BIG Network, final meeting of 2013, Organisational Culture?

On Friday the 13th of December the BIG Network met to explore the title; “Building a strong and empowered culture”. Mark Gilman and I came to this thinking “well that sounds great, but, what the hell does it mean”???


The illustration above helps me understand why I have a hard time understanding culture… It’s a bit like asking a fish to describe water to you. Apart from the fact the fish can’t talk, if they could, how would they tell us about something they have no awareness of because although they are in it, of it and have a role in creating it, they don’t actually have an awareness of it. It’s something that they know of no existence without, therefore, it simply is part of their perception of the world, not something they can perceive from an objective viewpoint.

We believe it;s the same with culture, we’re in it, of it and create it, and yet, it is not something we can separate from to observe, change and possibly build to our own desired model.

So how to approach this subject and what was it that we really wanted to know? Questions on the day were:

  • What is culture?
  • Is there a best culture which one can create?
  • How do we know?
  • How do we align culture with other issues?
  • What is success and how do we sustain it through culture?

So what did we do to unknot these tangled issues?

We played a game!

Three tables were set up with a pack of cards, rules were explained and the game began. Rules were broken, interventions were made, players won and lost and they moved to different tables and the game went on…

Then frowns appeared, tables were banged, fingers were pointed, players won and lost and moved to different table and the game went on…

Now there was some more assertive behaviour and some very resigned passive behaviour, confusion reigned and the game was stopped…

The players were invited to respond to a series of questions and debrief their experience, which they didn’t do straightaway. What they did do was try and understand what had happened, explain who had got the rules wrong and justify their actions and assertions.

Ha ha, the surprise was that every table had a different set of rules.

A comment that they weren’t focusing on the questions led to some anger and eventually some focusing on the questions; what they thought, felt and experienced as we played the game.

In discussing this afterwards we observed how subtle ambiguities and shifts in the rules of the game on every table led to a wide ranging variety of actions; some people asserted, pointed, enforced their “truth”, others responded similarly and others didn’t. Some sat back, gave up, resigned themselves to the pointlessness of the situation and others just enjoyed playing the game, even if the rules did seem pretty weird.

What we did recognise was that when the game ended everyone engaged in the same activity; making sense of what had just happened to them. Some even resisted being asked to move on to the prescribed task. There was great energy in the room as the participants “solved” the mystery and explained themselves to each other.

“So what has this got to do with culture?” you may say. Well, we believe there are a number of ways of gleaning insight from this activity. Firstly and perhaps most obviously we see the confusion caused by differences in rules and expectations, perhaps an analogy for how different cultures, which often appear very similar, can be subtlety different with significant results. Further to that perhaps this is an analogy for ambiguity: what it is like when people don’t fully understand what is happening to them and how they respond. Thirdly we see leadership play out in an interesting number of ways in the game; some assert and dominate, some disengage and some simply go along for the ride. People respond in different ways, for some the assertion of others creates anger and resistance for others submission and a sense of “well if you care that much, have it your way”….

Does this tell us anything useful about organisational life and the questions we had around organisational culture? Well I think it suggests that subtle differences in accepted norms and rules can lead to a lot of confusion. This confusion can lead to sense of organisational injustice, which in turn leads to injustice. Some choose to lead in this situation by enforcing their will and others by giving up and moving on. And all need, very much, to make sense of their experience when they have the opportunity.

I think this is significant for leaders trying to influence and “build” company culture. Think about the impact of your rules, demands and behaviour on your people. Consider their need to make sense of what is going on for them and if, as we think is the case, subtle difference have big impacts, consider that all of your unique and individual people will experience things, you, the organisation differently. So the subtle differences that we contrived in the game will always be present in your organisation.

To build a culture or the right culture or a strong and empowered culture you first need to engage in the sense-making process that are going on all the time in your organisation and consider your role in creating the things that everybody is trying to make sense of… Culture is as much emergent as created so think about what this means to your organisation and the people within it.

Good luck!




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