Which rituals and myths define your culture?

While many models exist to define organizational culture, a simple and effective model (adapted from Gerry Johnson) defines culture as the set of rituals and myths that establish the way things get done and the way we describe ourselves.

Using this model as a basis, we can list the set of rituals (meetings, events, routine practices) and myths (how we describe our company’s mission & values, our individual strengths & roles, our team dynamics and language) that exist today and the ones we would like to establish in the future. Here’s a few steps you can follow with your team to take stock of your current culture and make positive changes.

  1. Prepare for a Current Culture Workshop
    1. Ask people to prepare for a workshop style session by listing 10 rituals that define the way things get done in the office. Give them categories (but not specific examples), such as how decisions are made, how information is shared, or how tasks get assigned/completed.
    2. Additionally, ask them to document, either by writing or recording video, a description of the organization’s mission and values, their individual roles, and what makes the organization competitive. One scenario for this is how they would describe those elements to a potential employee during an interview.
    3. Bring the group together, share the ideas that have been prepared in advance. If possible, combine all the material from parts A & B into two wordles to visually depict the most frequently used words. At the end of the workshop, you will have compiled a common set of rituals and myths that the group believes represents the current culture.
  2. Observe the species in its native habitat
    1. Gather a second group of people–who did not take part in the Current Culture Workshop–to spend an hour a day observing their co-workers in action. Ask the group to observe during a different portion of the day for a week, and collect observations in the same groups listed above in 1A.
    2. Additionally, ask the group to write down or record the language people use to describe the same elements listed above in 1B.
    3. Again, compile the observations and use wordles or another straightforward visual tool to summarize the results.
  3. Compare perception with reality and craft the future state
    1. Use your best judgement to determine if your team is suffering from workshop overload. But when they are ready to contribute, first digest any gaps between the perceived current state (part 1 above) and what was observed (part 2). Be prepared for the usual skeptics in the room who will find flaws in the sampling methods and bias in the observers. Put those people on your Nobel seeking research team. And then for the rest of the pragmatists in the room, have a frank conversation about any gaps between perception and reality.
    2. Craft the action plan to improve the culture using the stop/start/more exercise. As I have described previously, this workshop technique is effective in drawing out specific actions and language that the team wants more (or less) of. Be sure to follow best practices in assigning actions with owners (who are in the room at the time) and due dates.
    3. Follow up in a month and assess the change. No need for exhaustive studies at this point: start simply and add detail only if it’s required. Bring the group back together and review the stop/start/more flip charts. As you point at each item on the list, scan the room as the group shows a thumbs-up (if we are following through) or a thumbs-down (if we are not following through or we’re not sure). This quick check in will help assess if corrective actions are required, and whether you have enough information to know where to focus.

Culture can be hard to define, but like another form of artistic expression that was once famously described in the Supreme Court, you “know it when you see it.” When you take the time to define your team’s culture in terms of rituals and myths, you will have a better understanding and a better ability to shape the culture for the better.


Jury Lesson #2: When Did You Decide?

Last week I was selected to the jury for a civil trial seeking personal injury damages. My first post on this topic compared the jury’s decision in the trial to a customer’s buying process. In this post, I’ll explore when decisions are made an how they are (or aren’t) changed with additional information.

When did you decide about us?

I noticed myself making a snap decision about who should win the case–the defendant–as the judge read the case summary to us less than 20 minutes after stepping into the courtroom. This was the same decision I stuck with after two days of testimony, consideration, and discussion with my fellow jurors (more about “why people talk” in the third post in this series). While I’m far from perfect, self-awareness is a focus of my personal development, and I would consider myself reasonably aware of my biases. I consciously gave extra emphasis to evidence that opposed my snap decision. I did my best to put myself in the shoes of the plaintiff, imagining how the story of a truly terrible accident could sound implausible in the harsh light of a courtroom.

And as we, the jury, entered deliberations it seemed that everyone else had already reached a decision. Conveniently, we all agreed, and submitted our verdict in time to beat the rush hour traffic home. Driving home, I recalled other situations at work and at home where I knew I would be presented with a slate of evidence and asked to make a decision. Which CRM software should we install? Should we extend the timeline on the capital project? Can my daughter have another story before bedtime?

I’d propose that most of our decisions are made well before we’ve heard most (or any) of the evidence. Dual Process Theory suggests that “system 1” evolved to make lifesaving decisions quickly, and still dominates (see my previous post on how soak time can improve complex decisions). In their book Switch, Dan & Chip Heath characterize our belief-based decisions as an elephant with a rational rider attempting to steer it along (read a summary at Soundview). We must also be vigilant against confirmation bias when our role is to make objective decisions.

So the next time you encounter a similar situation, practice building awareness of when you’ve formed a decision, and to what extent additional evidence alters that decision. When did you decide who to vote for in the next Presidential Election??

Why Wait? How soak time can help you weigh your options

Consider two choices you have likely faced in your life:

  • “I’m going for coffee. Do you want one?”
  • “You got the job offer. Will you take it?”
Decisions can make us feel stuck

Both of these questions can be described as options in the financial sense: they provide you with the right to trade an underlying asset of a certain value before an expiry date. The coffee option expires very quickly and has a relatively small underlying value (depending on how tired you are at the time), and the cost of letting the option expire is also low. The underlying value, time til expiry, and option cost are all higher for the new job. While they both fit the same options model, they are two very different questions–conveniently your brain makes decisions using two very different “systems.” Just don’t pick the wrong system!

Read on for a practical guide to applying this options model do decisions you and your team face.

What is my option? Understand the value of the decision and the cost of letting it expire

When you or your team face a significant decision, start by clarifying the terms of the option:

  1. The underlying net value. If you accept this choice, what will you gain? what will it cost to get it? Are the costs and benefits one time or recurring items?
  2. The expiry date. Some choices feel urgent at first, but actually aren’t. Take a moment to clarify–either by thinking about it or explicitly asking the other party–when is the latest I can make this decision?
  3. The cost of letting the option expire. At first, this cost may appear to be the opposite of the underlying net value (#1 above). By examining your sunk costs to date and the incremental risks you’d incur by moving forward, the cost of letting the decision expire might be very small in comparison (for example, letting an offer expire without countering after completing a home inspection).

By understanding these parameters, you can see whether a quick, instinctive decision is required, or whether a slower, more deductive decision fits. Daniel Kahneman’s insightful and accessible book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes our two decision making systems and they best ways to employ them (The Financial Times ran a very clear review a few months ago). Kahneman also weaves an understanding of cognitive bias into his description of the two decision making systems.

Now that you have defined the option, considered which decision making system is engaged, and become aware of any cognitive bias at play, you’re able to make the best decision. Use the practical summary below to prompt your team to apply these concepts:

  • Will more information help make the decision? More information can feed our pattern recognition and intuitive System 1. If so, enable your team to have the facts in hand.
  • Will more consideration help provide more confidence about the decision? If the option allows, switch to a more deductive System 2 decision making process. David Allen suggests never making a decision in the same meeting that data is presented for the first time.
  • How are biases clouding this decision? There is nothing inherently “bad” about biases, they just influence us in selecting an answer that isn’t appropriate for the situation in front of us. Build awareness of biases–laughing at them before changing can take the risk of guilt or judgment away.
image: sodahead.com