Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Thinking in Containers

What does it take to create a culture?

What does it mean to design an environment that facilitates culture?

A recent project provided an opportunity to explore these questions.

In this project, I needed to create an environment where a group of relative strangers would feel safe exploring potentially sensitive changes.

Some questions surfaced as I sat with the challenge.

  • What are the demonstrable outcomes I want to achieve?
    • My answer: People feel confident and secure both in the new environment and with each other – no exceptions.
    • I will know this by watching how people interact with each other.
      • Are cliques forming?
      • Is someone being shunned by the group?
      • Is someone isolating? They don’t need to participate all the time (I was trying to make the event introvert-friendly), but it was worth quietly asking if everything is OK if they appeared distressed.
      • How are the conversations? Open or guarded? You can tell a lot by observing body language.
  • What is a “safe” environment? What does “safe” mean?
    • I decided that, in this context, “safe” means that people are unlikely to be hurt physically, mentally, and emotionally by the environment or by other people.
    • Any “risks” (we worked with fire) would be identified and mitigated. Participants were responsible for following safety protocol for the physical risks and taking care of themselves for the mental and emotional risks.
  • What expectations do I need to set? What behaviors do I need to demonstrate?
    • Since I was one of the organizers, I was also one of the de-facto leaders. I knew people would be looking to me for both expectations and modeling.
    • The organizers set the expectation that we would be mindful and protective of each other in this space.
    • A pre-existing rule in our code of conduct for this particular group was “impact is greater than intent.” Emphasizing this rule seemed and being clear on our main environmental principle guided people (and myself) to right behavior.
    • My personal behavioral goal – Be Peaceful. Easier said than done.

Fundamentally, we were trying to create a container where people felt safe exploring what change means to them and how it manifests in their lives.

The feedback we received from attendees was that we were successful.

Now that I have some distance from this project, I have been thinking about what we may have done to create the container we did.

When I think about “containers” in this context, I think in terms of the combination of:

  • The people we attracted to join us in the container
  • The environment within which we placed this container
  • The behavioral norms the group established within the container
  • The behavioral modeling the creators of the container demonstrated

Admittedly, we only had to maintain this container for a few days and we were not trying to do this within a legacy organization or group that had to still keep meeting older obligations such as serving customers and executing projects.

Looking at singular, short-term events, however, can help us see what we are working with and potential tools we can use to build these containers.

Let’s explore this further in the next post.

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