Walking along the beach is a balance: the golden sand above all the but the highest of tides is soft and hard to walk on, but dry and warm. The lowest sand is damp and much firmer, easier to traverse, but occasionally washed by the waves as the tide rises and falls. Navigating this space is a journey of rapid progress, interspersed with a familiar sideways jumping and hop as you try to keep your feet dry (unless you have shed your shoes in favour of sandy toes).
We talk about the tide being ‘in’ or ‘out’, but it is rarely entirely either, being constantly in motion is always has some zone, the liminal, that is neither ‘in nor out’, sometimes washed, sometimes dry, sometimes safe, an other times sodden.
There is something in this to help us understand culture: the broad movement, and the erratic waves.
The notion of culture is complex, partly because we struggle to describe ‘the thing’, and party because the ‘thing’ is contextual (depending where you stand on the beach) and dynamic (what was safe a minute ago is no longer safe right now.
Any surfer will tell you that waves roll on a rhythm, and the seventh one is the one to catch. Until it isn’t. And in any case, it varies by beach and time.
Organisational culture in an impossibly dynamic an occluded system: each of us as grains of sand that could lie in any of a billion aspects, and change aspect again in the next minute. Our individual perspectives shaped by personal meaning, context, and desire. Indeed: it’s a wonder we are able to be together at all.
And yet we are.
Our social selves operate at a level of abstraction: able to differentiate my immediate feelings in the moment – getting caught out by a wave and leaving with waterlogged shoes – from the broader sense of the beautiful view of the beach, and the feeling of being at the seaside.
In that sense, the culture that we inhabit is more of a story, a dream, than a thing itself.
We will not understand the experience of the seaside by mapping every grain of sand and action of the waves – although for purposes of understanding coastal erosion dynamics and the movement of large bodies of sand over time, we may need to do just that.
There is something about how our approach to culture must be both pragmatic, macro, and granular.
In broad terms, we need to focus on the ‘here and now’: culture does not change through theory alone.
At a macro level, we need to know if the tide is in or out, if erosion is stealing the sand or creating new dunes. If we need spare shoes or are happy with sandy toes.
Granular because culture is only, and ever, about you and me: whatever grand narrative we subscribe to, whatever the aspiration of our leaders, and hopes of our colleagues, culture is only ever you and me and how you are to me and i am to you!
Culture as experience, in the moment (that moment being this one) is the granular lived reality – and one level of change (as i explore in Quiet Leadership) is the change in the steps that you take today.
There is something comforting in some ways to consider the tides of culture, and the perspectives that range from the entire coastline, down to the footprints that you and i leave in the sand, washed away in the next minute.
The system is unknowable – cannot be modelled – and yet we ‘feel’ it all around us, and in a very real sense are both enabled and constrained by it every day.
Perhaps our Organisational challenge is to be comfortable with this dynamic view, and our individual one is to learn where to place each step, and to look at the actions of each wave around our feet.