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Posted by Philip on 10 March 2014, 12:42 pm in , , , ,

Watching culture emerge

There’s a lot of talk about creating and changing culture in groups and organisations. The assumption is that culture can be manipulated by design and somehow a desire for a certain “shape” of culture can be transposed onto a group of people at will.

I’m not sure that’s possible.

Robert H. Schaffer suggests in the Harvard Business Review that, 'To Change the Culture, Stop Trying to "Change the Culture"’. He reflects that the “multitude of programs — training, re-organization, systems redesign, and communications campaigns” imposed to create widespread culture change, are “trying to transform a whole lot of cultural dynamics all at once. We’ve found that managers get better results when they start with a few smaller successes, which then provide a basis for expanding.”

I think the same applies to creating culture.

Last weekend I was privileged to work with the fourth new cohort of Be. Leadership participants. On Friday morning, 16 people, most of whom did not know each other, gathered for the first of 21 programme days to be held between now and the end of November. The programme has a basic structure, which my colleague Lesley Slade and I outlined — each session there are a number of speakers with whom participants engage in a Q&A conversation, followed by reflection and along with one or two workshops.

Then we started.

By the end of the first day, someone commented that they would like to have a more structured start to the day. The following morning someone began with a whakatauki. Over the remaining time, other small elements of group culture began to emerge — speaking loudly and clearly to ensure everyone could hear; assisting people with understanding social cues; allowing people to leave the room for support reasons without impeding the rest of the group; finding ways to catch people up if they missed something.

As well as these organic cultural emergences, Lesley and I facilitated a session focussing on individual and group requirements for a useful journey and a cohesive community of leadership. From that emerged other aspects of being and doing that will shape the culture of the group.

Looking back, the group culture of each year has been completely different. It would have easy for us to have said and done things to steer the culture in a certain direction, particularly to make things more certain for us.

At 3pm on Sunday, as we began to wind up the day, the transformation of the group was palpable. The laughter, the connections and the sense of belonging in the room were stronger than either Lesley or I could have imagined. The 2014 Be. Leadership culture is well into its emergence.

Of course, the culture will continue to emerge and change as the year progresses. But we know it’s not our job to make that happen. Rather, as people leading leadership development, we can only create the environment for culture to emerge, observe and feed back to the group what we are noticing.

It will be up to the group how it responds.

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