Shaping the Culture

Scott Berkun has written a great book about his year working at Autommatic, the young team behind wordpress.com. It’s a story about a dynamic culture, unafraid to make mistakes, unafraid to learn.

Sub Cultures

Sub cultures are coherent tribes in themselves, often sharing core common values, but maybe diverging around the edges. It’s in these spaces of divergence that issues of trust, transparency and integrity can emerge

Surprisingly, for a technology company, the focus is on communication, not systems. WordPress uses narrative approaches to sharing and learning: teams narrating their progress, challenges and success on internal blogs, with very little hierarchy to dictate who can view or contribute. Team structures are not defined by what you can and can’t do so much as tribes of similarly skilled and focussed individuals, who have permission to collaborate and contribute more widely. Priorities are set at a local level with little strategic planning or executive orders. There’s a focus on the work: it’s a culture founded on passion and commitment.

It’s a culture born of and suited to the Social Age, where agility counts.

Many organisations fall short: they resort to process and control, to systems and prevarication. For many, the focus is internal, based more on fortifying a power base than the work itself. Many organisations are unable to foster creativity and innovation as they are infrastructurally unable to create the spaces to learn: they lack permissive environments to make mistakes.

There’s a big difference between creating a culture for a startup and reforming an existing one. Both have their challenges.

Cultures are resistant to change, because change threatens what they are: culture is formed around shared values and purpose, around common goals. It’s right that they don’t flex too easily, or it would be all to easy to get change without consensus and consensus is what keeps a culture and community coherent.

With a startup, you’re writing the rules, creating your manifesto of hopes and asking people to align with your vision. At startup, it’s about promises made and expectations of future security. In established businesses, the promises are held up against past experience and often a lack of security: change means redundancy or risk. These are harder promises to make, standing under the spotlight of reality.

In established organisations, i favour a co-created and co-owned model of change, where culture is shaped and reformed through conversations at every level. This contrasts strongly with startup cultures, which are usually personality led and almost cult like in nature. When you’re starting a new business, it’s all about momentum, about getting energy into the system and gaining traction. So much of what you do and what you say is forward facing. With established organisations, the legacy can drag you down.

The internal pressures of CAIR

Internal pressures between our ethical position and our experienced reality impact on our behaviours and, ultimately, organisational culture

I’ve been playing around this year with a model of change for established organisations that is based around the tensions that build between individuals and the cultures that they inhabit. The CAIR Model explores how sub cultures form that may be coherent, aligned around core and common values, but that differ slightly from other sub cultures. Rifts open up between these coherent units causing failures of trust and integrity. It locates our interventions in these rifts: we have to build understanding and consensus through structured conversations rather than just broadcast aspirational statements of intent and optimism.

There’s a lot to be envious of with startup cultures: often young, typically unhindered by process and baggage, they seem fun and often effective. But they don’t always age well: there are transition points that are difficult to navigate. Scott talks about this journey for Autommatic who, with over fifty employees, start to implement formal structures. When we introduce teams, we introduce tribes: sub cultures with their own identity that have to stand up against and integrate into the broader organisational frame.

Much of our ability to be effective is rooted in these tribes: both the formal ones we call teams and the socially defined ones that surround them. In the Social Age, it’s our ability to contribute to and nurture these formal and social communities that directly influences our ability to create meaning, to be effective. The nine core skills of Social Leadership all focus around this area: developing reputation and authority based on our actions, sharing and collaborating widely, building a socially responsible and responsive business.

I think the challenges of keeping a culture healthy stay with us from startup to maturity, but the nature of the challenge changes. At the start, it’s about definition, later it becomes about scale and growth and finally it’s about reinvention and relevance.

I was in a meeting recently where someone said “We’ve come up with new organisational values“. I wonder where they found them? Values can’t be imposed: at best, they can be modelled and adopted. Sure, you can come up with words, you can write a manifesto or philosophy, but you can’t change the values lived in an organisation overnight. Lived. Values have to be kept alive or they’re simply fossils or aspirations captured in stylised organisational poetry.

Any model of organisational culture and change has to accommodate the frictions between coherent sub cultures an the wider organisational goals. It needs to facilitate a conversation to allow change to be co-defined, co-created and co-owned.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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16 Responses to Shaping the Culture

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  2. Scott Berkun says:

    Thanks for writing this. I’ve never heard of the CAIR model before and I’ll give it a read.

    You might also be interested in this recent essay by the founder of AirBNB about company cultures: https://medium.com/p/597cde9ee9d4

    and the critique of it I wrote:
    http://scottberkun.com/2014/critique-dont-fuck-up-culture/

    I’d love to hear your thoughts given your background. Cheers.

    • julianstodd says:

      That’s a great article Scott: makes me reflect on my own view of organisational culture. I love your pragmattic take on it, exploring the realities of business (to make money) and the role of leadership in defining, protecting and breaking culture. That was one of the real themes i enjoyed in your book [The Year Without Pants]

      it’s the CEO’s actual behavior, not their speeches or the list of values they have put up on posters, that defines what the culture is” rings so true.

      With the CAIR model, i’m really just trying to locate failings in culture at the tensions that build between individual and the organisational culture: the price we pay to belong, which can lead to formation of sub cultures and rifts in trust. But it’s new work for me and i suspect still has some of that sloppy thinking in it that you refer to here… my understanding is evolving.

      I’m particularly interested in how organisations approach change: trying to move away from the notion that change or reform is driven from the top down, towards a co-created and co-owned model…

      You place greater emphasis on the role of leaders in creating/breaking culture, more so than i would have done previously, so i think i need to reflect on this further. I’ve always seen culture as being created in the moment by the actions of any individual, but haven’t really considered a dominance of leadership behaviours. Thanks for the challenging thoughts…

      Been a real pleasure coming across your work Scott: thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts here, best wishes, Julian

      • Scott Berkun says:

        It’s uncommon for managers and executives think about their organizations from this perspective – anthropology isn’t part any MBA program I know of. There’s a big opportunity to transfer knowledge about how systems of people work into the business world. While plenty of leaders understand culture intuitively, few have much context for understanding how systems of people can, and should, function.

        Another important theme i didn’t cover is about family dynamics – the first culture we learn is the one in our immediate family, and families are hierarchical: children contribute to the family but mostly in a way defined and controlled by the parents. A good deal of what goes on in organizations is a reflection of what goes on in families.

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