The artefacts of organisational culture

February 17th, 2016

The Senior Citizen’s Clubrooms where I was running a workshop seemed to have every nook and cranny plastered with small, and some not so small, laminated signs issuing instructions of what NOT to do or specifically how to act. It struck me at the time, as the sort of club I would want to avoid. The signs seemed, to me, to indicate a culture of control and mistrust.

A colleague used to say that he could tell a lot about an organisation’s culture simply by visiting the tea-room and seeing what artefacts were present. Like the signs in the clubrooms, tearooms are a microcosm of the broader organisational culture: signs about how to act, notices about social events, what’s stuck on the fridge, newspapers or magazines. Is the space dedicated as a tearoom? Is it a quasi storage area, stacked with boxes of documents that no-one wants to throw out? Fascinating places, tearooms.

I asked the LinkedIn Creative Facilitation group what other indicators there were of organisational culture. Here’s a summary of the responses.

  • What’s displayed on office walls, including motivational posters and the like, organisational statements, and awards
  • Conversations outside of meeting rooms – and people talking to each other, or not, outside of scheduled meetings
  • Personal items – photos, mementos etc
  • Nature – plants
  • How people greet each other, and how they greet strangers
  • How people make decisions, and presumable, how they enact those decisions
  • Staff amenities and how they are used

One reason I’m interested in this is the sometimes apparent mismatch between what an organisation espouses its values to be (often posted on the walls) and what values are actually played out. It’s hard to know what people are thinking – it’s easier to see how they are acting, either directly through their behaviour, or indirectly, through the artefacts present or missing. Of course, it’s all assumed, but I think organisational artefacts provide an interesting starting point for any exploration of organisational culture, especially if there’s a desire to change that culture in some way.

Change your meetings, change your culture

February 1st, 2016

Beach1st of February – it’s when the new year ‘really’ starts here in Australia. The kids are back at school, most people are back at work, we’re all planning our next holiday…the weather is great. It really does feel like the new work year has properly begun.

And you’re stuck in a meeting!

Johnnie Moore and I are working on some great new stuff, building on our Creative Facilitation work of recent years. People often tell us how much they dread meetings. If our meetings are uninspiring, then so is our organisation. We believe that it’s in our meetings that we create our culture. Is it possible to set a different standard, and create meetings in which we are challenged, surprised and engaged?

I’ll be exploring this in some detail at my next public Creative Facilitation workshop in Melbourne on February 25/26.

How to start meetings on time

September 2nd, 2015

I’m asked this question a lot.

Meetings start late, and run over time. It becomes the norm, expected even. Everyone knows, and everyone compensates in their own way – generally turning up late. It becomes part of the way the organisation operates.

If this is true for your organisation, or your group, there’s an easy way to change it.

Finish on time.

Every time. No exceptions.

How to do more of what works

October 15th, 2014

Funny how things come together sometimes – an online course about decision-making in complexity and uncertainty, a book about being an astronaut, a workshop on social labs, and an exhibition on making animated movies. I didn’t plan it this way, it just happened, and now I have something to write about.

I’m reading Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. If you don’t know who Chris Hadfield is he’s a Canadian astronaut who played a modified guitar and sang Rocket Man while orbiting the Earth on the MIR space station.

The gist of his book is to ‘be ready’. He maintains that sometimes, the things we want don’t always happen, but if they do, it’s good to be ready. It enables us to take advantage of good planning, serendipity, the unexpected and luck.

Putting humans into space requires good planning. In fact it requires more than that, it requires meticulous, detailed planning and implementation. Any stuff-ups could result in disaster and loss of life.

Another book I’m reading is The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges by Zaid Hassan. I went to a workshop hosted by Zaid and he said this: “There are some common characteristics of complex systems: they are emergent and inherently unpredictable; there’s lots and lots of information, making it hard, if not impossible to keep up with all of the information available; and adaptation is needed, we change our behaviour based on emergence and information.” Much of my work is in this realm – I’ve yet to work with astronauts, and I’m ready if they ever come calling! The environment, natural resources, poverty, human rights – these are all complex, and demand the best we can give. Our response to the uncertainty we face is to plan. But we can’t plan fast enough – the situation has changed even before the ink has dried, new information is coming at us faster than we could hope to absorb it.

Should we throw away the plan? Probably not. Though I do quite like that idea. We might want to take a leaf out of the animator’s book instead. What a fabulous, inspiring exhibition at ACMI in Melbourne: Dreamworks Animation. They come up with ideas for a character and then make them, first as a drawing, then in clay, then in wood. Each iteration reveals something new about what works and what doesn’t.  Then there’s storyboarding – telling the story with pictures, each board a minute detail, some survive, many don’t, most change. Again they are physical. There was 100,000 A5 storyboards for the original Kung Fu Panda movie (2008).

If you’re doing something complicated, like building a bridge or sending humans into space, plan carefully. Please.

In this complex, changing, uncertain world the biggest killer to innovation, change, creativity, and maybe even success is the attitude of business as usual and “we’ve always done it this way.” While you’ve been doing things the way you’ve always done them, the world has changed. Try this instead – inspired by astronauts, animators and the Social Labs revolution!

If you’re doing something complex, like community engagement or saving the planet, be ready. Be ready for what might emerge, for the unexpected. Be ready, and flexible enough, to take advantage of serendipity, coincidence and opportunities. Learn stuff. Even if you think you’ll never get a chance to use it. Prototype. Talk about ideas, with anyone who will listen, write them down, AND try them out, see if they survive contact with the real world. If the idea sucks you’ll find out sooner rather than later, before you have invested too much, then you can try another idea. Do more of what works. Stop doing what doesn’t work to make room for more experimentation to find more of what works.



