Lesson #06 – “Culture is an experiment”

by | Jun 23, 2022

“Culture is an experiment.”

This quote is from the Apple TV series “1971 – The year that music changed everything”, an interview with a bespectacled Dr B.F. Skinner, his presence in the show is as incongruent as it is profound, amongst the 1970s ‘long hairs’, those people fighting to redefine the values of their time.

I noted the line “Culture is an experiment”, then looked him up. He was a distinguished academic, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, his views highly influential but not uncontroversial. He is quoted in the show as the world tries to make sense of the decade just lived, all its cultural change, the free love and youth movement of the 60s, all its optimism and hope, with the angst and disappointment of their current context.

I have never thought of culture as an experiment and wondered why not. I should have, as there are clear advantages in thinking of it as such. In many ways, we can only think of it in this way.

I now reflect on decades of personal and collective efforts to build cultures in high-performance environments without this context.

Yes, there is power in knowledge, but I have learned that wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.

Thinking of culture as an experiment, as a scientist would, with an expectation that for all the collective knowledge, imagination and experience that has gone into developing this culture model, there is a strong possibility we have got some key part of it wrong.

Therefore, this cultural iteration will likely fall short in some way and need to be readjusted or even rebuilt. After all, we are operating with imperfect, nuanced and ambiguous information and the complexities of human behaviour and interactions, combined with the inflated expectations and stress embedded in high-stakes environments.

It is both the mechanics and dynamics of strong cultures. Yes, the planning and processes may well have been thorough and appropriately thought out, but for some reason, the group doesn’t gel, unable to build the relationship trust fundamental to performance. Dynamics will trump mechanics every time.

When it doesn’t go to plan, a scientist would reflect, use the new insights failure has gifted them, change things, be unconcerned by any notion of sunk cost, and adapt until they get it is as right as it needs to be to achieve the agreed objectives.

The culture-building exercise is challenging and elusive, but success depends upon it. Without knowing it, leadership can find itself evangelising, prosecuting, or even politicising its own culture, talking themselves and others into it, falling behind a narrative of its creation. I have fallen for this trap, bit by bit, not facing up, either because I couldn’t see it, or the prospect of starting over, beginning again, owning up, was a bridge I couldn’t bring myself to cross. The role had an expectation of me, which at that time, at that moment, I couldn’t find within me.

In the public domain, culture, as it relates to performance, is usually spoken of in absolutes, most often by people who have never taken responsibility for leadership, or ever been part of, or contributed to a team-based environment.

We have seen the cultures of two sporting institutions judged and dissected over the past six months, the Melbourne Football Club and Cricket Australia. This has been somewhat surprising, given Melbourne’s first Premiership in fifty-seven years and Australia’s comprehensive Ashes defence when their opponents failed to win a test. Success at this level, the standard of play and the way they won, thorough and complete, would typically be enough to protect the team and its leadership from such scrutiny.

Public discourse of this nature inevitably focuses on the coach – this time, the blinding glare of the spotlight shone on Melbourne’s Simon Goodwin and Australia’s Justin Langer. Appraisal of their respective behaviour, real, perceived and imagined, becoming the subject of exhaustive media examination.

In both cases, the word ‘toxic’ was the expression of choice when describing the team cultures at some stage of their coaching reign. It is a word deeply embedded in my psyche, used to characterise cultures I led as a CEO of AFL clubs when my performance was being judged, mainly from a distance and by people I’d rarely spoken to, nor had ever met. They most certainly had no first-hand experience of my leadership, but likely had spoken to people, past and present, who had worked with me, providing an axe for them to grind, the challenge of leading in a public domain.

For anyone other than a sociopath, it doesn’t get much worse for a leader, yet it is a term that gets thrown around like confetti at a wedding. It is a representation used to elicit maximum hurt and will hit the mark, no matter how ‘match hardened’ the target is. It sticks, a smell that can’t be washed off, and it seems, even a Premiership or an Ashes victory won’t inoculate you.

Those who have led in high-stakes environments know different. It is not a place for binary judgement. It is complex and intricate, building a culture to achieve the outcomes this group and all its uniqueness seeks. The potpourri of personalities, behaviours, and human interactions that make this collective special.

It seems there is a perception that successful cultures exist on some elevated stratum, where conflict, disagreement and negativity don’t happen, everything works like clockwork, and everyone is in their happy place. This is a myth. Even the best cultures grapple with deeply challenging problems, fail to achieve their expectations, individuals and teams, and disagree vigorously as to why. The better cultures welcome all of this, but have developed such strong personal bonds and trust, that task conflict rarely becomes relationship conflict. When it does, it is sorted quickly, and the learnings are leveraged for the group’s benefit.

