Culture is one of those things that no leader - in the public or private sector - has ever said out loud that it doesn’t matter. Culture is on the same level of “trust.” Everyone acknowledges with their words that it matters. The actions of leaders and organizations, however, do not always reflect these adages.
We have had thousands of visitors from across the world visit our school since we opened in August 2014. On these tours, we try to know what it is people from different schools, districts, and industries are seeking so that we can best highlight elements that will be most helpful. What never changes though, is the value and emphasis put on culture in the process of our school transformation and the work we continue to do.
Don’t get things wrong - we are not perfect, and we do not espouse an idealistic utopia where everything works perfectly. We have our issues, and we have our bad days. But we have also done what few organizations have been able to do in such a short amount of time. This journey has opened our eyes to a lot and we have learned a lot. Much of our success has come from the organizational culture that we all have helped to establish and tend to.
On our tours, we will sit with visitors before taking the opportunity to go out on campus and see kids in action. We go through our story, and we talk about culture. At this point in our journey, I share about how many leaders opt to pass on the culture discussions. Having had the experience I have with this, I now draw attention to this story before any leader has the chance to say otherwise. It makes things less awkward, and here is why. Over the series of countless tours, what we discovered is that as the discussion about culture gets going, leaders - who were often dressed in nicer clothes & taking themselves much more seriously than those accompanying him/her - would try to cut off a discussion around culture.
“Oh yeah, we agree, culture is super important, that is why I…”
Fill in the blank:
Culture is wickedly complicated. Culture is all about human understanding. Our pastor once made the brilliant observation regarding the complexities of humans in that the section at Barnes & Noble that keeps getting bigger is the Self-Help section. Culture is wickedly tricky because all humans bring to the organization their own triumphs, trauma, joy, hopes, fears, biases, and pain. It is partly what makes us such beautiful creatures.
I once heard, and often share the analogy that school culture is like the hit Food Network TV game show, Chopped. The game consists of 4 professional chefs who are given a basket of secret ingredients that they must not only use but make the star of the dish they prepare and serve to the judges. The baskets contain odd-ball selections: Gummy Worms, sardines, and almond paste -- Make the best appetizer possible! After judging, someone goes home, and then they repeat this for the entree: Bratwurst, Chicken Feet, Bullion -- Make the best entree you can! And so on until there is a winner. In the final decision making between the top two contestants left standing, the judges consider the entirety of all three courses and how the chefs made lemonade from lemons.
This is relevant to schools, because every year, we do not pick the kids who come to us. We do not pick the parents/guardians who come along with them. We don’t pick our grade level teams, and we don’t pick our bosses. But we create the best dishes possible with whatever comes out of the basket. We weave and work and find complimentary flavors to elevate the experience.
Because culture is so complex, we soon realized that it is not just, “culture.” When leaders wanted to brush past the “culture talk” part of the tour so we could spend more time on programming, functional issues, and technical practicalities that leaders and teams have to sort through transformation -- it actually made sense. They know culture matters. Much like everyone knows trust matters. But trust and culture are not things that sit on a shelf that we can reach for when we have time for it. Culture and trust are what we do. Countless times, as leaders brushed off the “culture talk” they would lead it with, “Yep, Culture eats strategy for breakfast” or some other saying that it felt like they had heard, but not really studied. And after a while with these reactions, we started to notice trends with the rest of the team accompanying these leaders. Eyes darting back and forth to one another. Heads down, or heads up looking to the ceiling. Heads cocked to make eye contact with me. All quiet pleads, to please talk more about culture. And because it is our tour - that is often what we would do.
Culture is complex. Culture is not just a word, but a series of beliefs, actions, and relationships. Our experience with transformation and organizational culture led to the development of what we coined the “4 Dimensions of Organizational Culture.” Each element feeds the other and the basic three, when safely in place, allow for an adaptive dimension of culture to exist. That adaptive aspect is where innovation and transformation take place.
The image below helps to visually show what we mean. In addition, a brief description of each dimension exists with a link to a more robust description and examples.
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