All business leaders share the same fear, which may be a mantra: “Please God, don’t let me screw it up on my watch…”. But how do you know what to change and what to retain?
1. What is the role of culture in business? I have never worked with clients who state, “we need to change our culture.” However, I frequently work with clients who state, “we need to reduce conflict or increase our communication skills.” That indicates a business opportunity to teach about culture, then accelerate learning for my clients. There is plenty of confusion about culture.
2. So what is culture? I favor the definition from Edgar Schein that culture has 3 levels: 1) artifacts (what we say and do, the physical objects or rituals that reinforce desired behaviors), 2) shared values (why we say and do certain behaviors) and 3) unstated assumptions that may be constructive or destructive. One resource is at https://www.managementstudyhq.com/edgar-schein-model-theory.html. Another is this image:
3. How do we understand the artifacts of culture? We ask for examples and celebrate each example. For instance, if we start a meeting by asking each participant to share an example of an important artifact, then we instantly hear stories of what they value. I recently shared a plaster sculpture of two hands from our children that sits on my desk. I love it as a reminder of why we do this work…. Artifacts may include photos, songs, rituals, objects or traditions.
4. What are our shared values? Most privately-held businesses persist because people know their values and then celebrate them regularly. Each meeting can start with examples of how that stated value on the lobby wall is manifest in recent actions. Surveys and polls from the owners, and stories from Uncle Fred (for instance), will reinforce quantitative and qualitative examples of shared values.
5. How do we understand the shared assumptions? External advisers and managers are paid to “assess and recommend.” With care. Repeatedly. We can be like chameleons who adjust our colors, and we can also be video choreographers using Zoom to provide/solicit behavioral feedback in the moment. Discovery has never been easier or more accurate. Managers need to ask deep questions about what needs to persist and what needs to change. With care. Repeatedly. When we ask probing questions like “What else do we need?” or “How else could we implement that project?” then we identify the disconnects. A candid linchpin, or customer, or in-law, may be more insightful than a manager who avoids taboo topics.
6. Cultural narratives abound. The words we use to describe the founder (for example) are often repeated and reinforce “larger than life” impacts. Notice your reaction to these phrases: “I have no dogs in this hunt, I live and work in Switzerland/ model neutrality, I’m working for the whole organization, not one person, I’m not here to push a specific outcome/agenda, naturally I cannot ever fully understand the complexity of your business history.” I often write notes of key narratives that seem to be repeated. Then I ask, “does this phrase accurately describe your culture?”
7. Process maps provide visual maps of “now and next”… We all use images/ models/ data visualization all the time to “create pictures” or “see others.” Our brains retain and retrieve pictures faster than words, even when we are dreaming. That’s another reason why Instagram is more engaging than reading an academic journal. Process maps can be created in the moment to list possible solutions, do a journey map, ask about future states. Examples can include photos of the past, sociograms of the present, or vision maps of a future state. I often use a simple chart with Schein’s culture model (artifacts/actions, shared values, assumptions that are constructive or destructive), during a business meeting to process behavior. Those process maps help me organize data into cultural schemas. When useful, I may share the process map. Or not.
8. Timelines may also be useful to reflect on the past and focus on that windshield view, rather than that rear-view mirror view. When leaders are stuck/ hostage to the past there may be a need for clinical experts/ therapists. I use genograms to varying degrees (software includes GenoPro and SmartDraw). Genograms can be a team shared activity that increases understanding of antecedents, potential risky behavior patterns, genetic heritage, as well as trends in signature strengths.
All owners share the same fear, which may be a mantra: “Please God, don’t let me screw it up on my watch…”
There are no formulas for what to retain or what to change. There are no stages. There are multiple lenses used to describe culture (e.g., financial, strategic, ownership, management, ethical, technological). There are cultural layers that may be useful to describe culture (e.g. artifacts, values, assumptions).
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