Your family, church, and community is an organization, just like the organization you work for. All organizations have a DNA. Corporate DNA or organizational DNA is a metaphor based on the biological term DNA, the molecule that encodes the genetic instructions in living organisms. Everything that a cell is and does comes from its DNA. The DNA informs and directs everything that happens to each cell in our bodies and through these cells directs what happens to the entire organism.
When the DNA is damaged, cancer may ensue that can kill the organism.
DNA doesn’t determine the course of an organism in a vacuum. No, it does so within the context of an environment within which the organism lives. This environment comprises everything from what the organism eats, smokes, breathes in, the amount of sun exposure, humidity, and light the organism is exposed to. DNA is internal to the organism and the environment is external. The DNA exerts a huge influence on the direction of the organism but the environment modifies that influence. This is what scientists call nature and nurture influences.
Organizations behave like organisms. Every single organization has a DNA. That DNA determines the direction of the organization and everything that the organization does. However, it does so within a constantly changing environment.
If you are starting an organization and are tasked with describing and writing your organizational DNA, it’s important to remember that the DNA has to remain fairly constant even when times and circumstances are changing.
What is this DNA?
The organization’s purpose, calling, core beliefs and values that bind an organization together.
Strategy is not part of the DNA of an organization, it is constantly changing (as it should) to adapt to changing times.
Some people consider the organization’s vision to be part of the DNA of the organization. That’s possible but there are many limitations to that. For example, one can with the same purpose, calling, core beliefs and values come up with many different visions for the organization. Organizations that fulfill their visions often don’t have to shut down. Purpose, calling, core beliefs and values can easily become lifelong if necessary. That’s why I prefer to limit my definition of an organization’s DNA to them. People who include vision into the DNA of their organization run the risk of achieving the vision in a few years and then having to come up with another vision that may look different. If vision is part of their DNA, they will be changing their DNA frequently. And DNA shouldn’t change that much.
Having said that, the organization’s vision can be part of the organization’s DNA. However, for it to be, it must be an accurate mental picture derived from the organization’s DNA. To use biological terms, the vision must be something that can be encoded by the DNA of the organization–as all visions should be.
Does organizational DNA ever change?
Looking at natural organisms, over time, their DNA remains generally stable so that humans 3000 years ago still look quite similar to humans today. Yet, there is a phenomenon called microevolution. The DNA of organisms does change gradually–but in noticeable ways. Why does it change? It changes to help the organizations better adapt to changing environments around them so that the species can survive and continue to thrive. So the organisms DNA does change. The change is very slow so that the organism remains fairly the same over time. And the change is for a good reason, to allow the organism to adapt to changing times, thrive, and not be wiped out.
If an organism’s DNA was to change significantly, it will either develop some kind of cancer and die or it would theoretically look so different it becomes essentially a different species.
The same is true for organizations. The DNA of the organization may change every so slightly to help the organization adapt and fulfill it’s purpose well. However, the change must be slow and small. Too much change will cause the organization to lose its original identity and become in essence, a new organization.