Friday, November 8, 2013

3 Signs of Poisoned Culture

Amy Celep at Community Wealth Partners recently had a great post on the Dream Forward blog about the invaluable role culture plays in facilitating collaboration.

Participants in collaborations often rally together because of a crisis moment or an exciting opportunity to do more together. In either case, they are focused on the results that may be possible through collaboration. This healthy focus on results combined with pressure from boards, funders, and others, cause many participants to prioritize execution ahead of something as seemingly abstract as “building a shared culture.”
This can be a dangerous orientation. Without a solid foundation, the most elegantly designed and expertly crafted cathedral will collapse. Likewise, the best strategy will quickly crumble if it does not align with the group’s culture.
Strong research exists to substantiate the assertion that culture has a powerful influence on what groups of individuals, organizations, and even nations can accomplish. 
I wrote earlier about the value of shared understanding, value and responsibility. And those three combined reflect the shared culture described by Amy.

What are some signs that the culture in the system you are trying to change may eat your collaboration effort for lunch? Here are a few:

1. Middle School is Still in Session - If the conversations among stakeholders sound more like the whinings of middle school age children caught up in petty feuds rather than adult conversations about critical challenges, the system's culture isn't ready for true collaboration. Middle-school conversations focus on personalities and turf rather than design and value.

2. Support Generates Distrust - Recently a stakeholder in a collaboration informed me that they were interested in helping their peers better understand an issue and were even willing to help fund the work needed to create that shared understanding. But they knew that if they paid for the work several other stakeholders would immediately reject the value of that work simply because of who paid for it. When doing the right thing generates more distrust than shared understanding it's impossible to move forward.

3. Protecting People Comes First - Several years ago a group of emergent leaders successfully built consensus among a large group of stakeholders that a fundamental change had to occur within a key system in the community where I was working. One element of change was that an established organization would have to shut down and its well-liked leader would lose their job. It took more than two years to move from consensus to action because the culture in that community was to protect those at the top. Personal relationships were more important than value creation.

The good news is that a poisoned civic culture isn't a permanent condition. Remediation is possible by engaging stakeholders -- and oftentimes engaging new stakeholders -- through narratives that illustrate the value to be created by collaborations that can generate collective impact.

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