What is culture?I recently reread Edgar Schein’s seminal book “Organizational Culture and Leadership”1. Schein identifies culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems”.
Levels of cultureSchein (and other authors) distinguish three different levels through which culture can be looked at. The first level is the artefacts, all the easily observable elements of what goes on in the organization (office layout, meeting rituals, jargon used …). The second is the espoused beliefs and values, and encompasses how the organization wants to show itself and be seen both internally and externally. The basic underlying assumptions are the third level and according to Schein the essence of organizational culture. These assumptions are often unspoken and even unconscious. They have evolved from how the organization in the past dealt with challenges, and have stood the test of time. The basic underlying assumptions are “what works” and “the way things are around here”. They are – often unconsciously – accepted by all through the shared experiences and learning from the past. They are “the implicit assumptions that actually guide behavior, that tell group members how to perceive, think about and feel about things”.
What when we get stuck?Culture is how an organization has solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration over time. But what if the environment has changed and new ways to adapt to the external world are needed? What if there are new competitors, new business models, new customer needs, or needs that disappear? And what if the organization has grown from a single product or country to multiple products with business units around the world, requiring new ways of communicating, making decisions or building strategy? The culture for sure worked well in the past, but if the needs for external adaptation and internal integration change drastically, the ways in which the organization used to deal with these may no longer work. In other words, the organization’s culture no longer allows to deal with these external and internal challenges and even becomes an obstacle to change.
Let’s change the culture!When leadership becomes aware that the existing culture is becoming a constraint for continued growth and success, a culture change initiative is often launched. With the help of external experts, the organization will come up with new artefacts (open space to improve communication and collaboration!) and new espoused beliefs and values (a new list of values or a new tagline). Rarely though will the underlying basic assumptions be addressed, because these are lived and felt, more than expressed and managed. And although the culture change initiative gets all the fanfare and visibility that is needed, very often the old assumptions – the essence of culture according to Schein – remain the same.
Action Learning to the rescue!You cannot instruct your organization to “lay bare” its basic assumptions (they are often subconscious!) and change them where needed. That just doesn’t work. And that is why change programs often scratch the surface (artefacts and espoused values) but do not fundamentally shift the basic assumptions. “Basic assumptions tend to be non-confrontable and non-debatable, and therefore extremely difficult to change. To learn something new in this realm requires us to resurrect, reexamine and possibly change some of the more stable portions of our cognitive structure, what Argyris calls double-loop learning.” Action Learning is a great support to organizational change initiatives! First of all, Action Learning always deals with a real, complex, urgent and important problem. These problems are typically about external adaptation (competition, growth, market issues) or internal integration (communication, decision-making, collaboration, improving processes …). Very often when team members dive into what the “real” problem is, they will unearth (with double and triple-loop interventions) what really underlies the symptoms that is holding back the organization. Complex and important problems are often those that exist because of the underlying culture assumptions: if the existing culture would be able to deal with them, they would not be problems! Embed Action Learning in your change program to ensure that those underlying assumptions that need to change are identified and addressed! Peter Cauwelier Master Action Learning Coach, Thailand / September 2022
- the members in the team feel emotionally and psychologically safe;
- the members in the team can personally reflect about their behavior.
- You avoid questions out of a natural desire to protect yourself. How does that feel to you?
- You are too often and too much rushed and stressed. How is that right for you?
- You are not trained to ask and answer questions due to lack of examples, training, opportunities and experience. How does this fit for you?
- Your work environment discourages asking questions due to a corporate culture mainly due to adherence to existing assumptions and policies. How is or was this true for you?
Ground Rule #1If there’s anything a WIAL Action Learning coach remembers from their certification program, it is the power of WIAL’s Ground Rule #1: Statements can only be made in response to questions (and anyone can ask a question to anyone else). This ground rule is what makes WIAL Action Learning so powerful, and so different from other forms of Action Learning. A coach starts each session with a reminder of both ground rules, to ensure the team members are aligned with the rules necessary for a successful Action Learning session. And then, off we go !
Who has the next question ?For sure the session starts off with a few questions (and sometimes a bit of hesitation) followed by some answers. All is good: Ground Rule #1 in full swing! Yet very often, and very quickly, questions tend to get longer. Some questions are preceded by an “introduction” or explanation about the question that is about to follow. “John, it seems that there is a bit of something going on and also maybe something else, so my question is, how do you feel about this ?” Or a question is followed by some sort of elaboration, as if the question needs to be put in perspective, clarified or expanded upon. When “because” slips into a question, the person asking is in fact about to answer their own question. “So Susan, how do you feel about this situation, because it seems from what you said earlier that something but maybe it could also be that there is something else ?”. At some point, I used to intervene about “long questions”. “Team, are we asking more short questions or more long questions ? What is the impact if we ask this or that kind of question …?”. It took me a while to realize that there are no long questions.
There are no long questionsThere is no such thing as a long question. When a question gets long, it stops being a question. It may start off with a question word, but then the question gets killed off in a series of twists and turns and additions and explanations. By the time the long-winded so-called question comes to an end, the team member to whom it is addressed will likely ask “Euh … what was the question again ?”. Unfortunately, many coaches – I have been guilty, but getting better – are way too flexible with Ground Rule #1. The ground rule states that statements can only be made in response to questions. It does not state that one can elaborate, add, explain, clarify, expand without end, as long as there is a question somewhere in there, either at the start or at the end of the rambling. Quite often the coach will be listening closely and as long as a question word (who, what, how …) is uttered, will consider that there was a question there. There are many advantages of asking questions in Action Learning. One of the main reasons we ask questions is to develop genuine curiosity: putting oneself in others’ shoes, and exploring their problem and its context without judgment. Questions that are followed by long elaborations, explanations and clarifications are not genuine or curious questions. Same for questions that come at the end of a long- winded description. They may grammatically start off or get wrapped up as a question, but they are not questions in the spirit of WIAL Action Learning, and a WIAL coach should not allow them.
Intervene (aka interrupt)!As a coach, you know after 15 seconds if someone is asking a question or not. Yes, you read that well: 15 seconds. In spoken language, 15 seconds corresponds to around 30 words. Try and ask a genuine question that is 30 words long: you will not succeed. There is no such thing as a long question. If you count the questions in Choon Seng Ng’s “What’s Your Question” book and add them to the number of questions in “Power Questions” by Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas, you come to a total of 967 questions. I could not find any question amongst the 967 that has more than 20 words. As a coach, if a “question” goes on beyond 15 seconds or 30 words, you can be pretty certain that Ground Rule #1 is being broken. So intervene ! Yes, after 15 seconds … A coach should not be aggressive, but at the same time, why wait for the so-called “question” to end (after 30 ? 45 ? 60 seconds or more … ?) if you know after 15 seconds that Ground Rule #1 is being broken. If you do not intervene, the team members get into the habit of explaining, talking, clarifying or elaborating with a question somewhere thrown in at the end. They think they are asking questions. So after 15 seconds, and with the “question” still going on, I lean in, smile and ask “And so your question is … ?”. Sometimes I get a reaction like “Yes, but I am explaining why I am asking my question !” to which I answer – with a smile – “That’s OK, just ask your question !”. After a few times, team members learn (!) and see the power of asking real, curious questions, without explanations before or after. And then we can have a real Action Learning session !
Honor Ground Rule #1Ground Rule #1 is what makes WIAL Action Learning powerful. As a coach, we need to ensure that the ground rule is really followed, not just “mechanically” or grammatically, but also in the spirit of asking curious questions. Interrupt so-called long questions after 15 seconds: the team will gain tremendously from it ! Peter Cauwelier, MALC / June 2022
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