Culture = Habits of Interaction

I was working with a large team last week during a team offsite event they were running.  I was scheduled to be with them for half a day and then the whole of the following  day.

In our first half day we shared the overall intentions in terms of team objectives and then brainstormed some of the key ways the team would need to be to realise them.

One of the behaviours identified was around the need to make decisions more effectively  that would not then be renegotiated after meetings.  Some of the team members came up with a process they could use to gather views, evaluate them and make decisions collectively.

The following morning we assembled for day two and got stuck in to the agenda.  One of the team was facilitating and my role was to observe, take notes and intervene if necessary.  As soon as we started it became clear that the culture in the team was for about half of them to have their say on every topic without really listening to each other or the facilitator’s process.

The culture of this team of highly analytical, technical people was to competitively analyse every topic from every angle.  Every solution offered was subjected to the same analysis and the objective of the conversation was to focus on the the marginal areas of difference between their ideas rather than the far larger areas of commonality.  In this way decisions could only be reached through desperation.  Even if useful ideas came up  no one taking minutes at this point in the conversation, so they were being lost anyway.

I let it run for about an hour observing and taking notes before intervening with the feedback above and then continued the session by facilitating a decision using the process they had explored the day before.  The reaction was euphoric, for the first time they had been able to take a decision quickly and effectively, with everyone feeling included so that they didn’t feel the need to lobby for changes afterwards.

This is the reality of culture.  Culture is simply the interaction habits of a group of people over time.  Cultures form within any group very quickly when they spend time together.  Most cultures are “emergent” and the nature of the culture will be determined by the way the dominant personalities behave with each other, usually unconsciously.

In most situations this is completely acceptable, but for a team that is trying to deliver a specific outcome an emergent culture is unlikely to be optimal.   Organisational cultures are similarly formed by the collective habits of interaction within and between the dominant teams and individuals.

The converse of emergent culture is  “intentional” culture.  This is a culture designed intentionally to have habits of interaction and behaviours consciously identified and curated to give the team or the organisation the best chance of achieving it’s goals and avoiding crisis.

At the highest conceptual level this is about having an articulated vision, purpose and set of values and behaviours.  At a more granular level this requires the detailed behavioural contracting we processed in the first half day of this offsite – clear “ways of working” at a team level that align with the high level vision, purpose, values and behaviours.

BUT – culture is the HABITS of interaction – not whether there is a nicely thought through and presented set of words on plinths and posters.

This is why the day two observation and intervention part of the process is so important.  For any intentional culture to be enacted it has to become a habit.  We all know how hard it can be to change a habit, particularly an unconscious one.

Changing habits requires us to become aware of the habit and then to bring that awareness closer and closer to the moment of action, until awareness happens before the action giving us choice.

For a team or organisation the reality of changing culture is that once the intended culture is articulated it needs to be curated.  Someone, with appropriate authority and skills needs to observe and intervene, in every interaction, until the intended culture is the habit.  Once the habits change the culture changes.  And – Leaders have a massively disproportionate  influence on culture, the leaders are the role models for culture positively and negatively.

Culture is the medium through which outcomes are achieved.  It is culture that enables crisis and it is culture that enables amazing.  What is the culture of your organisation designed to deliver?

Holos believes that change is easy and this is true when the right process is followed. We all know from our own experience that some changes have been easy and others have been hard. What Holos has done is to distil the essence of what makes change easy into a process and it is that process that we bring to our clients.

For any organisation that needs to engage it’s culture with change, whether it is because of innovation, competition or regulation, Holos can help to make that change easy.

To help make using Holos easy we offer inspiring standalone sessions on Megatrends, Leadership, Culture and Change that give organisations a chance to see us in action and helps to get a wider process started.

Please share your ideas, comment and discuss here – click on the blog title and scroll to the bottom to find the comment box.

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Neil Crofts

+447803 774239


About Neil Crofts

Writer, coach and consultant on authentic business and authentic leadership. Neil has inspired and motivated hundreds organisations and thousands of individuals to their highest potential. Neil has written three published books and numerous e-books. Neil is a coach, facilitator and consultant helping people and businesses find their authentic purpose and use it to inspire and motivate them to be everything that they can be. Neil has raced cars, been self-employed, run a company and sold it, been employed by large companies, experienced growth and contraction at the heart of the dotcom boom, tried changing companies from the inside and from the outside as European Head of Strategy at internet consultancy/rock band Razorfish. Neil has been independent for over 10 years and delivered his Authentic Leadership message to a diverse range of business audiences including people at BP, Shell, Microsoft, Kraft Foods, MSN, Jamie Oliver, South Gloucestershire Council, National Blood Transfusion Service, KaosPilots Business School, Fashion company By Malene Birger, German technology company Eleven.
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