Culture

To the extent that it is discernible at all, culture is held in our lived experience, framed by the architectural structures of the built environment, our behavioural and codified rituals, our systems of individual and shared belief, imbued tokens of value and the trade thereof, and hierarchies of both formal and visible, and social and implicit, power, and the totems that regulate it.

Or to put it another way: culture is everywhere and everything, whilst being nothing but a dream and some stuff.

If we had to choose a single word to describe culture, it would possibly be ‘violence’, not because the behaviours of culture are violent (although they may be), but rather because culture is held as a struggle at the intersection of systems. Tribal systems, formal systems, belief systems, knowledge systems, and specifically systems of power.

In a very real sense, culture is forged in fire.

This is important if we wish to have meaningful conversations about cultural change, or ‘transformation’ as we are wont to call it within organisations.

We can have an evolution of culture, but the process may be destructive, chaotic, and to large extent negotiated, consensual, permitted, and unclear.

If we focus too much on what we want, we may miss the arrival of what we have deserved.

Culture does hold respect, but not necessarily nostalgia: rather like art, it references the other, but builds upon it.

This is particularly pertinent when cultures (or rather the formal and social structures that underpin them) merge. Sometimes we want both the old and the new. But that is like asking for a revolution with solid foundations.

There must be processes of fracture, of dissolution, of mosaic laying, of negotiation, of prototyping and rehearsal, of remembrance and remorse, and celebration.

In a very real sense, culture must die and culture must be reborn.

We are often naive in our narrative descriptions of what ‘culture’ is: we talk about ‘learning culture’ as a thing, when perhaps we mean a subset of ‘learning what i tell you’, or ‘believing what i believe’.

It is always possible to learn within a culture, but what we may end up learning is how to survive within culture.

There are quite practical implications of our underlying understanding of how culture is forged, and both the violent destruction and aspects of creation, of the new. We must give space and have understanding of what needs to be done.

And whilst there is much talk of time, of oil tankers and momentum, of difficulty, the acts of engagement with, evolution of, and creation around culture may happen remarkably fast.

Indeed: they may happen far faster than the planning that takes place at a strategic level.

Often within cultural transformation programmes we still see the over-involvement of legacy Domains like ‘comms’, a function of formal power and an outdated belief that formal stories can outrun social beliefs.

It’s ironic that whilst ‘authenticity’ is deemed the top desired train in leaders, leaders often resort to broadcast models of cultural change.

In some ways we have engineered our own complexity: culture, and change, are not that difficult, provided that we are willing to accept a broader range of outcomes, and an acceptance that culture is an untidy affair.

The most important thing is to be engaged in the discussion: to listen, to be uncertain, and yet to be clear.

To move forward, we must leave certain things behind. You cannot be both the old and the new, and the violence of change must be confronted, and indeed may end up as the fire we use in the forge.

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Apollo: Remastered

Like many, i was eagerly anticipating the launch of the new NASA SLS rocket over the weekend, the rocket that will eventually carry a new batch of astronauts to the moon (doubtless in glorious high definition), but alas, it was not to be. I found out about the launch postponement via Twitter, whilst listening to music in a field.

The original Apollo programme, in the 1960’s, was distinguished from earlier forms of exploration by the depth, synchronicity, and range, of it’s own documentation: live TV streaming the key moments of the voyage, a full range of both colour, and black & white photography, shaky home movies shot from the surface of the moon. Apollo had it all. You can read the full mission radio transcripts, if you have the time, or listen to the audio to get close the original conversations (and tensions). There was even a contemporary Twitter account ‘live’ recasting the Apollo 11 mission word for word for the 50th anniversary.

For most of us today, the connection with Apollo, with that golden age of Space Exploration, is visual: the iconic imagery.

Indeed, one of the bands i was listening to referenced the ‘blue marble’, itself a term used by the Apollo 17 astronauts to describe the first images of the earth seen from space.

In his new book, ‘Apollo Remastered’, author and digital photo restoration specialist Andy Saunders has been given access to the original NASA archives, and used innovative modern techniques to tease a new story out of the original film.

