Culture = conversation

Jack Martin Leith has a thoughtful post about conversation with some juicy quotes. This one makes particular sense to me:

Your organization’s culture is nothing more than what individuals say to each other and what they think to themselves. When you shift the conversations, you shift the culture. Stephen ShapiroInnovate the Way You Innovate, European Business Review

Another angle on this is to question the ease with which we talk about an organisation’s culture as if it is some single, amorphous thing that we can operate on at some “strategic” level. (I can’t quite track down where I read that point made recently!) This tempts us to rather grandiose attempts to change something that is beyond our real control. The big culture is emergent from the smaller conversations that make it up.

In my own work, I have become more and more fascinated by how in even the simplest exchange between two people, there is a great deal of complexity and potential. There are gestures and intonations that creates subtexts of all sorts and affect where the conversation leads.

A simple improv activity sets up a scene in a greengrocers. There are two characters, and they’re given just this anodyne script.

A: Good morning

B: Good morning

A: Do you have any oranges?

B: No, we’ve run out.

The players run through the scene once. Then they’re invited to run it again, often repeatedly, always sticking to the script but with little tilts. Tilts might be whispered by a director/coach, or just invented by the players as they go. What becomes apparent is that this simple scene can be played out in infinitely different, dramatic ways in which there is much more going on than a mere exchange of pleasantries and information about fruit.

For instance, one player might be asked to play the scene with her eyes wide open. This changes the whole way it plays out. Or the greengrocer might shift his status from low to high as the scene progresses. This again dramatically changes what happens.

If you let the scene continue, it will go it quite different directions as a result of these initial tilts.

For complexity fans, this is a case of small changes in the initial conditions having big impacts on what emerges.

In human systems, of course, in a sense we are always in the initial conditions of something and the unintended consequences of something else. If we attempt to take control of this, we slip into fantasies about power we can’t every really have… but if we bring ourselves more into the moment, get a sense of what’s possible in the conversation we are in right now, we might glimpse the true grandeur of the universe.


1 thought on “Culture = conversation

  1. Jack Martin Leith

    Hello Johnny. Glad you liked the quotes. Thank you for the mention and link. I agree with the points you make here.

    My current take is that there is no such thing as “the culture” of an organisation. It’s dynamically created, moment by moment, by a wide range of factors that are often hard to identify and impossible to control. Furthermore, each member of the organisation has his or her own unique experience of this dynamic culture.

    So trying to change “the culture” is a futile exercise. And it’s constantly changing (or, rather, being recreated) anyway, although it may not appear that way.

    Best wishes from Bristol to Cambridge.


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