Language matters

September 24th, 2014

It matters more than you think. The language we use reveals a lot. The language I use as a facilitator reveals a lot about me (so much so that Sascha Rixon did a whole PhD on facilitation language) and the language you use can be like an open door, welcoming me into your world, or like a barrier, holding me at a distance so as I don’t get too close. Many of us use language without giving it a second thought.

This article by Hannah Jane Parkinson in the Guardian about what not to say to someone with bipolar disorder, has one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read. Yes, it’s about language. It’s the difference between ‘is’ and ‘has’ – such small words, such a world of difference.

Hannah writes: I think it is more polite to say someone “has bipolar” than “is bipolar”. You wouldn’t say that somebody “was cancer”. You wouldn’t say: “This is Maya. She is diabetes.” But people will talk of someone “being bipolar”.

This, I think, is true of anyone suffering any mental illness: they are not depressed, they have depression; they are not anxious, they suffer anxiety; they are not bipolar, they have bipolar.  This helps me situate mental illness where it belongs, as a recoverable illness, not as a defining characteristic of a person.

I’m also supporting the ABC’s Mental As initiative for Mental Health Week 5 – 12 October. It’s worth checking out the huge variety of stories people tell about mental illness. It’s all part of breaking down the stigma.

Listen up. R U OK?

September 10th, 2012

Some of us are better at noticing than others. Facilitators get a lot of practice at noticing. Noticing is not the same as knowing. I might notice someone frowning, but that doesn’t mean I know the reason why. I need to ask, and there needs to be enough trust for the person to answer honestly.

Unsurprisingly, this is true in life as well. We can therefore all be facilitators of each other’s well-being.

This Thursday, September 13, is National R U OK? Day in Australia.

In case you’re wondering why there needs to be an emphasis on asking each other if we’re okay, here’s two blog posts you should read: Mark Pacitti has documented his journey with depression over the last 12 months. It’s an insightful, sometimes harrowing, and illuminating read. And MadameInsideOut has written A Letter to the Black Dog. Another amazing story of fear, and struggle, and hope.

So if you notice someone close to you acting in a way that might suggest they are NOT OK, please ask. You won’t make it worse, especially if you just listen. Listening to someone who needs to be heard is a gift we all have the capacity to easily give, even if it causes us some discomfort or unease. And yes, it can be hard to stop talking and just listen. And it could make a difference in someone’s life.

Hi. Why do you do what you do?

April 7th, 2012

Imagine if this is what we said to each other when we met for the first time? Imagine if we were able to answer the why, instead of defaulting to what?

My friend Andrew Suttar has been exploring this and sharing it around The Hub in Melbourne. I’m thankful to him for challenging my thinking. And to John Baxter too, for catching and sharing some of these thoughts.

There’s also a TED Talk by Simon Sinek about how great leaders inspire action. Typically, we all talk about what we do and how we do it. Guilty. Rarely do we even get to why we do what we do.

Simon Sinek suggests we turn that around – and this is what inspiring leaders do, they talk about the why first, then the how, and finally the what.

I wanted to explore this for myself. And it’s harder than it seems. So I went searching for more of Simon Sinek’s work and found this video about the value of human experiences to build trust. Yes, I recognise the irony of posting this on-line.

I completely agree with his conclusion that we need more human interaction and more conversations.

Good advice

August 31st, 2011

Two things caught me eye in the newspaper this week.

Sarah Wilson was writing about trusting the process. She was referring to the creative process – the sometimes messy, unconnected, seemingly random process that we go through when being creative.

The secret?

Just start.

Good advice.

And the other was an interview with Eva Cox, author, feminist and activist. (Feminist alert) Here’s the bit that stuck with me (the emphasis is mine):

“The revolution we wanted in the 1970s is not happening: we have not undermined the powerful masculine cultures of workplaces, politics and business, despite having more women in top positions. The feminist label is fine by me, and I work with both men and women. I am now part of the Centre for Policy Development, a Sydney-based think tank, and am exploring using the dinner party (instead of a meeting) as a new way of tapping into good ideas for a more civil future. This domestic food-sharing approach may open up discussions of a society valuing social connections, care and feelings rather than the powerful male mantra of essentially macho economies and firms.”


Are you trying to win, or succeed?

August 14th, 2011

Let’s say you have an idea. A great idea. And you want your work colleagues to know about it. There’s a meeting coming up where you might get a chance to share your great idea. What does winning mean to you? What about success? Are they they same thing?

Many of us wouldn’t give a second thought the the difference between winning and success – because there’s no difference, right? Winning IS success. Success IS winning.

You will be comfortable with that view if the metaphor that underpins how you work is drawn from sport. Sport seems to be ubiquitous as a metaphor for organisations – teams, goals, stepping up, targets, avoiding the curve ball, taking it on the chin, keeping your eye on the ball, winning the game – are a few that come to mind.

And what if we used a different metaphor – one from theatre perhaps: we’d then have starring and supporting roles, directing, orchestrating, stage managing, focus, on- and off-stage, subplot, and troupe for example.

I was introduced to the concept of success by improvisors: that success in an improvised performance is about sometimes yielding so as the collective (troupe) is successful.

It seems to me the planet could do with some of us giving up the goal of winning and a hell of lot more yielding.

Exploring the edges of the way we work

August 4th, 2011

I’ve started a little research project to explore the edges of how we work.

When facilitating workshops with many different groups and organisations, there is sometimes a disconnect between what people want to do and how it is expected to be done. Approaches that were once just fine are now struggling in the face of complexity, unpredictability and demands for creativity, innovation and agility.

To find out what has traction I’ve come up with a series of short, free workshops that explore some of these edges. I’m pretty excited about this. You might be interested in taking part? If so, check out the offerings over on my dedicated web site, Transforming the way we work.