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Inspecting the Infrastructure of Your Culture

Sometimes you don’t notice how much you depend on a bridge until it fails.

The Washington Bridge in my home city of Providence, Rhode Island, carries nearly 100,000 vehicles each day high over the Providence River, with expansive views of the city and the surrounding landscapes. It’s the main link between Providence and many communities in Rhode Island and Southern Massachusetts, including Cape Cod.

Recently, a young engineer with fresh eyes discovered that the bridge had areas of serious, long-term structural erosion. The city immediately closed it down and later announced that it may need to be wholly replaced.

Bridge travelers responded by scrambling into the small streets and alleys, looking for alternate ways to get where they needed to go, to keep their work commitments, to get their kids to school, to get to Boston and New York. Small neighborhoods in Providence filled up with cars using much less efficient ways to get where they were headed.

When Genii Earth works across sectors with the leaders who are inventing the next way in their organizations, industries, communities, we often encounter a similar erosion of one of the basic elements of high-performance infrastructure … conversations for committed action. Without this infrastructure in place, it’s very difficult to achieve flow for your most important priorities. Attending to it invariably adds energy and momentum to the important work of creating the next way you envision.

Company culture is an evolving force of collective interaction. It is changed by the repeated practices occurring in an organization, either by default or by leadership intention. And like other critical infrastructure, it can erode over time.

We at Genii, coach leaders to pay attention to and intentionally develop all aspects of culture, including the less glamorous practices that happen throughout every workday, such as conversations for committed action.

What are your organization’s current practices around committed action? When people make requests of each other, how clear are the requests? How clear are the responses? Do people feel the freedom and agency to accept the requests, to decline them, or to make counter offers? Once alignment on a request and the response is achieved, how seriously is that commitment held? How effectively do the people involved stay in communication after the commitment about any changes that need to be made to it?

These are lenses we look through when working with our clients. In many organizations, requests, responses and subsequent communication are fuzzy and avoidant. The functional working bridges of committed conversation erode, the work slows and gets splintered into alternate routes and side streets.

As a leader of the next way in your organization, your success rises or falls on the quality of collaboration, committed action, and results.

Luckily, you can begin restoring the bridges of committed conversations today. When you and those you influence begin cleaning up this aspect of work, everything gets better.

First, be an observer for a few days and notice how clear or how fuzzy the conversations for commitment are. A good place to observe this is in meetings when a topic leads to the question of “what’s next?”

Then, start practicing these essential steps to begin to restore the bridges of committed conversations that lead to action:

  1. Make requests for action that are clear and include a timeline.
  2. Welcome genuine responses to the request. Give space for your colleagues to accept, decline or counteroffer the request.
  3. Align and restate what is being committed to.
  4. Keep a shared record of committed actions and a system for checking in on them.
  5. Once the commitment is made, stay in communication about any changes to the request or the commitment. Our work environments are dynamic and complex, so adapting to changing conditions is essential, as is staying in communication and renegotiating commitments when necessary.

We are always struck by how simple this practice is.  We are equally struck by how much impact it makes when re-enlivened and when it is modeled and reinforced by leaders.

Like the young engineer that discovered the erosion in the Washington Bridge, it’s often new employees or visitors who are the first to notice how your culture is showing up in little and big ways. By paying attention to some of these basic elements, anyone discovering your organization for the first time will see that your way of working is strong enough to support the boldness of your vision.

To learn more about becoming skillful at shaping culture, check out Culture Shaping, a three-hour Genii Earth Intro Series workshop.

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