It just creeps up on you…

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:

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: info@coodeasssociates.com.

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