Ooh, That Smell!

Do you know what your organization smells like?


Alright, so I’m a biology major from wayback…and sometimes biological reality meshes with organizational reality far too easily.

It’s the tail end of the Thanksgiving weekend.  As an encore to the festivities, we are having some family over for a holiday meal this afternoon.  I have spent this Sunday morning roasting a Wilson-family signature wet-brined turkey while simultaneously boiling the well-picked carcass of a Wilson-family signature cherry-wood smoked turkey that we consumed earlier in the holiday festivities.

Yes, that’s a bird in the oven and a pot of bird essence boiling on the stove.

My house smells exceptional.

Except, I only know that because my wife just returned from a brief outing and told me so.

The olfactory sense being what it is, I’ve lost all sensitivity to the ambient aromatic goodness that is in my house. My sense of smell is saturated. It took someone coming in from the outside to tell me how good it smelled in here.

And, there’s a lesson in that.

On getting stale…

You know what?  People become stultified. That is, they lose enthusiasm and initiative after too much of the same.  They do it in both good and bad circumstances.

In cultures where the air is heavy, people stop noticing.  I’ve been in places where the sword of Damocles hung over the head of every executive, casting a pall over the whole organization. They eventually stopped really noticing–until some outsiders forced a change and the more perceptive around them realized how much the prior regime really stunk!

Their sense of smell for the badness was saturated. They started focusing in on retirement, or the next job, and forgot how many years they sank in the stink.

Happens all the time.

The funny thing is, the same thing can happen in positive cultures.  People become desensitized to how good they actually have it and constantly yearn for the greener pasture next door.  I’ve been in one of the greatest organizations in the world and listened to grievances that would lead you to think it was a prison. People stopped noticing how brilliant their colleagues were and how interesting the work was.

During that time, I had a (very prescient, it turns out) mentor tell me that “people can’t ever tell how great it is here because we focus on improvement all the time. And, then they leave and it’s the best place they ever worked.”

He was right.  But, we were positively desensitized.  We had the organizational “smell” equivalent to a Thanksgiving feast, but couldn’t’ tell.

And, it leads to the question:  Do you know how your organization smells?

About the only way to tell is to have someone check it from the outside.  Unfortunately, as I’ve subtly noted, organizations full of stink rarely want to confront reality; and organizations reeking of positivity only focus on how to get better (which, in its own way, is a mild stench if used improperly).

So, who is your outsider, providing you with a fresh nose?  If you are an executive and you can’t answer that question, then how do you know what your organization smells like?

I’d be curious how you tackle this question. Please comment below. 

[and, yes, this was written between bastings spaced exactly 17 minutes apart]



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