I say ‘tease it out’, because his work is not an act of original creation, but rather a fascinating unearthing, more akin to archaeology. Through the digital tools he is able to retell the story, stripping back the noise to reveal the narrative underneath.

The book is an incredible collection of images, some familiar, but with new detail. For me some of the most fascinating images are those where reflections are revealed: what were previously flat surfaces or dark patches now reveal glimpses of faces and the interiors of the space craft.

Photos are fascinating: both through the technologies of their creation, but also the semantics of framing, they tell a story. But it’s only a story, not an absolute truth. None of Saunders work is the result of AI: these are not recreations, but perhaps rather rebirths.

In ‘To the Moon and Back’, i talked about Apollo through the lens of storytelling – one of the first great synchronous global stories, which, along with the Vietnam War photography and films had a pivotal impact on American culture and sense of self. Perhaps one reason why NASA delayed the SLS launch: an explosion on the pad would itself provide a narrative around contemporary culture.

In work on culture we can usefully explore not just stories, but also artefacts and rituals, each of which shape, reinforce, and frame the stories of culture.

So the images of Apollo shape our stories, hold our stories, and to a degree constrain our stories (to history, to a specific context, to a time). This reworking of the images, the evolution of the artefact in some senses changes the story. Perhaps making it more accessible, more human.

For me, this work (and it sure looks like a monumental body of work) surfs the line between creative storytelling and technical mastery. The book itself i a beautiful artefact. Quite something.

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Merging Cultures

Today i am #WorkingOutLoud on ideas around culture: specifically questions around the merging of cultures (if such a thing is even possible). When Organisations acquire or connect with other entities, they bring not only ‘stuff’, like offices, telephones, contracts, systems, and process, but also culture and associated social systems (neither of which are ‘owned’ and hence neither of which are ‘sold’ or traded, but which can be ‘moved’ as the formal system shifts around them.

This simple illustration considers what happens when two cultures come together: what forms the past, what do we desire in the future, and where to the gaps, cracks, and deficits sit?

Culture is held as the relationship (thoughts, actions, intent) between people, and hence we typically look to find it in the ‘people’ part of the equation (although culture can also have a relationship to ‘spaces’, which themselves hold a relationship with formal power.

Culture is partly held in relationships forged on forces like pride, fear, intent, trust and so on: the social currencies that bond us. Through, and within, these currencies we may find belonging. And indeed purpose. Culture is typically wrapped up in rituals (people described the importance of these in the ‘Landscape of Community’ research work), as well as artefacts. So in this sense, culture is socially constructed (at the individual level of perception), and socially co-created (at the level of behaviour, consequence, and the implicit construction of social and accepted ‘norms’).

So when cultures ‘come together’ we have to consider what will persist, what will be destroyed, and what will simply change. And how: who has a say, how do we memorialise the past, and yet (in the context of the Organisation), how do we find something purposeful for the future.

That in itself may be the wrong language: a culture is not purposeful, per se, but rather has the potential to hold purpose. But the point is that Organisations are not neutral space: they are purposeful, and hence when they talk about culture, they are talking about purpose and effect, or effectiveness.

Change (formal change) is typically framed with a painted picture of a future culture, an aspirational one. This is what we plan for. And sometimes we may get it (or we may get a subscription only appearance of it), but we also get the ‘emergent’ too.

Emergence is more than persistence: this is about new traits, habits, behaviours, beliefs, and norms, that emerge, but are neither pure legacy, nor entirely planned.

There may be tension if we imagine a battle between the ‘emergent’ and ‘planned’. Perhaps we always have, or need, both. Emergence, and indeed persistence of the old, may be untidy, or unwanted, but we have to ask what power we hold, and whether ‘tidiness’ is ever a true feature of culture (which is more a space and convention than a ‘thing’.

There is also a question of whether we seek to solve for yesterday, or tomorrow?

