reading between the lines
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How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
The leader of a team we were working with recently reminded us of this quote from Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises. In a less erudite, but more personal and prosaic, manner I have had the same sort of experience at home. Having bought a house six years ago we have just had the kitchen refurbished. We are now wondering how we managed to live so long with an oven held together with bright green tape.
Aside from expectations of ‘Bake-Off’ experiences, one of the things that struck me was that we had vowed on the first day we moved in to at least change the colour of the tape, even if not the oven itself. Yet we got used to it and found work arounds. For Mike, in Hemingway’s novel, things just became the norm.
‘Creeping normality’ is a great term for describing how we just get used to things being done in a certain way. It is also how organisational cultures, without constant attention, evolve. Very few, if any, organisations deliberately set out with low standards or ‘quick fixes’ – they just become embedded and gradually slow the organisation down, or worse still, suffocate it.
There is another dimension to culture that also makes the problem more difficult to spot. Cultures grow and evolve over time. There are not rapid or obvious failures – like a pipe rupturing or a bid failing (though both of these examples may have their roots cause in culture).
To guard against creeping normality in your culture, here are three approaches that might help:
- External Focus. Keeping a constant watch on what is going on outside the confines of your own organisation in both related and different sectors. Others doing things differently may prompt you to reappraise your own activities. In an earlier life I had the privilege of visiting lots of different regiments in the British Army a few years after I had commanded my own. The timing could not have been worse – if only I had seen the way they worked beforehand I would have been able to pinch all their good ideas.
- Fresh Eyes. Because ‘the norm’ is so rapidly adopted and because it is often difficult to point out faults from within, it is vital that fresh eyes are used. This can be achieved by deliberately recruiting those from different and diverse backgrounds or, at greater distance, ensuring NEDs are effective in providing scrutiny. Sometimes a truly independent view is needed to hold the mirror up or tell an uncomfortable truth….the friends who point out that you have green masking tape on your oven.
- Mindset. For both of these approaches to work – and essential for any culture to adapt, the organisation and its people must be characterised by an open or growth mindset. Easier to talk about than to instil as it is fundamentally a cultural attribute, there are concrete actions that can help bring it into being. An organisation that, for instance, does not have regular reviews of how it is working or engages in challenging debate is likely to stay fixed in its current groove.
There is a final thing to watch out for. In Hemingway’s book Mike says he had ‘more creditors than anybody in England’ but before that comes ‘I had a lot of friends. False friends.’ These are the ones (either internal or external) who tell you everything is going well.
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Coode Associates supports and advises companies on leadership and organisational effectiveness and alignment, identifying Purpose and Values and on culture-shaping more generally. If you’d like to speak with us, we’d love to hear from you: email@example.com.Back to Insights