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The Black Box

December 9, 2015

The Black BoxEons ago, when I was in engineering school, we had an exercise known as “The Black Box.” The idea is simple, the challenge wasn’t always so simple. Inside the box, hidden from our view, was an electronic circuit. There were two variations, a paper exercise where we were given the input and output wave forms and had to derive the mathematical function and what I think was the more fun version, a physical exercise with an actual circuit. For the physical challenge, we were given some limited information — such as the type of input we could use to excite the circuit, the power supply parameters, etc. — and our job was to figure out what was in the black box. So for a given input, called “X,” we would observe the output, using an oscilloscope and/or other instruments. The output had to be, of course, a function of the input, or, F(X). We had to determine what kind of circuit would produce the observed function of X. I’m not going to bore you with the engineering, besides, it’s been so long since I’ve done any design work that it would take me forever to make sure what I said here was correct. If you’re interested, click on the image to take you to a Wiki that will show you a simple second order circuit, a step input and a measured output wave form.

My point here is to draw the analogy to leadership and an organization’s culture. For most of us, in many organizations, the culture — how things get done around here — is a black box. We see an input — a set of business circumstances — then something goes on inside that “cultural black box” and and output happens, i.e. a decision is made. The employees then execute that decision. It’s too often left up to the employees to figure out what’s in the cultural black box by way of organizational values, vision and mission that would cause the particular output (decision), given the particular input (i.e. customer need, quality failure, pricing challenge, etc.). Why do we do that?

Inattentiveness is why we do that! When a business is started, it is often just the founder. Likely s/he has never really stopped to think deeply about their own values. They just go about building their product or service, making the necessary decisions and, hopefully, things go well. Well enough that s/he starts hiring people. Since the values by which the company has grown so far haven’t been codified, hiring is done on “it feels like a fit” intuition with emphasis on technical competency.

Values, Vision, MissionIf the entrepreneur hasn’t taken the time to think through the fundamental values by which s/he lives life and therefore runs the business, how in the world are new employees supposed to know if they embrace the same values? Although the black box is a fun exercise for engineering students, it’s a potential disaster to build your business culture with such a black box challenge.

Actively managing your corporate culture requires that the values, vision, mission and goals be codified and that we hire in a way that determines as best we can that the prospect shares the same values and vision. We can always train for technical competency. It makes no sense to subject our employees to the values black box challenge. Be fully transparent and, perhaps more importantly, know the fundamental values yourself, live them and insist that all stakeholders know them as well. If we don’t do the hard work of understanding our values, codifying them and making them visible to all stakeholders, we will wind up with an accidental culture which is highly likely to disappoint us and our customers. For a good lesson in how this works, you may want to find the time to read Bob Chapman’s and Raj Sisodia’s new book, Everybody Matters.

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