Cultures tend to leave long shadows: in my own research, up to 11 years after the merging of formal organisations, more than half of a team retained a primary cultural identity with the identity of the legacy organisation. Because our ‘belonging’ is a tribal force, and a personal feeling. I cannot ‘make’ you belong, nor can i force you to defect from, or change allegiance to, a tribe, which are structures governed by trust.

However: you can interconnect and create space for new engagement, partly through the creation of new spaces, and new narrative and storytelling channels and opportunities.

In a very real sense, people write themselves both into, and out of, culture.

And in a very real sense, a ‘new’ culture will most likely hold shadows, and a tension of the planned and emergent.

Some things you can own and control. Some you can own, but not control. Other you may influence and yet not own. And of course some things just seem to happen.

Culture has a relationship to all of these: you can create space for a culture to emerge, by making formal changes. You can share your hopes and intent, and you will experience the ‘lived’ experience. And sometimes it will feel fractured and confused.

Solving for yesterday is relatively easy, because that time has passed. Solving for the future is harder, because there is no structure of understanding, or power, to nest within. Which is why it’s so hard.

It’s unlikely that a mechanical-technical view of culture will be of much use. Nor that a broadcast- certainty view will help. Rather a space and story approach may be best: shared spaces, interconnecting, and layers of narrative, with variable ownership. Essentially what i feel, what you feel, what we feel, what we are told, what we observe, and what we believe, all leading towards how we act, and how we respond.

Culture is both nothing, and everything we have. We cannot ignore it, but neither will it come when called. At best, we can earn the right to participate.

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#WorkingOutLoud on Identity

Tomorrow i will publish the latest Identity Story over on the Identity Project site: this will be the seventh story published, and i have conducted a further nine interviews, which i am writing up. So far i’ve spent around 55 hours on this work, which is a little more than i had anticipated, largely because people have so much to say!

The premise is somewhat artificial: asking people to share the three identities most central to who they are. These are then written up as anonymised first person stories. I try to capture the language and style of the interviews, whilst changing enough detail to ensure anonymity.

I have been taken aback by how open people are, and the power of the stories shared. Unsurprisingly, when talking about identity and the forces that shape it, many stories are ones of love, hate, abuse, neglect, addiction, education, inspiration, or fear. I have been very mindful of my responsibility to hold these stories safely, as the thought that people put into them is immediately visible.

Hearing someone tell you about the time their father let a child break their leg to teach them a lesson, the way that a teenager was groomed into a life of heroin addiction, or the way someone found athletic excellence as the only part of their life they could control to escape domestic abuse is hard. But equally a privilege: the way these very same people talk about how their experiences have let them to greater empathy, to a desire to help others, to be driven to do more.

Yesterday i interviewed a person who escaped heroin addiction and now uses her life experience in her identity as ‘Advocate’, working with homeless people, sex workers and refugees, finding the most difficult clients, and finding connection.

Of course, the dramatic stories are hard, but all these stories are powerful: the footballer who finds purpose in helping others, and yet does so in the face of everyday sexism. The engineer who is re-authoring herself as a coach. And another engineer who escaped religious and political tensions to find his voice, quite literally, in opera singing.

In this first phase of the work, i have fifty people signed up, and i expect to get around 35 stories out of this. I will publish them every Friday through to the end of the year. After that, i will see.

If there is sufficient interest in, and insight from, this work, then i will broaden it out. Or it may just end up as a discrete project and archive.

A couple of things are already clear: men and women talk differently about identity, with women so far more likely to focus on aspects of gender in their stories. And few people hold work as a core identity, although people do describe how their identities relate to, or enable, them to excel in their work.

I have included some general questions in the interviews too, to see if opinions are diverse, or converge around an agreement. So far, divergence is the norm: some people see identity as fragile, others see it as strong, some find it precious, whilst others see it as transient. Some believe they are the ‘same’ in all spaces, whilst others are different online.

All in all, this is fascinating work, and i feel lucky to be hearing these stories. You can find ‘The Identity Project’ here.

