Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Mapping Culture

How do we map culture? What is culture? Will mapping a culture somehow effect it?

In one interview with a global company that relied upon the use of stories, an observation was made that was quite startling to begin with but obvious in hindsight - “maps are helping us shift our culture”.  

One of the issues with using stories in decision making is that stories are often tied to an individual - the storyteller. We even teach people how to be a better storyteller as though the idea itself has more validity if only presented in the right way. This personalises decisions as it is not so much about whether we believe the story but whether we believe the story teller. Hence the conversation can quickly become political. One of the advantages of putting the idea down in a map is that we now focus on challenging the map. It depersonalises the discussion. It enables the company to have some difficult discussions about its future and to identify how its culture needs to change with less of the baggage of politics.

The company itself faced a changing market but it was also in denial over the change. Part of the company, on the engineering side, could see the change coming but one part of the business, who happened to be the strongest storytellers, disagreed. The storytellers were winning and revolt was fermenting elsewhere due to frustration over the inaction in the face of perceived doom. This tension had exploded in the boardroom into quite heated arguments whilst at the same time defensive gang-like mentalities were evolving elsewhere. The threat for the company was a web giant was about to industrialise their main product area. The storytellers dismissed this as not being important because users would like their new product features. The engineering group disagreed. Whether conscious or not, exceptionally long powerpoint presentations were used by the storytellers to communicate their vision or more aptly “to beat doubters into submission”.  In cases, this “death of thought by powerpoint” had become so bad that rules had been created to limit powerpoint presentation to no more than 2 hours and 60 slides of heavy text.

The CEO of the company was more of a steward (a peace time CEO) rather than a war time CEO as depicted by ideas of great generals or conquerors. They saw their role as building consensus and brokering conversation rather than leading a charge. Unfortunately the consensus had broken down into hostility. Groups of engineers with strong local leaders were refusing to work with the business on projects that they considered “daft”.  With revenue growth softening, any culture of safety and belonging within the organisation had been diminished by recent layoffs. Off-sites had become profanity laden blame meetings. However, despite this various groups at a low level from engineering to the business did work together in a highly collaborative fashion. Those groups were the gangs under strong local leaders.

By a set of happy coincidences, a small part of the engineering function had recently introduced the use of maps. The maps had “quite a revolutionary impact” as one interview told me. The maps had depoliticised the problem. People were talking about and arguing to the map rather than each other. This had enabled the engineering group to explain their concerns, allowing for more challenge and discussion over ideas. It enabled them to explain how the market was changing, how the competitor was playing the game and how they would need to change. The maps have spread from the shop floor to the board room building communication, challenge and trust. They were having “positive effects along the way in all but one group”. The one group that strongly resisted this new way of communicating were the storytellers. They operated in a far more hierarchical manner, with strong control of the narrative and a view that we just needed a better story.  The problem was always something else i.e.  “engineering isn’t listening” or “the story was explained right”. The maps directly threatened their control over others, they allowed people to challenge and it was no longer possible to hide behind the fog of long powerpoint presentations and well spoken narrative. 

Whilst the impacts of maps are talked about in glowing terms, the only point we should really note is that changing the means of communication can change our ability to safely challenge an idea, to express our concerns, to collaborate with and trust others. Different communication mechanisms can result in very different culture. As one commentator noted “you can't change the culture by diktat, it's a function of the experience of the people. If you want to change the culture you have to change the experience of those people. Maps enabled us to communicate with each other, we were finally discussing ideas and concerns by talking and listening rather than being presented at”.

The introduction of maps can influence your culture but that should not be a surprise as some of the first parts of doctrine are communication, challenge and situational awareness. But does that mean a map of culture will impact culture and what is culture anyway? We’re no closer to answering that question other than to say the means of communication matter.

Kroeber, A.L., & Kluckhohn, C. (1952) said that by culture “we mean all those historically created designs for living, explicit and implicit, rational, irrational, and non-rational, which exist at any given time as potential guides for the behavior of people”. The key to this phrase is in the words “designs for living” as it highlights the interactions between people and this is where communication comes into play. It might seem trivially obvious but there is no culture without people and without communication. Instead there are just fragments of some past culture. Our focus therefore has to start with the interactions of people but which people? In the example above, we have two different cultures represented by two different groups. One was a top down driven, narrative focused, hierarchical and politicised culture that resisted challenge. The other was more of a bottom up, emerging local leaders, high degrees of challenge and communication that focused on the landscape. This is not to say that one group was wrong and the other right but simply to acknowledge that difference. Whilst maps had enabled different forms of communication and challenge, it was the two competing groups that had highlighted the differences. 

Hence, we’re going to continue to explore these issues of culture on our path to creating a map.  So, we need something with different types of people, possibly highly political and with division between those groups. I can’t think of anywhere better to start than with Brexit itself.