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Organizational Alchemy Part 2: Understanding Basic Elements

The foundation of alchemy is a deep understanding of basic elements and their properties. In the time of Plato and Aristotle, the basic elements were air, water, earth, and fire and they were organized in terms of their sensible qualities – hot/cold, dry/wet (e.g. water being primarily wet and secondarily cold, fire being primarily hot and secondarily dry, etc). Other philosophers characterized these same elements in terms of other properties: for example, sharp/blunt, subtle/dense, mobile/immobile. In the Middle Ages, Persian alchemist, Jabir, and later Swiss alchemist, Paracelsus, added three metallic principles: sulfur to flammability or combustion, mercury for volatility and stability, and salt for solidity. There are endless variations to these systems of understanding basic elements, however, regardless of characterization, it was believed that different materials exemplified different proportions of each of these elements and the right mix of certain materials would result in a desired outcome.

In more recent times we have developed a periodic table of elements and entire fields of research such as cellular and molecular biology and nuclear physics to more deeply understand the make-up of our universe and the elements within it. The emerging theoretical framework of string theory may prove to be a unifying framework in the years to come. All of this study over thousands of years by some of the greatest minds in history for what? The reason is so that we can better understand, interpret, predict and influence the interactions and outcomes that occur in our world.

That is exactly what the organizational alchemist, or master integrator, needs to do as well. The master integrator is the individual that must understand the elemental properties of the people, knowledge, and information that are part of their team or organizational environment. They must then find the right formula or mix of elements to enable those teams to achieve value that is much greater than simply the sum of their parts.

In our teams and organizations, there are a variety of “materials”, but they basically fall into three main types – people, information objects, and physical objects. Each has various characteristics that influence their role in creating outcomes that are much greater than the sum of their parts.

Physical Objects

The physical objects (chairs, tables, whiteboards, buildings, computers, etc.) are props that enable our comfort and work. While they aren’t ingredients in any alchemical process themselves, they are necessary to support it – and can have a subtle but significant effect on the outcomes. “Marketplace” or “café” style workspaces can encourage accidental meetings and impromptu collaboration. Solid walled offices and task lighting can encourage focus and individual work. Big whiteboards allow people to explore complex ideas… often collaboratively. Certain colors of types of lighting may also influence our mood and energy levels. Relaxing, fun environments may lessen stress and enable more creative thought. More structured settings may instill order and protocol and suggest consistency and efficiency. The places and things that we surround ourselves with do influence our state of mind, to content of our thoughts, what we value, and how we engage with others – this is not to be underestimated.

Information Objects

Information objects (reports, reference materials, spreadsheets, calculations, blog posts, email correspondence, social networks, etc.) are all the physical and virtual means available to us for transferring human knowledge into explicit data that can be shared across time and space. If carefully understood, they can have a significant influence on the value or organizational outcomes.

It is important to understand that with information objects there are two human-object interfaces – 1) how the object captures human knowledge and turns it into data and 2) how humans interact with the captured data to inform their learning and decisions. As a result, there are technical characteristics of these objects that influence the type and quality of data that these objects can capture (e.g. format, content, language) and there are also more social characteristics that influence how people engage with these objects. The first interface (i.e. capture) requires that we understand additional social-technical characteristics such as how the captured information is structured, entered, modified, and manipulated. The second interface (i.e. inform) requires that we understand the socio-technical characteristics that influence how people value and engage with captured data, such as:

  • Trust – which can come from familiarity or because the object has helped us understand or communication something in a much easier way)

  • Importance - how contractually or socially important the object is;

  • Ease of use- how easy or intuitive it is to engage with the object.

These information objects allow one person’s knowledge to be shared, aggregated, and modified by others – such that these object themselves become infused with many different energies and perspectives and often become extremely valuable. However, they are still dependent on the quality of information captured from people and the ability for people to do something of value with the data.


People have potentially the greatest influence on the value of an organization. They are the repositories of the knowledge that feeds the information objects and other outcomes of the organization. With people there are three major sets of characteristics:

Technical characteristics reflect the type and quality of knowledge one has. These include:

  • Formal training (college degrees, certifications, accreditations, our resume, etc.);

  • Informal training (life experiences);

  • Ability to translate one’s knowledge to novel situations. Traditionally, most of our focus has been on one’s formal training, but the other two areas are just as important.

Social characteristics frame the perception of one’s knowledge by others. These include:

  • Status – the same information from the mouth of a vice president means much more than if it had come from an entry level person.

  • Personality – For example, people tend to like and listen to engaging charismatic individuals and may overlook information contributions from more soft-spoken or abrasive individuals.

  • Contractual role – Contractual role set the expectation for what type of knowledge one may have. If I hire a lawyer, then I will take their legal advice very seriously, but may disregard their financial advice (even though they may have been a financial advisor for 15 years before going to law school).

Behavioral characteristics that describe how a person understands their world, motivated, and engaged with others. There are all sorts of frameworks that can be used to gain insight into these behavioral characteristics (Myers-Briggs, DISC, Enneagram, FIRO-B, Belbin, etc.). One that we use with our project teams is CoreClarity that looks at how individuals reflect on ideas, how one connects to and understands others (emotional intelligence), how one motivates oneself, and how one motivates others. The key with any of these behavioral assessments is that the insights translate into actionable steps that help individuals and teams work in their sweet spots and manage potential conflicts (which can often become great synergies when aware and focused on them).

Understanding of elemental properties of our teams and organizations is a critical first step for realizing their fullest potential. The classifications outlined in this post are just one perspective. The master integrator needs to be constantly studying their environment so that they can develop a deep understand the characteristics and behaviors of each element. With that deep understanding, they can leverage the right mix of elements with the right properties to best achieve the desired result. Developing this taxonomy for understanding one’s world is just the first step – it is also important to understand how elements interact and the catalysts that influence the type and quality of those interactions – this will be the focus of next week.

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