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Mission, Culture, Values

In ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’ i explored a new model of Organisational design, based upon the notion that the context of Organisations has evolved (the Social Age), the nature of engagement has shifted (to intersection of formal and social), and the mechanisms of effect and adaptation have evolved (social co-creation, discretionary investment, social sensing and sense making, the narrative organisation etc). A theme in this work was ‘interconnectivity’, the social wiring around the formal structure (which connects this work to Social Leadership).

Today i am considering some more traditional aspects of the Organisation: ‘mission’, ‘culture’, and ‘values’. I have explored culture and values in great detail before, but taken less of a focus on mission. The writing today is some light and early thinking about these aspects, based upon one (but not necessarily the only, or correct) illustration of mission (running forwards as a backbone) with ‘culture’ and ‘values’ feeding into it. I’ve also included some confounding or influencing elements: ‘Safety’, ‘Control’, ‘Emergence’, ‘Power’.

Organisations are intended (generally) to be purposeful: either to do a known thing, to discover a new thing, or at the very least to hold enough structure to be distinguishable from the background noise. In service of that, we have invented or adopted a vocabulary that may give a greater illusion of efficiency and control than is truly the case.

A mainstay of collective entities is to have a mission: a defined and then shared purpose. These will range from the wildly aspirational, through the almost entirely abstract, to the narrowly defined or even mundane and ordinary. I realise as i write this (with some embarrassment) that even my own Organisation has a ‘mission’ (to ‘help Organisations get fit for the Social Age’). This one at least is suitably vague, whilst conveying a sense of certainty…

It seems pretty sensible to have a mission, albeit with a humility to recognise that it may need to be evolutionary, or that it may itself become constraining if context changes.

From here, we tend to read ‘left to right’ and define culture and values. If we know our mission, we may be curious as to what type of culture, and which specific values, will ‘get us there’. Again, all well and good, so long as we do not fall into an engineering mindset. Neither ‘culture’, nor ‘values’ are any more ‘real’ than the mission, so we end up stacking up systems of belief. These are not deterministic of outcome, although they may be enablers of it.

It is probably this constructed logic that gives us the greatest risk: the idea there is a certain comfort in thinking that we can follow a process, that we define and build out the detail, and hence we reach out destination, but life is rarely that simple, at least in the complex world of social interaction and productivity.

I think one thing to focus on is the difference between ‘values’ and ‘culture’ as being owned, or given, as opposed to them being discovered, co-created, and lived. A common mistake is that a small group of (typically senior) people make a journey to discover ‘values’, and then treat these values as treasure to be distributed to everyone else. Whilst in fact, the treasure is not the outcome, but rather the journey itself.

We would often be better off abandoning the tidy and polite published ‘values’, in favour of hearing individual values and exploring the diversity of language, understanding, and thought.

We know for sure that published values do not determine behaviour – and yet we are often afraid of addressing this.

Partly this may be because visible and published narratives around mission, values, and culture, reinforce the underlying legacy structures of power, safety, and control, but negate the potential for emergence.

Values and culture are inherently intangible: we can only ever report on observed or narrated features – what people think and feel. They are not ‘real’ except in the ways we report on them. But we treat them as if we are, and hence they become almost so. Culture operates as a social constraint (albeit often a good one): it limits or determines the language and behaviour we use. And hence limits our ability to express thought, uncertainty, or dissent. Culture (as published and inhabited) will inevitably have a relationship to existing power (although not necessarily enforcing it – it may oppose it).

Systems of power tend to be multi layered, but inhabited, codified (formally or socially) and nested within. So power structures seek to persist, and hence constrain cultural structures to do so too.

As stated earlier: Organisations are entities of purpose. And to be purposeful we like or need to feel we can exert influence on the system: the framework of mission, values and culture is a reasonable attempt to do that, provided we do not somehow imagine it to be real.

In real life, people do not tend to stop and think ‘what do my values say’, nor do they consciously consider culture, except typically to consider what is ‘safe’ to say or do. Many of these things are measured in retrospective judgement more so than in proactive cognition. We look at a situation and judge it.

