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Zen & the Art of Culture Management

Posted on March 22, 2022


man rides bike in a suit

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Greg LeBlanc. Connect with Greg on LinkedIn.

  • What I’m Reading: Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us About the World by Alastair Bonnett
  • What I’m Watching: The Newsroom
  • What I’m Listening to: “Don’t Stop” by Sonny Cleveland

In the corner of my new office, rests my bicycle. A new job in a new community provides the luxury of riding my bicycle to work. Commuting via bike has been a priority of mine for some time and being able to do so is a gift. The simple joy experienced from riding a bike evokes many childhood memories of riding around the neighborhood. As an adult, the health and environmental benefits of doing so are equally rewarding. The only downside is increased responsibility for necessary care and maintenance, an effort that has yet to be mastered.

Sitting above, on the office bookshelf, is a well-worn copy of Robert Pirsig’s 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, gifted to me by a former colleague. My copy contains several passages that are underlined, along with margins littered with notes reflecting my thoughts on the book’s impact on me at that time.

“Although motorcycle riding is romantic,” Pirsig wrote, “motorcycle maintenance is purely classic.” Pirsig’s book highlights a dichotomous world in which a group described as the romantics lead a life of imagination, creativity, and inspiration, while others, referred to as the classics, live a practical existence that is economical and carefully proportioned.

To the latter, the motorcycle is about “pieces and parts, components, and relationships.” To the former, the motorcycle is about “feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience.” For the romantic, the motorcycle equates to freedom.

While my bike is not a motorcycle, I currently share the ideals of a romantic. The short commute and feeling of being carless is liberating and evokes feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction until it became time to perform routine maintenance on my bike. My car’s maintenance needs are easily addressed – simply pay a mechanic. But a bicycle is inherently a simple machine – pedals turn gears and a chain that turns the wheels. The energy source is human power, sometimes supplemented by gravity. A system of cables controls the brakes and shifting. Everything on the machine is adjustable if you have the right tools. While the internal workings of a car are foreign and scary, a bike is simple enough for me to understand – pieces and parts, components, and relationships.

Riding my bicycle to and from work each day, allows me to reflect upon my experiences while working in other organizations. The intricate workings of a good organizational culture are equally foreign to me as a car, and with some organizations, I now realize that leadership alone cannot remedy all that is lacking with the organizational culture by simply paying “mechanics”. These mechanics often came in the form of a transaction such as a bonus or a free lunch, and while those gestures were appreciated in the moment, it is now obvious to me that it was a lack of understanding by leadership on what makes a good culture. What some saw as a solution to a problem, others saw as furthering an issue. The longer that a disconnect was allowed to fester, the worse the culture became.

Lacking skills in even the simplest types of bicycle maintenance became evident when the chain snapped while riding home from work. The chain and cassette had rusted from riding in wet conditions followed by me not bothering to rinse, dry, and lubricate the components. The bike mechanic was kind enough to not only fix the issue later that evening, but to also explain what repairs he performed and how to avoid repeating these events in the future. At that moment, my realization was that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about more than simply maintaining motorcycles. Pirsig tells a story about how to get the romantics and the classics to better understand one another, achieving equilibrium through meeting in the middle.

Achieving a good organizational culture works very much so in the same way. In the workplace, the romantics and the classics both want to enjoy where they work, but do not necessarily express their needs in the same way. In this modern era, we celebrate diversity and individual needs. I am thankful that my peers recognize how culture is a critical component of every organization and that the actions made to preserve that culture are reflective of the need. As Pirsig states, a motorcycle is simply “a system of concepts worked out in steel.” Good leaders should recognize that the relationships between the pieces and parts of an organization contribute to the overall culture. If we work out the concept of a healthy culture through deliberate leadership action, we can all enjoy where we work.

Upon arriving home from the office each evening, I now perform a small ritual. I make sure my bicycle is clean and that all components are in good working order. By observing and listening to the needs of the individual components, I hope to keep my bike (and my workplace culture) in good working order.

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