Cultivating cultures

Hooray! Number 5 already. I am keeping up the good work and soon I will publish a page on my website from where you can easily find all my posts. For now, my next post is about cultivating cultures, which is a pattern that I observe regularly throughout my (agile) career. Cultivating cultures is a great thing to do, though I notice some lack of culture awareness, which may result into exactly the opposite of what you want to achieve.

Culture is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior, institutions, and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups (according to Wikipedia). Furthermore, we apply this term quite often to a much smaller group as well, like a company, a department or a team. So in this context, I think any of the group sizes could be relevant and actually are relevant, since in some ways they can influence each other and the ideas behind a culture are really useful if we try to understand our teams, departments and companies as well.

I have been working with quite a large number of different teams or groups of people. If you take the original definition of culture, some of them really came from different (country) cultures, like the Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, Serbia, India et cetera. Cultural awareness is about understanding and dealing with differences between cultures, which is basically a good thing since in such a case you typically show respect towards the norms and beliefs in that culture. And from that point of view, it is easier to define what to change next, most times in small baby steps, and it helps in not leapfrogging some important norms. An important thing I learned about cultural awareness, is that it typically occurs in groups of people from the same culture, if put under pressure… This statement implies however that you cannot automatically assign cultural aspects to individuals.

A culture helps us in feeling safe, since we share the same set of norms and values. However, if we want to change things (for whatever reason), it can work against us as well. In order to maintain a culture, we typically educate and mentor others to comply to that same culture. So what happens if someone not compliant with the existing norms and values is coming in? Most times, we don’t “like” them, since accepting someone who has almost a perfect match to your personal norms and values, is easier than someone who is not. Actually it is a bias we all have, so there is a tendency to accept people who are more like you, thus a tendency to strengthen the society norms and to feel even more safe. Towards those who challenge the existing norms and values too much, we have a tendency to “remove” them from our societies.

How does that relate to companies, departments and teams? Cultures exist there as well. It helps teams to feel safe. So what happens if you hire someone to help the company to change? Yes, I actually refer to us, the agile coaches and scrum masters of this world. If you do your job right, you will at least challenge the existing status quo, in order to enable change. That could however imply that you could be seen as a threat to an existing culture as well, and even do not fit in the existing culture of the group of people being in the lead. That could lead to a feeling of non-compliance, which I think is great, though could be interpreted as a big risk for specific persons or groups… leading to the tendency to expel…

As a sidenote I notice that many, many agilists are actually not really agilists, since they don’t have the courage to be the itchy element in the system. I am not going to address that in much detail in this post, many other colleague-coaches have written about variants of so-called zombi-scrum good enough to understand what could possibly go wrong.

So I believe that it is really relevant to become culture aware. And to open up to the space for improvement, even if you do not feel completely comfortable about it. Simple examples are a listener in a group of primarily people shouting, or a challenger in a group of people maintaining the status quo, or a (real) leader in a group of bosses.

What example can you come up with in which culture has stand in the way?

Did you ever run into a comparable situation? And you want to exchange? Just explore a bit through my website and just contact me.

Previous post: Self awareness