Organisational Cauliflowers

It’s a universal and little-known rule that how people participate in meetings is an example of your organisational culture. I call it the ‘Hampton Cauliflower rule’. Cauliflowers look like complex structures until you realise that they are just many mini-cauliflowers growing off a central stem, organising and replicating themselves to make a vegetable protected in leaves. Organisations remind me of cauliflowers, with their series of repeating behaviours, replicating florets or fractals which reinforce each other and create the ‘how things are done around here’ culture. If you pay attention, it’s relatively easy to map out those culture-creating replicating behaviours. Find the replicating behaviours and you’ve found your culture, with its underlying belief system that holds everything in place as the central stem.

Meetings and, in particular, board meetings are a good place to start. Observing how the meeting works (the papers, the preparation, the participation) will give you an example of  ‘how things are done around here’. It will give you an indicator of the culture that holds everything in place. For example:

  • Is it a ‘busy being busy’ culture, where the agenda is overloaded and therefore nothing moves forward?
  • When things get challenging does the Chair move the discussion forward quickly before issues can be resolved?
  • Do Executive Directors present only the ‘best case scenario’ or are they prepared to be completely candid about how things are?
  • Do they properly learn from success as well as what isn’t going well?
  • Is the meeting part of a poorly timed day of back-to-back meetings that give no consideration of performance, and is only concerned with getting through things?
  • Do people participate in every agenda item, asking questions bringing challenge and ideas or just present their own item and sit back?


These are just a few questions that could give you some evidence of a wider organisational culture, the cauliflower.

Just stepping back, observing and listening will lay it all out before you. In the words people chose to use, and the behaviours they chose to do, is the meaning of ‘how things happen’. To some extent, this is the easy bit, finding out the ‘what’. The key is finding out the ‘what exactly’ the tiny fractals, the florets that make up the pulsating cauliflower brain. For instance, if you have a back-to-back meeting culture, what message is being sent about how your organisation values people’s well-being and helps them protect their own resilience? When you find out the ‘what exactly’ and start to talk about it, you can start to change. What we inquire about, what we expose to the light of day and give air to, starts the process of change. It loosens the structures that hold things in place and builds new connections[1]. Cauliflowers look like brains, and your organisational cauliflower is your organisational brain.  Inquiring about and looking at ‘how things happen’ changes the structure of your cauliflower. It changes your organisational brain.

[1] We dress cultures up as being complicated but it isn’t the culture that’s complicated, it’s admitting our part in creating it, holding it in place, and our own responsibilities in bring about change. It often feels that cultural change is something the Board outsources to their OD Lead or a Consultant to come and do to them, forgetting that after all, it’s their cauliflower.


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