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Is Your Culture Clear?


It’s Spring, which means I am out in the yard more. The other day, a small furry caterpillar caught my eye. I decided to watch it.

Which got boring really quickly! For me, at least.

I’m sure the caterpillar was on an epic journey to form the temporary shell of a chrysalis so that it could undergo the necessary transformation into a butterfly. The remarkable transformation from one species into another.

Watching that fuzzy creature reminded me of an experiment conducted by Dr. Thomas Watson. Dr. Watson placed a caterpillar on the rim of a large pot containing dirt and several of a caterpillars’ favorite plants. One by one each of the furry crawlers would inch along that edge.

Researchers look for patterns and trends. Dr. Watson noticed that the first caterpillar stayed on the edge of the rim. The second followed the first caterpillar’s lead. This was repeated across all the caterpillars, a half a dozen or so all making the assumption that the caterpillar in front of them knew where he or she was going.

Around and around the rim they went until every last one died of starvation. The food they were roaming around the rim of the pot looking for was just below, inside the pot the entire time.

This isn’t a story about leaders, but about an even more powerful force…..

Culture.

At TAG we get the privilege to work with many different organizations across the world. What we find is that people thrive in cultures that are crafted to help them belong, contribute, and make a difference. Realize these three elements in full and you have a thriving culture. One thing every organization with a thriving culture has as a leading asset is clarity.

These organizations are aligned with a clear focus and their direction is clear. That doesn’t mean they get it all right, but when it comes to clarity, they have a very real sense of purpose and meaning. In other words, they know why they exist and they have crystal clear focus on pursuing that purpose.

Thriving organizations know why they exist. They are filled with people who embody that purpose in very real and concrete ways. Too often, we encounter people more like the caterpillars in Dr. Watson’s experiment. Circling around the rim, filling days with busyness and movement that lead nowhere. Organizations suffer from the O-Curve, the monotonous meandering in circles that look busy, but lead nowhere. An O-Curve culture is characterized by a senseless pursuit of things that don’t matter and subsequently lead an organization to irrelevance.

Circuit City was featured in Jim Collins’ book Good To Great. One of those long time establishments that cornered the market in electronics, prided themselves on their customer service, and knew that they couldn’t fail. In fact, reports from those who stuck around to the bitter end state they thought they were going to be salvaged by last minute investors.

The O-Curve set in. Going around the rim waiting for the right investor to buy them and save them from impending peril. Looking back, many close to the company and even the founding family (who were not in the company at the end) say that Circuit City lost their way. They lost their why, their meaning and purpose. In other words, they lost their clarity. They were traveling around the rim of the pot thinking someone was going to show them the lush green vegetation for them to feast on.

We’ve found a solution for this lack of clarity and it comes with a name:

The Frames of Clarity

Your organization or team might be due for a check up. Instead of a vision test, maybe it is time for a Clarity Test? Why does your organization exist? Why does it matter to the people you serve? Are you leading people around the same rim of your organization, or to a place of thriving success? How do you know?

There are at least three frames through which to view your organization in order to assess clarity.

Your first frame is the balcony frame. Getting out of the weeds, the day-to-day and taking things in at a new angle. Seeing the bigger picture, not of what is coming, but what is happening. Asking questions that seem obvious, maybe even foolish, about the day-to-day occurrences on the dance floor of the organization. When you force yourself out of your normal viewing area into a new realm, you start to see things differently. It’s in that difference that clarity is discovered, where sights and sounds resonate more clearly. A place where you can begin to see the moving parts, the chemistry, or lack thereof, the synchronized connections of the individuals, groups and teams that comprise the organization.

Leaders belong on the balcony so they can gain clarity and offer it to others. The balcony view is not an elitist, club level view however. It is the leader’s role to bring other people onto the balcony. Effective leaders seek to bring others to clarity, connecting with people in such a way to show them new perspective and learn about their perspective.

That introduces the next frame. Clarity comes when we look through the frame of another individual’s perspective and context. Clarity emerges when we shift angles, change directions and look differently at the same thing.

Take some time to think about how what you see looks like to someone else. How do you do that? Ask them questions. Walk a day or a few hours in their world, their shoes, gaining insights from their viewpoint. It’s what the show Undercover Boss brought into the popular culture. CEO’s disguising themselves as part of the workforce in order to learn and grow. Most every time the CEO’s eyes are opened. It’s because they have the opportunity to look through another person’s frame.

Finally, look through the frame of your customer or stakeholder. Think about who that is first. Many teams don’t even have clarity about that. Why do they do business with you? What are their other options for the product or service you deliver and provide? What compels them to do business with your organization? Often times in organizational life we get so caught up in the day-to-day operations of the internal processes and structures that we neglect the external viewpoint. Looking through the lens of the customer’s perspective sheds the filter that working and existing within the organizational system tends to overlay.

Whichever frame you choose to use, look for misalignment and areas of disconnect. And look for fresh perspective and new insights. Such clarity refuels the organization’s capacity for growth and innovation. Without it, organizations struggle, people become disengaged and we start roaming around in caterpillar circles.

Break the cycle, seek clarity and craft a thriving organizational culture, one where everyone involved realizes the fulfillment of their innate desire to belong, to contribute, and to make a difference.

Shane Roberson is one of TAG’s Culture Architects and its Vice President for Client Services. He is the co-author of Your Intentional Difference: One Word Changes Everything. To get to know Shane better, click here.