Understanding Corporate Culture: Jigsaw Puzzle or Legos?

gils jigsawnumber-t-rex-wooden-jigsaw-puzzle-with-bag

My daughter and I assembled lots of jigsaw puzzles when she was little.  Somehow I think it helped her develop spatial awareness, manual dexterity and her memory skills. Critical foundations for becoming a musician.

She started out with simple children’s picture puzzles, then we found some interesting dinosaur puzzles, and soon she graduated to 200, 500 then 1,000 piece and bigger puzzles. Once you understand the principles of how jigsaw puzzles go together, finishing larger and larger puzzles is just a matter of time and perseverance.

Organisations as Jigsaw Puzzles

When I first began consulting in the area of corporate culture, leadership team alignment and culture change in the late 1970’s, the business world was very different from today. Monopolies such as Ma Bell (AT&T), defense contractors used cost-plus pricing, regulated utilities in communications, transportation, water, power and natural gas tended to be the major employers and made up a large number of the Fortune 500 companies. Organisational structures tended to be hierarchical with top-down decision-making, well-defined policies and procedures for how things were supposed to work, and specific roles and responsibilities with detailed job descriptions were the norm.

And things seemed to work well since there was a high degree of certainty about the future, strategic planning was based on 10 year increments, change was slow and predictable, and expanding scope and scale seemed to be the holy grail for business success.

A good analogy of how organisations operated at that time is to think of the company as a Custom-Jigsaw-Puzzle (1)jigsaw puzzle. A jigsaw puzzle can be small, say about 50 pieces, or huge with two to five thousand pieces. But whatever the size, they all have the same characteristics:

  • Rigid boarders which “define” the shape and size of the puzzle.
  • Each piece has an exact place and a specific role
  • Pieces are not interchangeable.
  • There is only one way to assemble the puzzle correctly.
  • When a piece is missing, the puzzle isn’t complete and doesn’t function well.
  • It is very rare to use the same piece in a different puzzle, since they were designed for that one specific picture.
  • The boundary pieces became the most important in the overall organisation of the final product.

A highly structured organisation model that was fit for purpose, but times have definitely changed!

The Lego Organisation Model and Agile Corporate Cultures


Lego, a Danish company, began manufacturing interlocking toy bricks in 1949. Since then a global Lego subculture has developed, supporting movies, games, competitions, and six themed amusement parks. As of 2013, around 560 billion Lego parts had been produced.

The now ubiquitous plastic Lego blocks, each with interlocking connectors, snap together to make a myriad of shapes and the same set of Lego blocks can be easily made into a toy truck, then taken apart and assembled into a monster, a house, or a hundred other play things.

lego boys

Legos are highly functional since the same brick can be used in multiple structures and reused many times overs.  Their major functionality is their ability to fit together with other Lego bricks without the need for change. Interoperability is the key principle behind for the phenomenal popularity and use of Lego bricks.

Today’s business environment is constantly changing.  Just as a company becomes successful, technology advances or new competitors emerge, disrupting the current status quo.  Most organisations then must either consider radical change in their business model and corporate culture, merge with a company better fit for the current business situation, or go out of business. And as we all know, culture change is not easy, especially when the organisation, and its people, have specific roles and capabilities and are not easily interchangeable.

Many a company has failed and gone bankrupt trying to fit classic sales people into new relationship marketing roles, or engineers into client-facing program managers. Trying to transform a big box physical retailer into the digital online world has proven disastrous for most.

But sustainability in an ever-changing business landscape is made much easier with a corporate culture of agility and adaptability.  And that starts with hiring leaders and employees with an agile mindset.

People with an agile mindset are curious, open to new ideas, constantly look for new ways of doing things, like learning new skills, and are confident in their ability to adapt. They focus more on end results than qualifications, positions or titles. They work well with others in ad hoc teams, then break apart and reform with new people to face new challenges. Boundaries are not defined by rules and policies, but by available time, capabilities and outcomes. Corporate culture is not rigid, but flexible and adaptable.

“Do it, try it, fix it” is their daily mode of operation. It’s the equivalent of a “Lego corporate culture”.

Posted by:

John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

email: john@johnrchildress.com

PS: John also writes thriller novels

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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