The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups
By Daniel Coyle
What creates successful group and organizational cultures? That is the question that Daniel Coyle pursues in his book. “Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.” US culture tends to focus on the charismatic, visionary leader yet Coyle’s research finds that successful groups tend to do lots of small things towards success rather than large dramatic things. Three key skills emerge – build safety, share vulnerability and establish purpose. Like Jim Collin’s Good to Great, Coyle finds a lot of quiet, observational leaders who cultivate a healthy ecosystem and group around them through lots of questions at key points to help team members learn to think on their own. There are lots of useful and actionable points in the book. I wish for a future when business books highlight as many women as men in their examples without having women in the title!
Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector
By Jeanne Liedtka, Randy Salzman & Daisy Azer
Design thinking is a problem solving approach that is human centered. It prioritizes really getting to know the people involved in your challenge and looking at the world from their perspective. It focuses on multiple options, experimentation and iteration. This method has served to democratize design and Jeanne Liedtke’s model makes it particularly accessible (What is? What if? What wows? And What works?). While the process originated in Silicon Valley, Liedtke and her team profile how design thinking has been used in the social sector. They include case studies from government, national, state and local nonprofit organizations – from the US and internationally. Each instance showcases the real experience – from the excitement at the start of the project to the dead-ends and false starts to results that in many instances could not have been envisioned from the outset. Using design thinking, the professionals highlighted get to see their organization from the perspective of whom they serve. With this, they are able to identify the ways in which the system is not made for the client. Then they are able to imagine how they might make things better. This is all in the service of having clients have a better and more humane experience while getting the help the organization is designed to deliver. If you have just heard about design thinking and have wondered how it might apply in your situation, this book is a great place to start.
An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization
By Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey
“In most organizations, everyone is doing a second job no one is paying them for…Most people are spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations. Hiding.” (pg1, An Everyone Culture)
What if this were not necessary? An Everyone Culture describes a few unicorn organizations that have truly put people at the center of their purpose. Developing and investing in people. Not as an afterthought or bonus for just for a few people – for everyone. Where the culture revolves around helping everyone recognize, acknowledge and learn from their mistakes, build on their strengths and stretch and grow. Lots of organizations give lip service to the idea that people are their most important asset. Yet they rarely act as if that were really true. Each of the three organizations the authors describe as deliberately developmental organizations (DDO) do this through a multitude of practices that center transparency, regular feedback across all levels, team building and professional development – at the individual, team and organizational level. While the authors went into their research assuming that being a DDO would contribute to the business success of these organizations, they concluded by the end that in fact being a DDO is the cause of the business’ success. Much has been written about how emotional intelligence and people skills will be the key differentiators as work continues to morph and shift. Learn from these leaders what that might look like.
Many of the leaders I work with say they want more work-life balance and to integrate greater self-care into their routine. Yet they struggle to make it happen. They preach it for their staff. Yet they laugh when it comes to making it a reality for themselves.
It’s way more than mani-pedis
The dominant culture in the US does not actually value self-care. While the phrase has gotten a lot of attention in the media recently, too often it is seen as an indulgence and somewhat frivolous. The protestant work ethic measures your worth in terms of your productivity. White culture – our dominant culture – values urgency and deadlines, perfectionism and individuality. None of these things are really the friend of self-care. The focus on the individual can favor “heros” who try to do it all themselves without help from others.
It's a marathon
So I advocate for no martyrs to the cause. Yes your ‘to do’ list is probably too long yet managing your work as if it is one sprint after another will most likely only lead to burnout. Trying to see change in the world is often challenging and sometimes demoralizing work. We need you for the long haul! Remember the long game, build in self-care basics for yourself and let go of the guilt about it.
As Audre Lord said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Sleep on it
As I am learning from Matt Walker, author of Why We Sleep, sleep is the foundation of wellness. Not an “optional life style luxury” that we too often consider it. Per his and others research, sleep is not something that you can choose not to do today and catch up on later. Sleep deprivation (even a regular one hour less than optimal) has severe health impacts. Sleep is more like breathing – you wouldn’t say you’ll breathe a lot on Saturday to catch up! So give yourself a non-negotiable opportunity for eight hours each night
Basic Building Blocks
Exercise, healthy eating, mindfulness and connecting with the important people in your life are all core pieces to wellness. I appreciate this list created by University of Buffalo’s School of Social Work for encompassing holistic look at all the elements of self care. Generally self care is something that needs routines – it is about frequency and consistency rather than intensity. Very similar to how healthy organizational cultures are built.