The illustration of a central theme of ‘mission’, acted upon by values and culture, or cutting through culture, is probably a misnomer. More likely is that all three aspects act upon each other: mission sets parameters, defines an opportunity space, values show stated intent, and culture illustrates lived experience. In this sense, the most real of the three is culture, which is no surprise, because culture is what we ‘do’.

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The River

Whilst in Wales last week i visited a friend who has recently bought a farm down there. It’s a smallholding really, the remnants of an estate sold off and subdivided over the centuries, but today, as well as the 16th century (and decidedly damp) farmhouse, they hold around fifty acres of land, including a long strip of the river.

I kayaked up the river to the rapids, over swirled and eroded rock formations, past a sinkhole maybe two metres wide, rubbed away by water and stone, winter storms over hundreds of years. And i wondered if they felt like they owned this land. Or simply held it.

Ownership is a tricky construct: we may own something legally, but not the idea that it represents. We may own an idea, that consists of nothing more than thoughts. We may own a space, but not the sense of community that inhabits it. We may own a contract that binds us together, but we do not own the trust, pride and belief that make it work. We may own the bricks, but not the idea of ‘home’.

And we may own an Organisation, but not it’s culture.

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Clinging On

On holiday last week i found myself walking down a green lane in Wales, clearly an ancient boundary. The road was sunk down maybe ten feet, eroded by the feet and hooves of countless journeys, topped by a mound of stones and roots that had maybe once been walls and a managed hedgerow. Through it all grew a tree.

Not growing on flat land, but rooted into the bank, the wood shaped around the stones, forcing them apart in places, clinging on.

It reminded me of the trees i saw in Angkor Wat, melded into the structure of the temples themselves: a fluid structure where the two became bonded into one.

It reminded me of how systems persist, clinging on.

Power roots itself into the cracks, forcing apart the structure and nesting. It melds into everything, creating a cohesive mass and yet slowly breaking it apart, like the crumbling temples.

Perhaps this is how Organisations fail: torn apart by their legacy of strength, but unable to flow into the new?

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On Holiday

I am looking forward to a break: what with the pandemic, the baby, and the toddler, as well as the small matter of work, it’s been a busy couple of years. Productive, but busy.

Whilst i’m off, the first full print run of ‘The Humble Leader’ will land, ready to distribute to the Kickstarter backers in August, and with a Second Sequence releasing afterwards.

These Are Me – The Identity Project’ has made a start, and i’ve got stories scheduled to release (as well as more interviews booked) right through to the end of Phase 1, at the end of the year.

Two new Quiet Leadership cohorts will kick off when i return, mid August, on early and late slots to suit global audiences. I have loved this work, and am often approached by people around the world who have taken part in a journey, all with their stories and insights to share.

I’m working on a new ‘Future Leadership’ programme, as well as revisiting the ‘Learning Science Guidebook’, and a few other projects bubbling along.

Social Leadership Daily will also be taking a break – it’s been a super engaged space, and although that community is still tiny, it’s my most active space! Clearly full of fellow travellers trying to figure out how to put Social Leadership into their everyday practice.

And as i said: i feel ready for a holiday!

The blog will return on 15th August.

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The Learning Science Guidebook V2

I’m about to head off on holiday, but before i do, some news on the ‘Learning Science Guidebook’. Those of you with long memories will recall this as a 2020 project that rather ground to a halt when i completed the first full draft. It was clearly not ready to publish, and my early reviewers suggested that i had accidentally welded two books into one, in a rather clumsy way… anyway, i felt so overwhelmed by the whole thing that i just backed away and let it sleep for a while.

In 2021 i revisited the illustrations and fell in love with it again, but still lacked the structure or energy to resurrect it. I knew that it really needed to be stripped right back to the ground and rebuilt – and now i’m about ready to tackle it. Or in fact, i have the writing partner to do so! More on this soon, but this will most likely be my first co-authored book, written with one of my best friends, who also happens to be a world class learning scientist! We spent a weekend kicking ideas around and are now looking to set ourselves a schedule and push forwards with it.

