I can’t make steam - and nor can you.

Updated: Apr 25

You CAN’T just create the culture that you want.

People who say ‘We don’t have a Culture’ are like people who say ‘I don’t have an accent’. Granted there are some accents that are stronger, harder to understand and harder to imitate than others. It’s far easier to put on the gentle lilt of a ‘generic Welsh’ accent than to try an impression of any character from Fargo with their Minnesotan ‘oh yahs’ and ‘you betchas’. And as someone with a sort of middle England / Southern England accent I often think that I don’t have an accent - but of course to an Australian or even a Liverpudlian I do.


We can’t always hear what is unique about our accent or ourselves because to us, its ‘everyday’.


At Fp we are often told by organisations that ‘we don’t have a culture’ - what they mean is they haven’t defined a culture and agreed a list of behaviours or values, or that actually it isn’t so bad as to need to name it. It’s not outstanding and it’s not toxic, it’s just ‘everyday’. They don’t notice it, but it’s difficult to describe and difficult to imitate. It’s also difficult to cultivate, to protect and to hire against.


Another common misconception is that a culture can be ‘done to’ or ‘worked on’ - or, as was the case with an enormous and infamous company acquisition - bought. You can’t transplant a culture. A culture is an emergent property - like steam from boiling water. You and I can’t ‘make steam’ but we can put a pan of cold water over heat thereby creating the conditions for steam to emerge.


Am I making sense?


So, although some of our conversations may begin with ‘we need to [insert verb] our culture’ we are often involved in digging into the mindsets and beliefs, the behaviours, the processes and systems that contribute to the culture that emerged (the heat, pan and cold water if you like). To be glib, if we aren’t making steam fast enough perhaps we turn up the heat or introduce a lid. If we need to make more we may need to pour in more water - we work on the contributors or the conditions, we don’t just will more or better steam.

And as Myron’s Maxims say - ‘start anywhere, work everywhere’. We don’t need to always start by defining the culture we want and working backwards, just as it’s not always best to audit our processes and systems as the first task to improve culture; but neither are wrong. At Fp we believe that as long as we start somewhere and accept that our work will likely impact on and be impacted by everything, as long as we have the tough conversations about our behaviours, as long as we truly understand the beliefs that steer us, as long as we all endeavour to create the culture that we want, and recognise that it may be tough at times, we will make progress in improving our emergent culture. It may be hard at first and just as it may take longer to make more steam from a fuller pan of water it will in fact result in, you guessed it, more steam eventually. We recently worked with a team who all wholeheartedly agreed that they had a fantastic culture. That’s awesome, so we just discussed it a little further - what does fantastic look like to them? Their response was that they don’t tend to disagree, they like each other, they help each other out, they have each other’s back against other departments etc. What emerged was a culture of rescuing each other, stepping in to firefight conversations that could create tension and in doing so, everyone doing things in their own way rather than agreeing a team wide best practise. They never disagreed because they never had conversations in which they could, so that they stayed friends.


We facilitated a conversation where they safely shared some of their frustrations or challenges. It was tough - they felt as though they were betraying each other or attacking each other at first. Eventually they started to discuss why things frustrated them or annoyed them, they began to share their perspectives on their roles, how things should work. They shared examples from previous roles or their life experiences that have led them to hold a certain belief.


They started to understand each other more.


They started to trust each other more.


They started to trust that if they disagreed they wouldn’t lose each other but would actually improve things, all sorts of things.


Their culture had previously been built on a shared fear of losing each other or upsetting each other - they now start to build a culture on trust.


They didn’t just add more water to their pot to make more steam, they added food colouring, changed the pan shape, varied the heat and popped a funnel on top which resulted in a steam utterly unique to them. And without wanting to beat the analogy to death - if you want to keep making steam you have to keep the pan on the heat and keep topping up the water - otherwise it will fizzle out.


So to not-so-subtly loop back; every organisation has a culture. They’re just unique, continuously evolving and emerging, and often tricky to define.


A great culture is one that is discussed openly - ‘How do we want to work together? How do we want it to feel? Do we work like that? Does it feel like that? Why does it? Why doesn’t it?’ And for those questions to be asked with genuine curiosity into the answers. If you'd like to have a confidential chat about your organisation, its culture or just the conditions and contributors you can name then please get in touch – we love talking about this but more importantly, we love hearing about it.

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