Culture Graphs

Culture (organizational or otherwise) can most simply be understood as “how we do things around here.”

There are a million “things” that make up an organization’s culture: things like meeting norms; how we talk to each other (in person, online); what it means when someone says “the deadline for this project is November 6th;” how inclusive we are.

To imagine this visually, imagine an N-dimensional chart with each element of culture on one axis.

And now, to keep things simpler, let’s collapse that N-dimensional chart into two dimensions – because otherwise all of this will be too hard to visualize.

Envision an organization’s culture represented on this graph. To explore what we mean here, let’s imagine two organizations.

Organization 1 has a loosely defined culture: we represent that with the broad shape on the graph, and the light color to show ‘low intensity.’ In organization 1, a wide spread of behaviors “works” because the culture is not strongly defined.

Conversely, in organization 2, the shape of the “culture graph” is much tighter and the culture is much stronger (darker color).

In organization 1, nearly anyone can “fit in” because anything goes in that organization. In organization 2, with a stronger culture, only a certain set of people will feel comfortable there, but, for those people, the culture will have a stronger pull that will keep them motivated and make them more productive.

Now, moving beyond thinking about the impact of the culture on the employees, let’s think about the impact of the employees on the culture.

Here’s where things get interesting, because culture is not static: each team member has their own influence on the culture, either pushing against (weakening) the existing culture or strengthening it.

Let’s visualize this as the cultural “force field” that each team member brings to our organization, each and every day. Like our two organizations, each person has a different cultural force field that they exert on those around them: it has a size, a shape, and an intensity…all of which affect how that person impacts the organization’s culture over time.

(I understand that the visuals might be breaking down a bit…stay with me here. The point is: the shape and intensity of your ‘culture graph’ today and tomorrow are a function of all the behaviors of your team between now and tomorrow: how people act, what behaviors are rewarded and punished, what people say, what they do…)

With this backdrop, we can ask a few questions about our organizational cultures, things like:

  • What is the shape and intensity of our own ‘culture graph’?
  • How does it differ by location, function, and seniority? Are these differences intentional?
  • When we think of the future, what do we imagine happening to our culture graph? Does today’s culture remain in place? Does it morph? Intensify so we stay true to ‘who we are’? Weaken so we can accommodate more people?
  • What do we do about people who supercharge our culture, who will serve as ballasts between today and the future?
  • And what do we do about people who perform well but who push against our current and future culture?
  • Most important: if you asked your team whether their job is to create and accentuate your culture, or to accept and adapt to it, what would they say?
  • What would you like them to say?

I share all this not to offer answers to the above questions, but in an effort to make the invisible visible.

Our culture either accentuates and accelerates everything we do, or it stands in the way, gumming up the works. Yet, despite these powerful multiplier effects, we often act as if culture will take care of itself.

Perhaps, then, it is time to bring it out in the open.

Perhaps it is time to invite ourselves and teams to see and own our active role in defining, strengthening and reinforcing “how we do things around here.”

One number(s)

We all have one big, headline line that we want to see move up and to the right—that could be revenues or profits, funds raised or grant dollars dispersed, or number of people reached through our programs.

Underneath this are the gears of our enterprise, the everyday of what we put in to get that output.

Three conversations you can have, either alone with your notebook or with your team.

  1. This leads to that: What are the most important things we do to make the numbers we want to go up go up?
  2. We do a lot of this, but it doesn’t create that: What are the things we spend a lot of time doing that we could strip away without impacting the results that really matter for us.
  3. These things create short-term results, but might hurt us in the long run: What are the things that are going up today (stress, eroding trust or joy, command-and-control) that create results in the near term but risks in the long term?

Culture(s)

Cultures, like personalities, aren’t just one thing.

There is our organizational culture on our best days…

…on days when things are going badly.

…when the going gets tough.

…when we are facing a risk.

…when we are balancing between the short and long term.

…when we are stressed.

…when faced with a crisis.

…or an unexpected challenge

…in different offices, functions, geographies.

…when we talk about ourselves to others.

…when we talk about ourselves to ourselves.

In each situation, different elements of culture show themselves. Most of the things that come out aren’t the things you’re writing on the wall or in the employee manual.

What you should care about are the elements of your culture…

…that don’t change regardless of the situation, or the ups and downs, or the people involved.

…that you’re willing to uphold even if it means sacrificing immediate results.

…that make you different from everywhere else.

…and that help you deliver sustained, differentiated performance over time.

Here’s a hack for a culture exploration.

Step 1, the easy part: get a group of team members together and ask them to jot down, privately, how ‘we’ act in the long list of situations on the first list.

Step 2, which is tough and daring: have an honest conversation about what everyone wrote down.

The Boggart Defense

A boggart, according to the Muggles’ Guide to Harry Potter, is “a shapeshifter that usually lurks in dark spaces. It has no definite form, taking the shape of that which is most feared by the person who encounters it. When not in the sight of a person, it is believed to look like a dark blob.”

boggart_transforming

For those true Harry Potter fans, you will no doubt remember the scene in which Professor Lupin teaches his Defense Against the Dark Arts class to fight the boggart. The students line up, and, in turn, the boggart pops out of an old dresser and transforms into the single thing most feared by each student at the front of the line: a giant spider, Professor Snape, a soul-sucking dementor, the moon. The students defend themselves by thinking happy thoughts and shouting the word “Ridikulus!” and the boggart transforms into a harmless version of itself – the spider, for example, suddenly has roller skates and falls onto the floor.

The scene that always intrigued me was the one in which the boggart had been beaten, and, nearly defeated, it keeps shifting shapes from one terrible-seeming form to another, in a last-gasp attempt to distract its foe from the fact that it is, indeed, quite harmless.

This happens so often in groups and in organizations: one person makes a challenging comment or creates an uncomfortable situation, and the system (the people, the values, the norms, and the beliefs that have been challenged by that action or assertion) puts up its defenses. A slew of true, but ultimately irrelevant, points are made in an attempt to avert focus from the original threatening statement or action.

These can take the form of attacks on the person creating the uncomfortable situation (“The way you’ve said that makes it clear that you don’t understand ______ about our culture.”). More often, it comes in the form of a subtle deflection (“What about this!?” “Yes, but here’s this other thing!” “Let’s talk about this thing that we love to get bogged down in and never resolve!”).

The boggart defense is any engaging-enough and true-enough statement that feels so real and important that it’s hard to notice what’s really going on: a form of cultural self-defense. It’s the organization’s immune systems fighting off threatening behaviors, where “threatening” means “if we don’t kick this back under the table it runs the risk of starting to shift the way we do things around here.”

The good news about a boggart is that it’s actually NOT a soul-sucking dementor or a giant killer spider. Instead, it’s a creature whose only power is to play on our fears (or, in this case, play on our willingness to be pulled away from an uncomfortable truth.)

Our job, in the face of the boggart defense, is to see and acknowledge the dementor, the terrifying giant spider, the full moon that turns us into a werewolf, and to realize: you are just a harmless shape-shifter that has no power over me.

The moment we can see this is the moment we can help shine light back on the original uncomfortable truth, and, if we’re feeling brave, stop hiding and engage with it fully.