In my experience, it looks like this:

  • It is a group that has won but mostly lost together.
  • They made mistakes, and in time, have learned how to own and share them, so everyone benefitted.
  • At times it got stormy, with individuals and cliques turning on the system, the game plan and one another.
  • There are sleepless nights and waking up to back page headlines telling the world how they failed again and what a disappointment they are.
  • They doubted it would ever happen but then watched less talented teams achieve more, felt the envy, and started to ask, “Why not us?”
  • Then, just when they felt bereft of ideas and inspiration, they dared to try new things. They started over. The courage to ‘begin again’. Experimented, and a small light flickered – their light.
  • But progress stalled. They then made a mess of things again, new mistakes. They’d got ahead of themselves, individually and collectively. Steps forwards but bigger steps back.
  • They started to have hard conversations, the discussions nobody wanted to have. They cut some people loose. Sometimes they were people they liked, their friends, who had talent but lacked something, replaced by less gifted individuals who wanted it more.
  • But throughout, they were learning how to prevail and soon, building trust and belief in the system and each other, they found a way to win – their way, predictable to them, unpredictable to their opponents.
  • By now, the team is a mix of old and young, hardened veterans with the scars to show, and first-year rookies with all their energy; 200 gamers playing with first-year players. There will be mavericks and goody-goodys, it takes all types – but everyone understood their role, accepted their role, and played their role.
  • They learned that team is the goal, an outcome to be achieved, not an assumption or a gift; it is something to be earned, a commitment to the mechanics and the dynamics. Shared leadership, often coming from unexpected places.
  • Then, finally, they got there.

The team achieves something generations of similarly equipped groups of players, coaches, and administrators had failed, not because they weren’t good enough, but because it is fucking hard. They failed to find a way in a competition where everyone is trying to find a way, and this is what it takes and why winning at this level is so rewarding.

I have learned that culture isn’t some form of endowment you receive; it is something you have to work for, to learn, and like any skill that is hard to master, it is a process of constant iteration.

You have to do the reps.

This is the culture you want, hard-earned and unique, and the Melbourne Football Club and the Australian Cricket Team had it last season, which is why they won.

Whether they still have it, well, the experiment continues.

Melbourne has been forced to defend its culture, not because they want to, but to allow them to focus on the present and the opportunities there for them. They have worked incredibly hard for this window. But there would have been some pause for reflection, quiet moments, disappointed and a little angry their moment had been taken from them, no longer having the clear air to celebrate their historic Premiership victory and to plan for the next. But they also understand as well as any club, that the game doesn’t promise to be fair, nor does it give up its rewards easily.

They know the club and team will need to change to win again, but not because of the racket outside their club. It will do so in subtle ways, mostly invisible to anyone other than the inner sanctum, recognising that the mechanics and dynamics of any group are constantly changing and need to, which in itself draws scrutiny when the comparison is the sublime football they played in the final weeks of 2021.

Cricket Australia didn’t even have time to put the Ashes Urn into the trophy cabinet before it was meeting to decide the future of its coach, the outcome being Justin Langer’s resignation in response to a token contract to continue in the role for a few months. It was a decision they hoped they never had to make; such is the deep respect Langer has earned over three decades in the game.

But the decision was made, and Australian cricket has a new coach, Langer’s understudy Andrew McDonald. Many will sit in judgement of Cricket Australia, its Board and CEO, and there will be some almost willing the team to fail, barracking for the story, not the team, and those more loyal to their old teammate than the current caretakers of cricket in Australia.

Against this background, the decision not to reappoint Langer will only be considered a success if the team is very, very successful, and that means winning is the expectation, a dangerous mindset as the game has learned with ‘Sandpaper Gate’, the very issue which was the catalyst for Justin Langer’s appointment, successfully rebuilding respect and trust for his players, team and the game in Australia, a monumental achievement.

Any outcome other than winning…no, not just winning, but winning the ‘right way’, will be amplified, with powerful voices not having to search far to find someone to blame. The spotlight has already found its quarry, and guns are loaded.

When this happens, the new culture will be tested, and only then will we know whether the experiment has been successful.

As it will always be, the future is unknown and unknowable, and to think otherwise is to walk blindly.

Culture is indeed an experiment, and in keeping with the need for a scientific mindset, it is a search for ‘chemistry’. You will know it when you’ve got it, but you can never be sure you are getting it. It’s a puzzling yet powerful feeling, the understanding that can only come from a deep human connection, a sense of belonging, being part of something bigger than any individual, collectively working to achieve something that will always be very bloody hard. 

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