Meetings: The Canary in the Culture Coal Mine

by Kevin M. Hoffman

Understanding the effects of an organization’s culture on its processes and outcomes can be challenging. The culture of a group or a project team is like water to fish: it is invisible yet everywhere, and it defines what is and is not possible to accomplish. Understanding or changing any aspect of a culture requires immense focused effort and luck.

Equally fascinating is the fact that organizations actually have two cultures. Their espoused culture is the one they claim to have, and the one which is promoted to customers and employees. They also have an actual culture, which governs how things truly go down and may contradict the former. For example, nearly all design firms speak of having a highly democratic, hands-on culture. However there are some decisions made in the style a dictatorship: people’s salaries, clients, even the selection of desks and equipment. It isn’t efficient or fun to get a group of twenty five people to collaborate on selecting a printer. When looking at troubled teams and companies it isn’t difficult to find stark contrast between their advertised and actual cultures. As a result of that culture contrast people feel disenfranchised, teams are less effective, and goals aren’t met.

Dave Gray, author of The Connected Company, spends a lot of time looking at how workplace cultures interfere with (or amplify) organizational ability to be responsive to customers and environmental challenges. But he has no interest in providing that as a consulting service. As Dave so eloquently puts it,

Culture is a minefield. It’s a quagmire; like getting into a foreign war. (As a consultant) do you really want to get involved? I would rather create self-help tools.

One of those tools is culture mapping. Like the origin of any good tool it has a background in a practical application solving an immediate problem.

In 2006, my company was going through this kind of transformation. Our culture had been very process-driven and it needed to become more innovative, more entrepreneurial and more team-oriented. To help with that transition we created a visual map of the culture we wanted. We put copies of the map in every meeting room and on every desk, and we frequently used the map as a guide when making decisions.

A culture map is composed of habits, elicited by asking a lot of questions to the individuals that comprise a culture. Those habits represent existing behaviors that are repeated because they are successful. For example, a team knows intrinsically not to ask the boss certain questions because enough people have asked those questions before, and suffered the consequences. As behaviors are repeated over time, they become easy and routine, even subconscious. But when confronted with a change in the environment that may necessitate breaking those habits, people are very unlikely to do so. The map is a tool to help reveal those behaviors, and explore how and why the mold could be broken.

In my work as a design strategist and consultant, I’m not asked to do a lot of cultural analysis, so I don’t always have the opportunity of building an entire culture map. But I find myself constantly having to adapt to the unique culture of each client I work with. And luckily, there is a tool already in place which will provide me with solid cultural insight without having to convince them that I need to examine their culture in gory detail: the meeting.

Meetings and Culture

Meetings in organizations surface some of the best and the worst of these habits, all bundled into a complex package. For a troubled team, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better place than a meeting to expose tensions between the actual and advertised culture. Imagine a company whose leadership takes the organizational mission very seriously and espouses that employees are its best asset. But in meetings, things like this happen:

  • Teams speak to each each other with distrust or disbelief.
  • Meetings start late, and are unpredictable in length, running long or ending early.
  • People aren’t provided with adequate time or material to prepare for meetings.
  • Productive, healthy conflict is avoided or ignored.

Any of those sound familiar? But don’t worry. In this environment, a meeting is a tremendous opportunity to reveal some of the larger cultural tensions an organization may have, but are invisible at first. Just like the canary in the coal mine is used to demonstrate the presence of invisible deadly gases in a mine, a meeting can be a tool that you use to uncover problematic aspects of a culture before traveling too far down the tunnel of a project.

The Canary: Introduce a Feedback Loop

When I’m tasked with going into a new culture as a design consultant, I need to familiarize myself quickly with the culture of my client. In addition, the project team is introducing a new, hybrid culture that imposes constraints to the way we get things done. For that reason, I ask two simple questions at the beginning and the end of each of meeting. At the beginning I ask

What would you like to get out of our time today?

I write down on the whiteboard or easel, clearly so everyone can read it from where they are sitting, a summary of what each person said and who said it. At the very end of the meeting, before we leave the room, I ask each person directly

(Name)—did we address your concern today?

Introducing a simple feedback loop like this one into meetings will certainly not change the culture overnight. But it will start to introduce trust and open dialogue that will shine a light on the more challenging parts of the existing culture. The self awareness of a group’s strengths and weaknesses that will emerge from doing this exercise is what makes teams (and people) shine.

About the Author

Kevin is an independent UX consultant, writer, and speaker whose client list includes Google, Harvard, The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Zappos. He formerly worked as the director of user experience for Happy Cog in Philadelphia. You can follow Kevin on Twitter @kevinmhoffman.

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