Building it into your organizational culture
This resource developed by the National Center on Family Homelessness covers the topic from both an individual point of view as well as taking it to the organizational level. The strategies could be implemented by people working in a variety of settings, pursuing different missions.
Do as I do and I say
As a leader, if you are not modeling these behaviors, your staff are not likely to feel comfortable incorporating good self-care into their routines. This is not an instance when ‘do as I say, not as I do’ (and is there ever?) works very well. For yourself, for your mission and for those you work with, invest in consistent self-care. Remember you don't need to do it all right all the time. Take the assessment above and identify a few small steps to start taking better care of yourself. Good luck!
PS -- I write this to have handy as a daily reminder to myself!
How many organizational restructurings have you been through? How many have actually improved how the organization worked? Too often in nonprofits and associations, restructuring and reorganizations happen for the wrong reasons.
Reorganizing entire teams to solve one personnel problem
I have witnessed organizations that regularly restructured rather than dealing directly with problematic staff. A staff person was either ‘reorganized’ out of a job or their supervisory responsibility was taken away. Decisions about these changes were all done at the top of the organization. It seemed as though there was little thought given to how these changes would impact the work of those involved. One day people had one boss and a set of colleagues, the next day a different boss and new colleagues
The ripple effect of these changes lingers for weeks if not months. Energy is caught up in discussing the changes. Critiquing them, trying to discern the reasons behind them. For each new staff team they now have to adjust to a new boss, a new set of colleagues. They will have to spend time creating new team norms – whether explicitly or implicitly. Staffers have to learn the new boss’ expectations and communications style. More than just a ripple it is as if the water has been churned up in a pond or a river and you cannot see in front of you. While this churn is going on, actual work of the organization slows. The necessary gets done but any team that was in high gear and really performing before the reorganization is likely disrupted. Teams are knocked back to square one and have to rebuild.
Down with Silos
Another reason organizations restructure is to promote “collaboration” or to be more customer centered. “We are breaking down the silos,” says management. Break them up, the thinking goes, and then people will work across team boundaries more easily. This may work for a short while people get used to the new structure. Yet if other aspects of the organization’s culture do not support cross-team collaboration, it will not last long. Over time the boundaries around the newly formed staff groups will get reestablished and the silos will rebuild.
Finding the “right” structure won’t do it
The key to promoting collaboration is not what the organizational structure is. It does not matter whether staff is organized by functional area, or geography or customer segment. Rather what regular cross-cutting mechanisms exist? Are there regular cross-cutting projects, task forces, committees that bring people together? These could be ongoing or for a specific project. Regardless of the topic, they serve to bring people together in different groupings. In these, people will build relationships and share information.
Creating these cross-cutting groups – especially a series of short term projects that provide the opportunity for more people to be involved – will do much more than yet another reorganization for promoting organizational collaboration. Regular retreats can also help cultivate cross-cutting relationships.
So consider restructuring with caution. Ask why you doing this and will it achieve what you are aiming for? Consider the ripple effects.
At the American Society for Association Executive (ASAE)’s At Work conference in early October, I facilitated a session on cultivating a healthy organizational culture. When asked what they associated with the term organizational culture, participants had lots of responses. Values, communications, hierarchy and energy were mentioned most frequently. The word cloud to the left summarizes the variety of responses.
Organizational culture, as defined by Edgar Schein, is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”
While there are visible parts of culture such as dress code, the organization’s mission, work environment, policies and procedures and strategic statements, most of culture in implicit and not readily visible. It has to be learned. This could be through story and conversation or more powerfully by making mistakes that break unspoken rules and assumptions.
One organizational culture model
Human Synergistics International’s Organizational Culture inventory is a commonly used organizational assessment that uncovers an organization’s cultural style. They group cultures in three styles, including constructive, passive/defensive and aggressive/defensive. A constructive culture, in their model, supports achievement, self-actualization and encourages people within the organization to work cooperatively with each other. A passive/defensive culture encourages people to follow the rules, values dependability, solutions tend to be conventional and conflict is avoided. An aggressive/defensive style values people who vie for status and influence by challenging each other, by taking charge and compete with each other. This style also tends to celebrate perfectionism and long hours. Of these three styles, the constructive style (not surprising considering its name!) is the healthiest culture and is most closely correlated with deeper employee engagement and better organizational results.
