’ (IC) in this truly unconventional organization has fundamentally altered my perspective: I began to see our future lying in organizations built up as adaptable living organisms in which each element and contribution are a vital part of a whole, skilled at responding to the rising complexities of today’s world. As part of such a trusting, vibrant and nourishing atmosphere, I will never forget the delight and surprise of everybody who touched this beautiful organization, the deep relationships arising from seeing acquaintances as their North Star towards a rewarding future, or the power of concurrently using intuition and intelligence in developing vision and outlook, to name only a few examples. Unsurprisingly, I returned to Germany as a visibly transformed being for my surroundings…
I knew I became part of a special journey from despair to awe by the minute I touched the beauty of this organization – or as one employee couldn’t have put it any better
“I walked into this beautiful building with a beautiful atrium, and there was this ginormous art piece of some electron microscopy with a very energetic and colorful life in these cells, but the attention to the architecture and the feeling of the people and the knowing that this was the seed where mindfulness was happening. So, I just walked into this space and asked myself ‘What is going on there?’ It was like walking into some sort of vortex which is the contrary of ordinary”.
When it comes to Relationships, I have experienced the organization to cultivate deep relationships with its entire community, trying to use those bonds to develop themselves to get to the answer of the questions ‘Who am I? Who might we be together?’. One central example of this are the unique employee-leader-relations, which I have found to bring unimagined vibrancy into the workplace – most notably through a high degree of mutual trust and appreciation.
Expectedly, the role of the founder in bringing to life the value of connections is second-to-none. As such, he uses his personal house for regular employee events, provides access to (driving) his selection of old-timers at company events or on special occasions, invites all employees celebrating birthdays to a monthly lunch, and so forth. He does not even have an office – nor does any of the remaining leadership team – but rather works as a ‘backpacking nomad’ across the company village.
Moving to the broader leadership team, a similar servant mentality can be witnessed, with employees being honored and celebrated at quarterly company meetings, be it for special achievements or simply joining the company.
At company picnics, employees and leaders have the chance to connect more thoroughly through a ‚Carpool Karaoke‘, where masqueraded employees from all over the world come together in one of the founder’s old-timers to sing together. Similarly, a tradition for over 30 years, the leadership team takes the time to honor the milestone anniversaries of each employee: Here, for instance, honorees start off the day by having breakfast with their leadership team, where employees provide a musical backdrop and leaders serve all the attendees (founder can be witnessed wearing an apron) – later, the day ends in an all company meeting and a celebration recognizing the contributions of the honorees.
For employees Growth and Transformation, the firm encourages progress and transformation most notably through its ESI activities. In both five-days-long boot camps and shorter HQ-based interactive training sessions, employees learn and practice mindfulness, with its components of self-awareness, self-mastery, other-awareness, and relationship management.
In addition, core principles are communicated across the entire company (e.g., on employee’s badges) to help commendably achieve the elements of the firm’s ESI curriculum, being: – check in with yourself – listen with empathy – enhance self-esteem – look for the good, with discernment – encourage diverse perspectives – use courage and compassion to say what needs to be said.
That being said, the vast majority of the organization started to adopt a more mindful approach to daily business: The NA-Branch meditates together every morning, to name just one example.
An overview of the breadth of ESI-influence ranging from the professional to the personal that I have witnessed first-hand can be found below:
Put more simply, one key informant referred to ESI as the number one differentiator between good and great businesses, esp. also with regards to innovation:
“When people have more inner resources, more confidence, more calm, more caring, more bandwidth to hold complexity and ambiguity without being reactive, there is no way it cannot impact what they do. It grows trust, connections are maintained, it helps you see the bigger picture, which in turn empowers you, energizes you, it moves you more to your self-actualized state. It keeps us open and functioning more in the green brain as opposed to the red brain”
Being struck by this special atmosphere, it was key to bring some structure into my diverse set of feelings and thoughts while on site. I have thus developed a Hierarchy of Needs for an IC (see Figure 1 below), which I will here leverage to provide some basic context for the following two sections. This system encompasses the presupposing and interdependent elements of a well-balanced 1) leadership, 2) structure, 3) environment as the IC’s basis, and 4) relationships and 5) employee’ growth and transformation as the firm’s ‘game-changer’ towards innovation.
Evidently, I see the system’s expansion and enlivenment strongly relying on the human factor, the company’s DNA. For this reason, I will also use this blog entry to provide two key examples of the latter elements no. 4 and 5 that have fundamentally changed the way I look at business, before providing a brief outlook on what this could mean in a broader perspective. By the way, there are so many more examples I could feature here when thinking back at my time in the US, so please feel free to reach out for further insights at any stage…!
Just like an electron orbital, the firm aims to act as a potential space, where although one cannot define where an electron is at any moment, “its path holds open a space for an entire structure to be born and to be reinvented in every moment as that electron moves”. Resultingly, the firm’s understanding of business changes, too. As such, commercial success, superior products or high quality are still important, but in addition, there is a bigger concentric circle around the firm, allowing them “to break out of rigid, solidified identities” in order to “listen into the emerging future”.
Having had these momentary transcendent experiences of how powerful conscious businesses can be, I now want to stabilize this awareness in increasingly more aspects of my personal and professional life as well – whilst always striving to have an impact on the transformation of our business landscape towards a more conscious and enlivened form of entrepreneurship.
We, as consultants, have a beautiful opportunity to do so, and could find some inspiration for the basis of our work in an extract by German biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber, which I have also come across during my research stay – everything else will come from there:
Should you wish to engage further on this matter, please feel free to reach out to me any time via firstname.lastname@example.org – I look forward to it!