Finding Culture: Interactions over Skill

Nicole Eiche
Dec 5, 2019 · 5 min read

Peter Skillman created a Marshmallow Design Challenge consisting of four-person groups. Some teams were composed of business students from the University of California and the University of Tokyo, while other teams were composed of kindergartners.

The competition was a challenge to build the tallest possible structure using the following items:

  • Twenty pieces of uncooked spaghetti
  • One yard of transparent tape
  • One yard of string
  • One standard size marshmallow

The contest had one rule: The marshmallow had to end up on top.

The business students strategized several options before getting to work, using their professional rationale, and recorded the status of their work. The kindergartners, as you can imagine, appeared disorganized and did not analyze the situation or share experiences. The intelligent business students, whose interactions appeared to be organized, were initially engaged in trying to figure out where they fit into the larger picture: Who is in charge? Is it okay to criticize someone’s idea? What are the rules here? The time they spent navigating the uncertainties of one another, coupled with their hesitation and subtle competition, deterred their focus on the task. In the end, they either ran out of time or built structures that were under 10 inches tall.

The kindergartners who did not follow a plan, stood shoulder to shoulder, got to work quickly and energetically, spotting problems and offering help to one another. They experimented, took risks, and noticed outcomes that guided them to effective solutions. The kindergartners, not because they were smarter, but because they worked together and interacted in a smarter way, won the competition by building the tallest structures.

This competition provides a great example of two varying types of interaction, where one yielded better results than the other. Interactions occur regularly throughout our day, providing us with many opportunities to fine tune and iterate upon our collaboration with others. Instead of building to the single right plan, as the business students were taught to do, we learn from the kindergartners that the most interesting and successful results can be achieved via a culture of iterative interactions carried out by creating multiple prototypes.

Interactions are shaped by our culture, and we relate to culture as a fish does to water. It’s everywhere, yet invisible. We don’t really think about it day to day, however every day our interactions have a profound impact on us.

As a certified diver, I’ve noticed that while sitting still at the depths I can see so many more underwater interactions than if I were to swim past them. If you happen to be struggling with an agile transformation, going through the ceremonies but not seeing the results, you may want to take a step back, be still for a moment, and look at your culture.

So, how do we make our interactions and finding culture something we think about and ‘do’ differently? The following topics provide us with some building blocks to help guide us in our quest of finding culture.

Build Safety: Belonging and Mattering

We all want to more easily navigate change, experience reduced stress, and perform at our very best. It is helpful to me, as I relate to these concepts, to recognize that in every communication we are subconsciously either reinforcing or asking for safety, belonging, mattering, or a combination. As pointed out by my colleague Jason Nelson in his post, Catalyzing Agile Minds, “safety culture is perhaps our biggest blocker”. Recognizing this makes it not only okay but necessary to work as the kindergartners did — shoulder to shoulder with focus on our interactions.

Building safety is a way of interacting. It lets the other person know that we are the same, we are part of the same group, and it ensures that everyone has a voice and that no one is above a task. Team members are primarily concerned with solving hard problems together, where showing weakness and asking for help is okay — it’s a normal part of our daily interactions.

The greater our feeling of safety, the greater we feel connected, feel that we personally matter and that we are contributing to the greater good. We are all happier and more productive when we have a direct impact on the success of the company, relationship, family, team, and individual. Christine Comaford of SmartTribes Institute has created the following SBM (Safety, Belonging, Mattering) Behavior Decoder to help:

Share Vulnerability: Mutual Risk Drives Trust

Dave Cooper is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six leader, whose team’s successful mission resulted in the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. He points out possibly the most important words a leader can say are, “I screwed that up”. Author Daniel Coyle of The Culture Code further makes us aware through Dave Cooper’s actions that the way for a team to become invulnerable is to be vulnerable together. This creates an environment where “it’s safe to tell the truth here”.

Soliciting feedback about ourselves is a risk in that we might receive constructive feedback, and this feedback may not be aligned with the rainbows and sunshine we would like to hear. When asked by our leaders, “What could I do more often? Or, what can I do to make you more effective?” we see vulnerability exemplified at the highest levels. Watch out! as this behavior might become contagious and spread throughout your organization.

Iteration is a natural consequence of getting feedback. The following picture helps to ground me on this concept. Meerkats stop their frantic digging every 20 minutes to look around. Stop and ask, “am I heading in the right direction?” We can all learn by getting feedback early and often, iterating on our work, and thus incrementally improving.

https://www.zicasso.com/sites/default/files/styles/original_scaled_down/public/cleanup/sampletrip/meerkat_group.jpg

Open and honest communication allows us to do our best work together, align to a common purpose, take risks, and think outside of the box, all while having each other’s backs. This I believe is the foundation of trust that not only builds effective relationships but leads us to successful business results.

Establish Purpose: Shared Goals and Values

Building purpose and finding culture may not be achieved simply by writing a colossal mission statement of our goals and values. Rather, finding culture is realized in our journey of practicing our shared goals and values. Culture comes about as a group navigates its problems together and evolves to meet the challenges that present themselves. Our continual iteration, awareness, and alignment in our journey coupled with our ability to work together to solve our problems is what really matters and what allows us to find culture.

The results of the Marshmallow Design Challenge convince me that while our individual skills are important, it is actually our individual and group interactions that make or break our cultural strength.

Thanks for spending a little time out of your day to read this post, I would love to hear your comments on how you’ve been able to find culture and build stronger group cultures in your life, your team, and your organization.

You can find me on LinkedIn doing Agile Consulting work with Centil.

Nicole Eiche

Written by

Agile Consultant, SPC, RTE, CSM, PMP

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