What do healthy organizations do differently?
Having used this assessment with many of her nonprofit clients, Dr. Elizabeth Scott researched what nonprofit organizations that have a healthy culture do differently than their peers with less healthy organizational cultures. She found that these organizations take distinctive action in two major areas – people practices and employee wellbeing and empowerment. Some specific actions that they take include infusing fun into their work, focusing on self-care and work-life balance and empowering staff to carry out the mission on their own. In terms of their human resources practices, they see human resources staff as a partner, they engage in careful hiring, onboarding as well as off boarding when needed. They provide ongoing training and regular feedback and place an emphasis on teamwork.
Cultivating a healthy culture
I asked participants in the session what their organization was doing in the areas of people practices and employee wellbeing and empowerment. Some current steps in people practices that people mentioned include new employee welcome and mentoring program, a new idea generation group that meet regularly, every other Friday off, employee engagement surveys and committees, staff retreats and telecommuting options. For encouraging employee well being, people mentioned fun committees, culture committees, book groups, gym reimbursement, movie day and other wellness initiatives.
Intention & leadership support
What I appreciate about most of these ideas is that for the most part they are not costly. What they require is intention and support from leadership. Support for people to take the time to come together and plan fun activities as well as the time and permission within the culture for people to participate.
That permission is key. I have seen organization that have tried some of these things – putting a foosball table and other board games in the lunch room for example. Yet the culture valued quiet and the CEO was known to publically question people when they took a break. So very few people used the foosball table or the games because it went against both unspoken and spoken ‘rules” within the culture. Other examples include organizations that have elaborate telecommuting policies or flexible leave policies that few take advantage of because face time and being seen in the office is highly valued.
What of these ideas could your organization try? And if you do – how will you make sure people know they really have permission to engage! Does your organization’s culture need some attention? Inquire about a coaching call.
At this year’s ASAE Annual Conference, I moderated a session called, Walking the Talk of Change Leadership. At the beginning of the session, we asked audience members to write the questions they about the topic on index cards. We told one change leadership story then spent the rest of the session answering as many questions as we could. You can read an article about the session here. These were the questions we did not get to during the session.
1. Change in part takes a diverse board (gender, ethnicity, and age). How do you achieve that? “No more old white men boards.”
If you are not already doing so, implement and enforce term limits. Be proactive about publicizing the application and nominations process for your board. Get beyond current board members’ personal networks. Those networks will most likely be mirrors of who is already on your board. Create leadership development programs to train and prepare new leaders. Prioritize investing in emerging leaders who bring new perspectives to your board. And do not assume it’s only about emerging leaders – there may be leaders in your midst that you have simply looked past.
2. Why change? What we’re doing is working!
It is challenging to move any change forward if there is not any sense of urgency or recognition that issues exist. Consider helping those guarding the status quo to consider wider trends that could impact the organization. Or start elsewhere with a few allies. Start small and share successes.
3. How do you promote change and new ideas without current staff freaking out?
What are current staff freaking out about? What is it about the change that is upsetting them? Have you asked them? Is there something you can learn from their resistance? Can you iterate in way that addresses their concerns? Which ideas are low hanging fruit and could be implemented relatively easily? Share your early wins with those who are afraid of changes to demonstrate the benefits.
4. How to convince the board permanent staff is required versus volunteers?
Build the business case for the change. What is not currently getting done or done consistently with volunteers? What skills and knowledge are unique to your volunteer base? What would benefit from being professionalized? What will each group bring to the table to create a greater partnership? Who would benefit from making the change? What will the upsides be to making the shift? Also address the downsides so that those considering the change do not feel like they are being “sold.”
5. How do you manage the change as the change is happening?
Recognize and acknowledge to your staff that it may not feel like “management” while things are in flux. Even if things are moving fast, take a little time out to take stock and see where you are, where you have come from and what is coming next. Celebrate your small wins along the way.
6. How do you create energy for radical change when there is no crisis or chaos acting as a lever?
It is unlikely that you will be able to move quickly to radical change without a crisis. Consider where can you create energy for change, even if it is not yet radical. You might consider facilitating a conversation that helps the group consider the environmental trends that could spur a crisis if the organization is not paying attention.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.