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Why do we speak English—even when we don't want to?

Next week I start a short series answering the question, “What is Culture?” 

I will offer a workable definition, and explore the relationship between Culture and strategy, and Culture and Leadership. I will also show how Culture can be measured qualitatively and quantitatively, and how you can shape the Culture of your team, organisation or community over time.

I will also review the consequences of ignoring Culture when generating and attempting to implement a strategy.

My definition of Culture will be rooted in the concept of Humankind as problem-solving leaders. 

As a preamble to the series on Culture, I am providing a short refresher of the ‘problem-solving leadership’ concept.

  • Humans are problem-solvers. Unlike other species, we are not especially adapted to our environment, so we adapt our environment to suit us.
  • This activity, and its consequences, are so complex that no one individual can solve every problem. 
  • We have to collaborate in the form of pairs, teams, organisations, communities and countries in order to survive and thrive.
  • To encourage collaboration for mutual benefit, the barriers to collaboration have to be minimised, and the return on the collaboration has to be maximised.
  • A common language greatly reduces barriers to collaboration by allowing those in the team to be clear on the problem to be resolved. 
  • This permits each member to determine how she or he can contribute the resolution of the problem for overall and individual benefit.

For example. I was working with a pair of engineers on the construction of Chlorine complex in Asia. One engineer was Bengali, the other Finnish. This pair was a diverse linguistically as they were geographically. Their two native languages had no common vocabulary or common grammatical structure (see infographic).

On this basis they would had to have to exploit their respective engineering expertise through ugh’s, argh’s and facial expressions. A sub-optimal, high-risk process to design and deliver a Chlorine complex.

But a common language, in this case, English, gives each individual a stage upon they can demonstrate the value of their personal problem-solving capability to the group.

Social acclamation of your problem-solving capability is a huge contributor to ones self-esteem. The lack of recognition is at the root of the depression of the unemployed.

The Ancients recognised the power of collaborative problem-solving groups and knew how to dismantle them if they became threatening.

In Genesis, the post-Flood survivors formed one large problem-solving group, easing collaboration through a common language,

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
— Genesis Ch 11 v 6

With this expanded problem-solving capability, the people decided to build a tower, the Tower of Babel, toward Heaven.

Finding this a little threatening, God’s response was to

confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
— Genesis Ch 11 v 7

Thereby concomitantly dismantling the Tower and the problem-solving group.

Leaders in organisations have two key roles: 

1. Strategy: Defining the common problems for the group to solve;

2. Culture: Reducing the barriers to collaboration so the group can solve the problem for mutual benefit

The first of these is the glamorous darling of the business press. It is intellectual, easy to see, measure and present. It is the easier to do. 

The second is tougher, messier, unpredictable and human. But understanding Culture is the starting point to understanding barriers to collaboration and how they can be removed. 

This is the essence of effective implementation.

It is the toughest half of leadership and one will examine more deeply in the series, "What is Culture?"

Simon LuntComment