For now, i’m just sharing a little of our ideas for structural approach to the writing – as i say, the first manuscript got to version 21 before it toppled over… and now i’m starting again at v1… so this is very DRAFT ideas…

There is a SCAFFOLDING of structure in the hard ideas – what the research tells us about ‘how things work’, and ‘what to prioritise’. We have a list of ‘20 ideas’ from the research that will form a a foundation of that. I’ll share more on this in due course.

There is probably some TRANSLATION – where we may base our writing in the research, but build a more pragmatic, possibly simpler, language around some of it. I think our steer is that we are seeking to give insight and understanding, heading into action. Not abstract knowledge alone.

There is probably some CONTEXT around the modern Organisation – the desire to ‘unlock’ potential, and into some of the social collaborative aspects – this is probably a layer that we can weave around it.

And maybe some additional theory or IDEAS – which may lean more into some of my more recent work, shared on the Learning Fragments site – i think we should be unafraid to give our interpretation and ‘next ideas’ – so what would we do about this – in fact, this may be the best bit!

Finally: REFLECTIONS, with questions to ask yourself and your Organisation about the state of health and potential.

For now, i’m feeling pretty exhausted and ready for a holiday, but i will share more on this when i return. In August i think we will be able to share some of the timeframes and structure, and of course i will #WorkOutLoud on the development and production as we go.

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Identity: Turning Points

I’ve published the first five Identity Stories so far, and completed ten interviews in total. These are extraordinary stories from everyday people. Possibly because so many people are extraordinary if you find the space to listen.

It’s early days with this work, which invites participants to share the three identities that are most central to who they are. But even at this early stage, some things are clear.

People do not tend to share their work as a core identity, although around half explain how their core identities make them good at the work that they do. People tend to say that only a small number of people, if anyone at all, knows all of their identities. And identities are often born in a single moment.

When describing their identity, people frequently tell stories: stories of people who influenced the, or simple events that transformed them:

“…my older sister was a few years older, and we sat on blanket in front of the shopping centre selling old toys.

We were crazy existed about making some money! So two guys walked past in tank tops, probably thirty years old, just totally cool, with tattoos, quite drunk, and they walked past me like gods.

It was just an epiphany of independence. Heavily tattooed, it opened my heart seeing these two free spirits walk past.”

Often these are the smallest of things, but which leave the lasting legacy. One interviewee, in a story as yet unpublished, spoke of how a random comment about her body led to a twenty year aspect of identity that remained hidden.

Some of these events are deeply traumatic, people have shared the experience of a father and brother committing suicide. Some of these stories are harrowing to read.

At other times, the features described seem almost trivial from the outside: without the context of ‘self’ it is hard to ‘feel’ what that person felt.

Some people describe how they carry their three identities aligned, how they are an ‘open book’, whilst for others the identities are kept separate, or even hidden:

“[There is a] tension between my inner identity as a magician and my other identity as a leader. I think my magical friends may feel some tension between my organisational and spiritual life, so i keep these identities very separate.”

“If that wall was publicly torn down i would have a really hard time explaining to people on both sides of the fence. On both sides of my identity, lots of people have stereotypes. With both sides you are left with the unthankful task of dismantling those stereotypes.”

Identity is often described in terms of boundaries or fences, separation of ‘space’, and i can feel people finding the language or paradigm to separate them.

“I suppose people would say ‘you must be institutionalised’, and i suspect i have some characteristics – but i do see myself as a person in society who happens to be in the military – because it works for me – the ethics and what people do – but i don’t see myself as primarily a military person. Rather i am a person in the military.”

My aim is to continue to share these Identity Stories, probably around 35 of them, through the rest of 2022, and then to take stock. If people are finding value in them, and if i can draw some kind of thread around them, then i will continue beyond then. But equally these interviews may just form a snapshot: i already find i can share these stories into broader work, and it gives insight into questions i have been exploring for some time: ‘what does it mean to belong’, and ‘which self do you bring to the system’. I hope you enjoy reading them as much i have have enjoyed, and felt privileged, to hear them.

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