Companies go through phases and life cycles, growth periods, stability, pivots, maturity, step changes, chaos, leadership changes, structural changes, staff changes and more – all contributing to both major and minor evolutions in that organisations makeup. No matter how a company reinvents it’s products or services the intrinsic personality of any organisation usually sustains so hopefully it’s one you love.

When I work with pre-revenue startups I talk to them about Organisational Design, actually visualising the company they plan to create, one major building block in this is the DNA of their company, often referred to as “the way things are done around here” – really hard to describe but once established…..

The monkey, banana and water spray experiment

You may think I am pushing the boundaries slightly but lets consider the parallels between the infamous monkey, banana and water spray experiment and the intrinsic personality of an organisation.

You can read a good description of the experiment here. Nutshell is – initial group of monkeys are sprayed with water when trying to climb a ladder to get a bunch of bananas, by the 3rd attempt the group pull the monkey attempting to climb the ladder down to prevent water spraying. Monkeys in the group are replaced one and a time, new monkeys into the group are prevented from climbing the ladder. Eventually the entire group has been replaced i.e.: no monkey who was actually sprayed remains in the group, yet the group continues to prevent any new monkey from climbing the ladder. No-one knows why! it’s just the way things are done.

Long ago I joined a company with around 40-50 employees, in the few years I worked there it burst to 180 employees, we changed CEO twice and all of the “executive” leadership team. The culture, structure, services, processes and bureaucracy all changed but this is where I first observed intrinsic personality. It seemed that while some things changed other things still stayed the same.

How does Intrinsic Personality differ from Culture?

This is a hard one so bear with me. Culture can be defined, it can be identified, described and plans can be executed to implement a desired culture. That company I worked for long ago described itself as having a culture of “work hard play hard”, to maintain this the alcohol was free and flowing, there was a ski lodge for team getaways etc, long hours were expected to the extent arriving late or leaving early was frowned at, along with frowning if you didn’t turn up to the Friday drinks.

Intrinsic personality is ingrained, it’s normal style and behaviour learned over time – like the monkeys – then becomes ingrained. My observation over the years is intrinsic personality can exist beyond organisational change and culture reinvention. In that “work hard play hard” company the acceptable behaviour was to be overtly internally competitive, backstabbing was acceptable as was overt favouritism – so people with these tendencies seemed to be employed into team “leadership” roles. Successive management teams attempted to rectify this via culture enhancement programmes which worked for short periods yet continued to be undermined by the intrinsic personality. The way things were done around there never changed.

Is it possible to change?

By now it might be dawning on you what the intrinsic personality of your organisation looks and feels like – hopefully you love it, but if you don’t there is hope. Another company I worked for long ago was a small boutique company with a pretty nothing culture and strange intrinsic personality. The operating model was command and control so the intrinsic personality was actually hard to pin down. Everyone employed prior to my arrival fitted the same mould, smart, hard working, introverted and young so easy to turn into factory workers – no creativity, no innovation and definitely no freedom to speak or challenge the commands. One of the first things I was told was to never piss Fred off or it won’t be pretty, his wrath was described in detail. This turned out to be a Monkey experiment as Fred (you can guess name changed) is one of the nicest guys in the world yet the team lived in fear of his wrath – one I never saw and do not believe has ever been encountered.

Without realising it I somehow went about cajoling a culture we were all proud of and changed the intrinsic personality of the company. While not widely changed, on reflection it did change. The fear of Fred had gone by the time I left, innovation was rife and collaborative working was all the rage. It took perseverance to remind people every day when they were empowered and when they reverted to previous behaviour.

Design your Organisation – along with your products and services

As I  have said before I am very fortunate to have a business partner who shares my vision of a workplace we both want to be part of so hold a shared vision for the Intrinsic Personality of OptimalHQ and our group of companies. So many pre-revenue, up-and-running, even growth companies I meet have never given it a 2nd thought, some haven’t even gone as far as considering their Organisational Governance model let alone Culture.

Taking Products and Services to market usually requires logistics and a team to operate those, thus an organisation that will grow, change and evolve. So put some time and energy into visualising your company at scale – how will it feel, what behaviours will be acceptable, what is your style, how will you motivate and coalesce the team, what are your underlying ethics and values? If you set out with these from the outset they will be adopted and “taught” to future employees.

We’re a bit crazy – our goal of owning a Chocolate Factory might give that one away – and I am pleased to see it reflected back in day to day behaviour.

Final thought

This blog is one of many I plan to write on Organisational Design, the DNA of your company along with many other elements are all really important, so is your product, none of this should distract you from the real question – how are you going to get paid! Revenue is key, Cash is King!

Thanks to for this image

banana experiment