September 14, 2017

Storyscaping culture

“The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an “Eyes-On, Hands-Off” enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.” ―  Stanley McChrystalTeam of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

I really like this quote by Stanley McChrystal and the analogy he uses for the style of leadership that is required to respond to today's complex work environment. I find it especially useful when thinking about the role of leaders in shaping culture.

One of the key shifts required in organisations is our view culture and culture transformation. It is apparent that executives have realised the importance of culture, with phrases like “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and the "soft stuff has become the hard stuff" becoming ever more popular (hopefully this signals a realisation that culture isn't something that can be delegated to OD or HR). Even with this growing prominence and the multitude of culture models and change frameworks around, sustainable cultural transformation still seems to be elusive in most organisations.

I believe the problem orginates in the way we think about culture. In most of the organisations I work with, culture is still seen as a "something" that can be accurately and objectively diagnosed, designed and changed through a linear project. There is a belief that the leadership team, or a group of expert consultants can design and implement an ideal culture; which can then be "rolled out" by OD and change practitioners.  In essence there is a belief that culture can be controlled.

The reality is that culture is an emergent property of a complex system. It emerges and evolves over time from the myriad of interactions between people, their environment and the structural aspects of the organisation e.g. processes, policies etc. It finds expression (and is shaped by) the ongoing conversation, the stories and observations shared in casual conversation, the symbols displayed and the rituals engaged in, often subconsciously. It cannot be fully articulated, but it is known by everyone who is a part of the system.

Because the culture is ever emerging and evolving, any attempt to accurately “diagnose” it is flawed. The result of any culture audit is only ever a partial snapshot, and the very act of diagnosing changes the system.  I like to use the example of the difference between a broken aircraft and an typical workplace. If a mechanic walks up to a broken aircraft with his toolbox, nothing changes in the aircraft. When a consultant walks in the front door of an organisation with rumours of restructuring around, everything changes. We cannot separate diagnosis from intervention in a complex system - there is no such thing as an objective observer.

The tools we use for diagnosis are also potentially problematic. From a complex systems perspective, typical culture audit instruments have several short comings:

1.     They are evaluative, not descriptive

A typical culture audit instrument asks people to evaluate the various aspects of the culture. For example, staff might be asked to evaluate their leaders in terms of whether or not they are "living the values", or whether they care about employee's career progression. Such an evaluative process is always open to gaming as it is usually obvious what the “right answer” is. People tend therefore to either gift you the answer they think you want, or game the process.  Also, being asked to evaluate vs describe something immediately puts someone in a very different state of mind. Often we become more critical in an attempt to be more rational, looking for flaws or reasons to be negative.  Evaluations and opinions are useful, but they are highly subjective. It is much more useful to have a rich description of the experiences or observations that inform these opinions, because those are specific enough to act on.

2.     Questions lack context

In most of the surveys I’ve completed, I’ve wanted to answer: It depends … Sometimes I feel my leader is a good role model, sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes I feel she lives the values, sometimes she doesn’t. This leads to a “middle of the road” answer that has very little utility. This can trigger a tendency to go into “automatic pilot” mode, often simply following a set answer pattern without thinking about the answers.

3.     They are based on a specific model or hypothesis

Most culture auditing tools are based on a pre-existing model of what culture is and what the ideal looks like. Anything that therefore falls outside of that framework will not be represented in the output. We will only get the insights we thought to ask for. Recently a South African client decided to deploy a culture audit tool developed in Canada. Seeing as the inclusion and transformation issues we have here in SA are not as salient in Canada, the instrument didn’t test for those aspects at all. Subsequent narrative scans revealed that transformation and diversity issues were some of the most urgent to address in this organisaition’s culture. The auditing instrument completely missed it because the issue wasn't covered by the underlying framework.

Shifting from opinion to story & design to evolution

Because culture emerges from our interactions and the stories we tell about them, one way to get below the surface (to take the iceberg metaphor) and tap into this ongoing conversation is by continually gathering micro narratives or observations from across the organisation.

One key to understanding cultural patterns is to ask people to  describe the system, not evaluate it. 

Once we have a richly described cultural landscape, we can find local as well as global cultural patterns, based on multiple observations. Some of these patterns may lead to large-scale interventions that span the organisation e.g. changing the approach to performance management. However more often, these Storyscapes enable us to evolve forwards based on small local actions that form part of a coherent overall direction. By enabling decision-makers across all levels of the organisation to access actual stories from their areas, find relevant patterns and then design local interventions themselves, we effectively enable change leadership across all levels of the organisation. Interventions are based on one simple question:

what do I need to change or do differently to create fewer observations in my are like these, and more like those?

This is a question that someone at board level understands as well as someone on the shop floor.  It allows the entire company to evolve the culture into a coherent direction, but with local autonomy in terms of how they do it.  It’s also an ungameable process, the only way to change people’s observations or experience is to actually change something in the environment or in the way they interact.   


The above is an example of a landscape made up of 100's of narrative fragments collected in a university. The green and blue areas reprensent patterns where the student and staff population's current dispositions are widely divergent. The red represents areas of overlapping dispositions. In this case these were overlapping values that could be leveraged.

A key concept here is the notion of "adjacent possibles" - instead of attempting to coerce or yank the system to our perceived ideal; we map where the system is currently and then look for adjacent possibles, more beneficial patterns that already exist adjacent to current dominant patterns. We then design small interventions to nudge the system towards those adjacent possibles and evolve forwards like "crossing a river by feeling the stones"

These landscapes above represent narrative patterns from different business units within a large organisation. Each unit has it's own unique landscape and adjacent possible, and therefore will implement different small interventions, however direction of evolution is the same.

(These maps were created with Sensemaker® )

So we don’t need complicated (linear) change models, we map the narrative landscape or Storyscape through observations, give decision-makers across all levels of the organisation access to the resulting patterns and underlying stories and ask our simple question.

Notice that we don’t design an ideal culture for a potential future state that might never come about.  We evolve forwards from where we are today and learn and adapt as we go.

This is a big mindset shift – for leaders and practitioners alike. It challenges our need for control and the plans and linear processes we are so comfortable with. However, in today's every-changing environment, we need to create cultures that are resilient and continually evolving. And to refer again to our opening analogy, we need leaders who are more like landscapers (or Storyscapers) than chess masters.

One comment on “Storyscaping culture”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *