Transforming Culture (Part 2)

If you haven’t read the first part of Transforming Culture, please read it here.

The culture of an organisation is toxic based on the degree to which the average member is there to take. And it is healthy based on the degree to which that person is there to give. But what is the connection between culture (understanding it in this way) and the success of the organisation?

Well, if one, for example, argues that successful organisations are profitable, then one needs to examine how enterprises produce profits or surpluses. And, when we examine where profits or surpluses actually come from, we see that the Intent to Give not only defines what it means to have a healthy culture, but it also accounts for the possibility of a profit or surplus. We have a thought experiment that demonstrates the case which we call the 3 bakers’ analogy.

The 3 Bakers’ Analogy

Let us assume that we have three bakers who collaborate to bake a cake. The cake takes them a whole month to bake. At the end of the month each baker takes a slice home to feed his family. If there was a slice left over, we would call that slice a surplus or a profit.

Now, it is important to understand that the surplus slice only exists because the total cake was bigger than what each baker took home. This means then that collectively they gave more than what they took. The surplus is in fact the cumulative effect of each baker giving more than they took. If each baker took as much as they gave, there would be no surplus. If each baker took more than they gave, there would be a deficit. So the willingness of the individual to make a discretionary effort (or give more than they take) in pursuit of the organisations objectives, is the primary variable that accounts for the success of organisations. And that is what defines the culture of the organisation.

Rephrase the Intent of Culture

In his book ‘The Leader’s Ladder” my colleague Bengt Savén describes the person who is willing to go the extra mile. This is a person who delivers, improves, and learns. By delivers is understood as a person who is committed to provide what the customer or client requires, on time and in full or better than that. By improves is understood as a person who is continuously searching for better and more effective ways of delighting the customer or client. Lastly, by learns is understood as a person who stays curious about their craft and is continuously refining their skill and knowledge.

All work on culture should be concerned with enabling people like this. People who are committed to make a discretionary contribution to the organization. Those who strive to deliver, improve, and learn. However, we need to accommodate the truth. This is that not all people are the same. And that the culture of any organization is an average. Like any bell curve, this average is of a mass of people in the middle and then some outliers on either end. There are some people who are less altruistic than most and some who are more so. We can therefore rephrase the intent of culture work to be, shifting the average in the direction of those who are more inclined to give from those who are less inclined to do so.

The Concern of Personal & Team Excellence

Personal Excellence: One needs to examine whether it is possible for people to be here to give. Particularly in a world where we have assumed that self-interest rules. Furthermore, that What’s In It For Me is the cardinal truth of the human condition. We need to account for those few sunny souls who stay true to a personal commitment to do their best, to deliver, improve and learn. We need to examine how their intent operates. And moreover, how they approach their day-to-day work life in such a way as to have a fulfilling work experience.

Team Excellence: We next need to understand how this person would deal with colleagues. Furthermore, the intent and behaviour that they would bring to the team. Would it enhance a collaborative engagement rather than a competitive engagement with teammates? This is arguably still an element that sits in the hands of the individual. We have all experienced toxic work cultures that were made more tolerable by individuals. And not necessarily higher in the hierarchy, who deliberately sought to make the lives of their colleagues better. Similarly, we have all been in positive work environments that were soured by the meanness, pettiness and competitiveness of an individual.

How Leadership Excellence affects Culture

Having understood the individual who is here to contribute, we now need to turn to the enablers of such a person. The primary enabler is the leader. I think it is true that people do not go the extra mile for organizations. People go the extra mile for people. If we really want to understand the conditions under which the average person in the organization will be more likely to come to work to contribute, we need to examine the role of the boss. In this examination we need to account for two things:

  • The intent of the boss. What is the primary concern of a leader who cultivates people who are here to contribute?
  • The key things that boss would do in order to cultivate people who are here to contribute.

Organisational Excellence

We finally need to understand the organisational context that is most likely to cultivate people who come to work to make a discretionary contribution. This investigation needs to cover two areas of enquiry:

  • How the organisation articulates it’s purpose. The narrower and more mercenary the purpose of the organisation is seen to be, the less likely it is to solicit the discretionary contribution of its members.
  • How the organisation deals with control. It stands to reason that a person who makes a discretionary contribution has the autonomy to do so. In the process of enabling this person, one must consider the degree to which systems, processes and structures either promote or frustrate people’s initiative.

In the following four articles I will examine what the key variables are in the four areas of personal excellence, team excellence, leadership excellence and organizational excellence. These need to be considered if we wish to enable a culture where people come to work to make a discretionary contribution. All four these elements will be explored form the point of view that it is the intent to give that accounts for excellence in that sphere.

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