“Can you change culture? Can our teams really work in this very different way?”

These questions came from a Vice President of IT at a global food company. He sat at the end of a long boardroom table with his eight Directors seated on either side. They had convened the meeting to discuss how to improve the relationship between his product teams and other departments in the company. The problem was this: as they launched their new crop of applications, customers were giving consistently negative reviews. These negative reactions could lead to budgets cuts and weakened trust between departments.

My colleague Hannah and I were brought in to propose the possibility of trying something different. There before a group of leaders whose best efforts had produced mostly shrugs and rejection, we presented the idea of creating an open, iterative design process that included early and regular face-to-face involvement with customers.

And that’s when the VP expressed his doubts.

It was an honest statement of curiosity: is this even possible? Could managers and teams really change their habits, really adopt design into their much-beloved processes?

Looking back on that day, I realize that the gathering itself exhibited some of the root issues underlying the department’s difficulties:

  • the standard format for addressing an issue was to “have a meeting”
  • the means for receiving fresh input was through a presentation
  • the people in the room were exclusively in leadership roles; no one there was a customer of the department, and no one there worked on development teams
  • the group’s kit of tools for addressing the challenge seemed to be limited to a handful of direct measures: mandated process changes, changing incentives, or introducing new technology.

So the VP’s question was understandable.

If your palette of culture-shifting tools is limited to meetings, presentations, mandate, persuasion, and technology, it’s no wonder that culture-shifting seems impossible.

How broad is your conversation tool kit?

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If you are one of the many thousands of professionals who want to help your organization adopt design practices, what tools are in your kit?

Last Spring, we interviewed UX and design leaders in a number of large companies. The goal was to gain insight into the challenges people are facing, and what approaches they are using to advance their organization’s’ capacity to produce creative quality.

We saw a broad range of approaches and tactics. People are using education, design-school style studio sessions, coaching, field excursions, events, and in-house social media. They’re building communities of early adopters and supporting advocates. They are finding pockets of excellence and expanding them. They are committing to support quality through collaboration and coaching.

I had two reactions to this peek into so many efforts at culture-building. The first was excitement and admiration. We saw such earnest enthusiasm, such optimism in the face of daunting scale, and such cheerful creativity as people engaged with challenges far outside their training and expertise.

The second reaction was to make wishes for these good people.

First, I wished for ways they could learn from one another. Many of these people felt somewhat alone in their efforts. Most were making up their strategies and methods as they went along. They have a lot to teach each other!

Secondly, I wished they could have access to a broader range of methods and tools. Methods from fields like dialog facilitation, organizational learning, social innovation, education, and art and theater have not made their way into the kits of people who need them — people who are attempting just the kind of challenge for which they were made: gardening a collective shift in “the way we do things around here.”

 

Culture is made of conversations

Conversations make up the social context of our organizations — the pattern of influences that shapes how people behave and who they become. So when it comes to what the organization produces, interactions between people are more important than their job titles, their training, or their history. Interactions between people and groups are far more rich and deep than “meetings,” and they have a greater impact on our organization and its outcomes than almost anything else we could name.

At Fit, we apply the “culture is made of conversations” framework to help organizations see and work with difficult challenges, especially the invisible ones. While there is something quite real that we mean when we use the word “culture,” that word is worn out and overburdened, nearly useless for actually communicating with each other, much less getting things done.

Culture is made of conversations:

  • Through conversations we form relationships, and relationships are the fabric of any organization.
  • Through conversations we define and practice our invisible, underlying values about what’s good, acceptable, praiseworthy, valuable. These become agreements about what should be repeated and encouraged, halted or discouraged.
  • Through conversations, ideas, understanding, and worldviews are spread.
  • Through conversations we establish and reinforce the identity — who we are together — of our teams, departments, and organizations.

 

Leadership is conversational

Because organizational culture is conversational, leadership is conversational. Leaders nurture and maintain the conversations that really matter to the organization. Conversations that keep the defining stories and values alive in the hallways, cubicles and conference rooms. Conversations that confront the uncomfortable but crucial issues. Conversations about possibility, that help the entire organization participate in creating a desirable future.

If you are actively working to establish and grow design as an aspect of organizational culture, consider these two implications:

  1. Convening conversations is an act of leadership, so let’s get better at convening. When we get the right people together for the right reasons and put in place the conditions for creative conversation, we are practicing cultural leadership.
  2. We can improve our leadership by improving our ability to hold the necessary, profound, sometimes uncomfortable conversations. The larger our palette of conversational methods and the more we become people who can hold and hold these conversations, the better we will be able to have impact on our culture.

 

Expanding our kit of conversational tools:
the communication continuum

Let’s see what it might look like to expand our range of conversational methods.

At the beginning of this post, the people involved had two main tools in their kit: sending messages to each other, or making presentations to small groups.

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If you listened in on these exchanges they would sound like many small acts of one way messaging. You’d hear individual points of view, intellectual arguments, advocacy and persuasion.

But in interviews we conducted with design leaders, we saw they applied a broader range of methods to  extend and improve the conversations about process and quality. We saw the beginnings of conversational leadership.

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These people were working hard to equip teams with the understanding and skills to work differently. They not only provided things like education and methods, they provided coaching through the first few projects so that teams truly internalized new practices.

We also heard the first glimmers of true dialog with leaders. Dialog is the center of a large community practice.This idea deserves a longer post of its own. There’s a lot to say, and learn about two-way conversation. Dialog has the power to move the conversation from simple exchange of points of view to open inquiry. People in dialog become explorers in  an act of discovery. They use conversation to create new meanings together.

But the range of possibilities for conversational leadership and culture work extends even further.

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Imagine assembling a diverse group of people to share an experience together (such as visiting customers’ homes or immersing in a new context). This experience can spark conversations that would never have occurred, and springboard the group into fresh creative activities.

At the far right of this diagram, “journey together” refers to situations in which a group of people commit to a complex and difficult but compellingly important outcome (for example, “incorporate design thinking into our organizational culture”). There are many examples out there showing it’s possible to manage this kind of “journey of co-creation” as an act of extended conversational leadership that deliberately affects the social patterns of an organization.