An Indirect Approach to Building Continuous Learning Cultures

There is much written about the importance of building culture as a leader. Culture, however, is a somewhat elusive concept. What is culture? What is a culture of continuous learning? How do we create it?
We’ll begin our exploration of these questions with one definition of culture, from Merriam-Webster:
“Culture is the set of of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”
This seems to be a common way to think about culture, though we might reflect on how we are taking it in. From one perspective, it may seem fairly straightforward. All we need to do is program individuals with certain attitudes, values, goals, and practices, and we can create the culture that we want to create.
From a more humanistic perspective we can easily make the same mistake. We may hold ideals of equality, justice, diversity, sustainability, and so on, but in the end our approach to culture-building becomes one of indoctrination. Peter Senge writes, “it is a testament to our naïveté about culture that we think we can change it by simply declaring new values. Such declarations usually produce only cynicism.”
The anthropologist Gregory Bateson writes, “In the transmission of human culture, people always attempt to replicate, to pass on to the next generation the skills and values of the parents, but the attempt always fails because cultural transmission is geared to learning, not DNA.”
We can see this play out in the business world when organizations grow out of the startup phase. As the team expands, leaders often attempt to indoctrinate new hires with the cultural values that led to early success. All too often, those early values become empty and meaningless as the organization grows.
In Indirect Work, Carol Sanford writes, “working from [the living systems] paradigm, one doesn’t attempt to push the world and its inhabitants to an ideal state—that would be coercive and life-denying. Rather, one encourages and enables living beings to discover and express their innate potential as contributors to living communities.”
In Designing Regenerative Cultures, Daniel Christian Wahl writes, “we have to change our cultural narrative, and we do so through culturally creative conversations that are triggered by asking deeper questions.”
One way of seeing culture is as a shared narrative. As human beings, we are naturally wired to make meaning of the world in the form of stories. Individual stories weave into collective narratives that hold shared attitudes, values, goals, practices, symbols, and metaphors. In leading culture change we should be working to understand this process on a deeper and deeper level. In doing so, we may participate skillfully in facilitating it.
As Wahl describes, one key role of the leader is to create the conditions for “culturally creative conversations” around specific questions. Such questions lead to a deeper exploration of the existing cultural narratives, which are often operating on a largely unconscious level. It is through our conversations and shared reflections that we become conscious of how culture is influencing our thinking and behavior. As a result, we come to see opportunities for shifting the basic elements of the narrative in a direction that leads to better outcomes.
Sanford describes four primary elements of culture that can help us in this process: status, totem, ritual, and taboo.
Status refers to how power is distributed within the culture. How does one gain status and power? What does this say about what the culture values? What if instead of gaining status based on X, it were based on Y?
Totem is the representation of cultural identity. Who are the key characters in the shared story? What do their individual stories tell us about the essence of the culture and what it means to belong? Who are we, where do we come from, and what is our role in the world?
Ritual refers to shared values, symbols and practices that connect us to what we hold sacred. What is larger than us, that we are willing to set aside our egos and agendas in order to serve? What practices help us connect to this sense of what’s sacred? What are the core values that we hold in service to the larger whole?
Taboo establishes the boundaries for belonging in the culture. It sets a limit for what we consider acceptable. Where do we draw the line? What is too far?
Too often, culture-building is still approached in a mechanical way. We cling to the belief that we should be defining our ideal culture then pushing people toward it. What if this is the wrong way to think about it?

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Tom Palmer