I began a new journey of learning today and let me just say it was awesome. Today I became part of the Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I have been watching and admiring the work of this group that is a consortium of leading researchers and practitioners in the field of organizational learning and change. To be asked to be part of such a distinguished group in very exciting. I certainly admire the mission of this project of: Bringing together the leaders of organizational learning to develop a greater understanding of the field’s current challenges. Today I attended my first session which was the 2017 LILA Summit. This event, which was held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was the culmination of the work done this year around the topic of Adaptive Cultures. Next year’s topic that we will be studying was announced today and is: Emergence In Organizations: Shaping The Future As It Unfolds.
I want to reflect here on a discussion we had as a small group at the end of the day today that was on the question: How do we get from cultural practices to cultural values? This question was posed by Gert Jan Hofstede. Gert is a Dutch population biologist and social scientist in information management and social simulation, interested in the interplay of the contrasting forces of cultural evolution, societal change, and cultural stability. Bottom-line, he is a genius and I was excited to be learning from him today.
I must admit, however, when I first heard his question I thought he had it backward. Don’t we need to get our cultural values straight first, then get the practices in place? But, as the discussion ensued I realized I was wrong. In most organizations and social structures there are already cultural practices in place. So, there must be a matching, shift, or discover of values in order to get practices in line with values. We used a small group sharing best practice of each telling a story from our own experience. I told the story of my own school network and how a new culture needed to be developed where basically a free for all of everyone doing their own thing with no real direction had existed.
Furthermore, I told how we used teacher leaders in concert with stakeholders to develop a guiding set of core values. I even mentioned how I believe the statement “students first” in many ways hurts education. I cannot count the times I have heard someone answer “students first” to the question of how to do something or how to develop a process. Let’s be clear here, “students first” is a core value, not a task or tactic. Just saying “students first” without a process does nothing. In fact, it probably does more harm. Now, please understand I do believe in the core value of “students first,” but we must have the cultural practices in place to do just that. That’s why I now have grown to like Gert’s original question of how to get from cultural practice to cultural values.
In this example, we really started over by developing the cultural values and then building the processes to be in line with the cultural values. A point made by Gert that really resonated with me was that we have to watch make our cultural values banners that we fly to answer everything, like my “students first” example with know real cultural practices to support the cultural values.
Another key point that came out of this discussion was that in an organization cultural practices are more important than values. As a believer in having core values and making decisions based on these values I had to get my mind wrapped around this. In the end, however, the group was right because without practices the values are just words spoken or written on a page. We need to look at cultural values as the drivers. These should drive our actions. Our values will also show our perceptions.
We then discussed others in the group’s stories. Some were more societal than organizational. Then the question of: Why do we bother? came up. It is tough because as Gert pointed out, “You can only surf on the waves of where society is going.” We discussed reframing the cultural values by looking at what the backdrop is. We also discussed this as a tactic when dealing with adaptive cultures. We discussed that there is a big difference between the cultural value of “saving the planet” and “preserving the natural landscape.” Sometimes we can, and do, have the same values, but are looking at them through different lenses.
We must recognize the fractal nature of culture – there are cultures within cultures within cultures within cultures. Additionally, creating a culture where we can interact a lot with a lot of different people is important. If we interact a lot, we influence each other. We have leverage with those we frequently interact with and they have leverage over us. The person(s) with the most diver set of connections will always make better decisions. Who talks to whom and who interacts with whom matters. For adaptive cultures we, as leaders, have to be around the edges nudging. We must also be humble and realize we do not know everything.
To summarize our small group discussion we did a cool activity and developed a tweet representative of our learning. Here is our tweet: “Values derived should drive cultural practices and then inform leadership.” #LILAculture17 What is driving your organization’s culture and informing you as a leader?