I’m using a series of pieces to explore aspects of the Socially Dynamic Organisation and, today, my thoughts have turned to culture and community. I often describe ‘community’ according to two principles: shared purpose and shared values. Shared purpose can be imposed, whilst shared values must emerge from within the system itself. You cannot impose shared values, only create the conditions for them to emerge. Dependent upon the co-existence (or otherwise) of these two factors, a community can be either ‘coherent’ or ‘incoherent’, e.g. if it has shared purpose and values, it is ‘coherent’. If It has been given shared purpose, but lacks shared values, it may still function on one level, but be ‘incoherent’ in culture e.g. not bonded by trust and values.
In some cases, an incoherent community may be enough, if, for example, we simply need task based activities completed (peel these potatoes), which require little in the way of creative problem solving. It’s worth noting though that, if we do not nurture community, it may find shared values in opposition to the system itself e.g. united in it’s mistrust of the organisation.
I worked for six weeks in a factory once, earning some money straight after some university exams. My job, mid summer, was packing Christmas boxes of aftershave and deodorant: not a glamorous assignment. I worked with eleven other people on a conveyor belt, each of us with a specialised task: assembling the box, putting in the insert, placing the deodorant into it’s correct space, adding some seasonal packing material, closing the box, sealing it shut, packing the completed box into a crate. If ever there was a job awaiting automation, this was it. I was literally filling in time until they invented it.
We were, most definitely, a community created and moderated externally: a team formed by the organisation, entirely outside of our own control. And an interesting thing happened: when you took the place on the line to pack the deodorant, you were given a tool to open the boxes that it came in with. A stranger (from another team, a team of box pushers) would wheel a large box over, and you would slit the top open with a short knife. If you were not careful, you would cut the top layer of plastic bottles as you did this, ruining them. Naturally, i was careful not to do this.
Until the day we figured out that the system was rigged.
We were not paid a bit rate, rewarded for the speed and efficiency with which we worked, but rather simply for our time: we worked at the speed of the conveyor belt until the end of the shift. And we assumed that all the conveyor belts went at the same speed. But they didn’t.
If production targets were down (i assume, unless it was a random act of exploitation) the belt would slowly speed up, so our hourly production rate increased. Not much: a small percentage, but enough that we noticed, and enough for us to gather resentment.
So we developed a new habit: when our turn came to open the boxes, we would be careless: the game became to see how many of the top layer of bottles you could slit open. Careless, mean spirited and wasteful, yes, but unifying and satisfying? Most certainly. There was no measurement of wastage that we could ascertain, so our subversion was unpunished.
You may have noticed my language shift from ‘i’ to ‘we’, because it was in this unification against the ‘system’ that our particular community found it’s shared values: not high and lofty values, for sure, but we were, after all, simply packing cosmetics, but values nonetheless, with all the social signs of shared intent and coherence. Smiles, shared nods, shared satisfaction, a sense of unity and trust. Our game: not shared with the box pushers, or the teams on other conveyor belts having an easier time than us with their slow and ponderous speeds.
Of course, in retrospect, i realise that we created our own fiction: the system was far too ramshackle to do anything as sophisticated as targeting our production line to optimise output. I suspect that if the belt ran faster at all, it was more to do with the age of the machine, not the machinations of our overlords. Indeed, i suspect it was our imperfect attempts to to measure the speed which were at fault, more than the speed itself varying.
But whatever the truth, by creating conditions for community to emerge, we found our shared values, low and wasteful as they may have been. Community not nurtured, but rather provoked. Because community is not just what we have to celebrate with us when times are good: it is, rather, the community we turn to at times of challenge or adversity, to solve our intractable problems and achieve the impossible.
Our community was not permanent: after six weeks i walked out, when i was reprimanded for failing to ‘clock out’ when leaving the production line to walk to the toilet. Some jobs are worth less than your fundamental self respect. But i learnt something worthwhile on that job: that communities can form in the least likely spaces, but that a group of people is not necessarily a community. And the organisations don’t own community, even though they may provoke it.
Indeed: most organisations are not one community, but rather many, together forming a patchwork culture that is both coherent and fractured in equal measure. Against such a background lie our efforts at change, efforts that i explore in the Dynamic Change Framework.
Ironically, i recently found myself in conversation with a senior executive from that company, talking about organisational change: i felt it improvident to reflect on how the vandalism of their deodorant had, in some small part, started me on a journey to understanding how important organisational culture it, and how it may be as entirely out of your control as the perceived speed of a conveyor belt.
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great story Julian – reminds me of all too many early jobs on production lines and in warehouses, where the collective energy was harnessed to see how little work we could do.
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