Pulling at the Roots of Culture

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s that time of year again when I have to make the executive decision. Extract a garden from the wilderness of the backyard or let nature continue its inevitable reclamation. As the house has emptied over time the requirement to do it as part of being a family has drained but never quite the enthusiasm. I have no authority over plants. They will grow as they see fit. I can do my bit to encourage plants that fill my need for a fresh veggie or two. I can make the conditions right for the needs of plants. Then I must let the seasonal symbiosis takes its path.

So why then must the focus be the dread of pulling at the roots?

Cultural Cultivation

In my daily life amongst consultants there seems an endless focus on discovering and fixing pain points. To me that always feels like a localized solution resulting in localized optima, if not the unintended consequence of another pain point sprouting nearby. A great business model if you are a consultant, provided no one notices the connection. More enlightened folks go beneath the surface in search of the root cause. Through techniques like 5-whys they trace their way from the evil exposed leaves of organizational ugliness through the causal relationships until they dig to the root. One good yank and the problem is assumed gone. Provided the feeder roots do not break away the problem-weed is considered whacked.

Culture has recently become a topic for large team I am currently working on. The team combines two companies in genuine co-operation such that a culture separate from the original component organization is possible. In what could be considered a meeting of the royal court the ensuing discussion around what the leadership team aspired to, rolled around to a debate on culture. The common view was a new culture could be planted or the existing culture could have the weeds of its pain points plucked. In my role as Project Jester I took exception to such a simplistic causal view of culture. Culture in my experience is an emergent, interconnected and playful thing. What may appear as green leaves on the superficial surface is fed by rhizomes of community, meaning and purpose that the Analytic Mindset struggles to accept.

In trying to engage folks in a constructive discussion I needed to dig deeper than Agile affirmations of autonomous teams or the increasingly mechanistic views based on factory models. I have found anthropology more useful in helping me understand the complex interactions of communities as they define and redefine their culture. Victor Turner’s work on ritual, rites of passage and play has given me insight. This from “From Ritual to Theatre – The Human Seriousness of Play” (p41) captures the genesis of a new community forming its culture:

“Meaning” in culture tends to be generated at the interfaces between established cultural subsystems, though meanings are then institutionalized and consolidated at the centers of such systems. Liminality is a temporal interface whose properties partially invert those of the already consolidated order which constitutes any specific cultural “cosmos”.

Sowing the Seeds of Change

Buried in this quote I find the essence of how leadership in our situation might act. Rather than dictate a culture and enforce through espoused values, why not look at how we differentiate ourselves and then allow the exposed meaning around which our culture would grow, to inwardly attract membership and commitment.

Liminal transitions, rituals or the rites of passage of communities form the core of Turner’s discussions. Rituals are described as taking a group from one state to another. His studies of preindustrial cultures emphasize both seasonal transitions as well as life stage transitions (boy to man, girl to women). Critical to establishing the betwixt-and-between state of liminality are the surroundings and the guides that take an initiate through. The shaman, elders or tricksters work to create a playful yet serious transitional experience to invoke a cognitive dissonance and lead the initiate to the other side and a new state of being. It is a part of the culture. Its outcome is known and in some sense reassuringly predictable for the community. The experience for the initiate however is unique and personally defining.

Establishing or changing a corporate culture has no known outcome. It is not a transition but a cleaving off of some new community from a pre-existing one. The current trend of Enterprise Agile transformations have shown it is seldom easy. As Turner notes (p44):

“Sociocultural systems drive so steadily towards consistency that human individuals only get off these normative hooks in rare situations in small-scale societies, and not too frequently in large-scale ones.”

Turner borrows the term anti-structure from play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith, to describe the options for change that exist relative to the existing normative state:

“The normative structure represents the working equilibrium, the ‘anti structure’ represents the latent system of potential alternatives from which novelty will arise when contingencies in the normative system require it. We might correctly call this second system the proto structural [Sutton-Smith says] because it is the precursor of innovative normative forms. It is the source of new culture.”

Turner notes that most of what Sutton-Smith describes can be transferred to the study of liminality in tribal ritual. The question I pose is can it also be applied to attempts to grow a new culture? Key I think is the notion of multiple possibilities latent in the community with one germinating because of the context. The sense I have then is change forced head on is doomed. Change resulting from an alignment of organizational needs and potential from within the community seems the most fruitful path. Turner continues (p17):

“What interests me most about Sutton-Smith’s formulations is that he sees liminal and liminoid situations as the settings in which new models, symbols and paradigms, etc., rise –  as the seedbeds of cultural creativity in fact.”

I see then my part as an organizational jester in enabling cultural change, is to embrace the uncertainty of liminality and the playfulness of liminoid (liminal-like) states. To help others to find new ways to play and to find new ways to play well together as they discover a new way of being together.

As for my garden, I will persevere another year. Not because anybody is watching. Not because I expect greatness from it. Maybe for no other reason than the fun of it.

“The earth laughs in flowers.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson


About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
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