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.”

Leading Indicators

Most of what we do today is going to bear fruit in a few weeks, months, or years.

This means that the feedback we’re receiving today–about how things are going around us, the results we are getting, the way people are feeling–are mostly the result of actions we took in the past.

Consider our oceans: they have absorbed 93% of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions since the 1970s. They are a buffer between yesterdays’ actions and today’s reality. They lull us into a false sense of security that what we’re doing today will lead to a safe tomorrow.

We are often blind to this time lag. We see what’s going on around us and falsely attribute today’s results to our current or recent actions.

Figuring out how long our actions take to create results—whether in our organizations, our families, or in the world—is one of the best ways to learn where to look to see if what we’re doing is, or is not, working. When looking for the right organizational KPIs, we’d do well to home in on those that tell us what will, or will not, happen in 6 months’ time (think: new sales leads generated, not new sales closed).

The high-leverage we should be asking ourselves is: how early do I need to adjust to make a meaningful difference?

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.

The foundation, the house, the finishing touches

On my way to work, I walk past a house that’s been empty for more than a year.  The lot was vacant and listless for a while, and then a few months ago they started work in earnest, including demolishing the old house, clearing the lot and laying the foundation. It’s been slow going.

I went away for a week’s vacation, and suddenly the house is up. Not “the house” as in a finished thing, but a three-story wooden structure with walls, a roof, the works.

Now it’s going to take them another six months to finish it.

Those three phases – the pre-work and building the foundation; the framing and putting up of the house; and then doing all the work to finish it – are good reminders of how great teams work and where to place effort.

The pre-work and foundation-building phases are all about the composition of the team: who is on it, the norms of how the team works together; the psychological safety within the team; how (and by who) behaviors that are in and out of line with the emergent team culture are addressed and reinforced.

The framing and putting up of the house is what we typically consider the “work” of the team: the big pieces that are visible and that feel like the team’s formal output.

And then there’s the finishing, which is about getting all the details right: not just laying tile but doing it beautifully; making small adjustments when the door that’s in the plans doesn’t quite work. This is the work of smoothing off all the rough edges to make sure things not only work the way they’re supposed to but that they feel delightful and surprising to the end users. This phase can only exceed expectations if the team members truly care about the product and the end user experience.

What this means is that the work that really matters comes at the beginning – in forming the team and how it works together – and at the end – when the sense of care and ownership bear fruit. Yet more often than not we find it easier to fuss about the bit in the middle, the visible work product that the team is producing.

Great teams – teams with the right people in the right roles, teams with strong and supportive cultures, norms and behaviors – feel like flywheels. Sure, there’s big, hard and heavy work to do, but the pieces are in place to do that work quickly, joyfully, and with leverage.

Innovation isn’t really like apple pie

No one dislikes “innovation” as a concept.  It’s like mom and apple pie (in the US at least) – no one will ever, ever stand up and say, “I’d like us to innovate less!!”

No, that would be too obvious.  Instead they say, “Of course we want innovation but let’s….

…make sure we don’t go over anyone’s head.

…ensure we don’t surprise people, or offend anyone.

…get buy in from all potential stakeholders.

…form a working group to think it through a little more.

…dot every i and cross every t.

…not go too fast.

Sorry but it doesn’t work this way.

Not all innovation is about lone wolves in back rooms – in fact the most innovative cultures are highly collaborative.  At the same time, you have to decide what you value, and be willing to make tradeoffs to protect it; add one thing too many to the mix (that extra approval, that check and balance, that unwillingness to step on a few toes) and you extinguish the flame.

Everyone loves the idea of innovation, but most people are unwilling to take their culture to a place where innovation thrives.

That’s why it’s so rare.

Plus first

In February I blogged about Randy Nelson’s, President of Pixar University, talk about the core skill of innovators being “failure recovery, not error avoidance.”

Before getting to this point, Randy talks about the environment that nurtures creativity at Pixar.  One important element is having a culture where the expectation is that you will “plus” other people’s ideas.  Randy explains this by talking about improvisational theatre, the core principle of which is that you have to accept any idea that’s thrown out by the other actor(s) on stage (you can also hear Emily Levine talk about this at TED) and then build on it.

For example, if you’re an improve actor and you say, “It’s a lovely day today” and the other actor says, “Yes, except for that 20 foot wave that’s crashing to shore,” you have to accept what that actor has said and work with it (so you could say, “Yes, which is why I have this inflatable suit on, just in case.”)

In many professional situations, there’s a real tendency to skip this step and instead jump to the contrary point, the little bit that could be improved, your small suggestion.

All of you smart, critically-minded people out there (you know who you are) ask yourself how often, when asked to give feedback of one sort or another, jump right in to all the little or big changes you think should be made.  This is actually the easy way out: you feel like you’re being helpful, improving the output, and it makes you look smart to boot.  And when you’re talking to someone you like and respect, you assume they know you think they’re smart/capable/etc. and that the thing they’ve just done (the practice presentation, the brainstormed idea) is pretty good.

Try plus-ing first instead.  If something is mostly good, start with that.  And don’t talk in general terms (“It’s really great.”) as this is neither credible nor useful.  Give this part real attention and thought.  Give it as much analysis as you give your (subsequent) critique. Tell the person what’s good.  Be very specific about what you like.

This will accomplish three things: first, it will give the person just as much feedback about what works as about what doesn’t, so she has a chance to amplify and strengthen the best part of what she’s done.  Second, the person will feel good and gain in confidence.

Perhaps most important, it gives you practice at giving positive feedback in an honest, genuine, and specific fashion – which is actually much harder than it looks.

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