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Culture Lies Beneath : Part 1

“Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

This was one of more provocative statements I heard in a transformational leadership lecture from Dr. Mark McCloskey at Bethel Seminary. I am sure he wasn’t the first one to say it, but it has stuck with me since and has proven itself to be true over and over again. Organizations lead from the inside out whether they like it or not.

At MVIFI and Mount Vernon we have the incredible opportunity to hear from so many schools and organizations as they come through our physical and virtual doors. One of the more common questions we get as a team is, “What makes your community so unique?” Mission statements, internal mantras and demonstrable results can give insight into what makes organizations tick, but above all else my answer to our community’s uniqueness is culture.

In the Transformational Leadership class I pioneer with high school students, I define organizational culture as the aggregate of the patterns and habits that form the identity of a community on mission. The culture then must be the organism to the organization. It is the living, breathing ecosystem that implicitly guides the collision of teams to fulfill its mission.

Over the next few posts I will examine what I believe makes up the secret sauce beyond the brand elements. What are the markers of the our innovation culture?

Start With Questions

We have a list of norms that motivate our teams to develop our culture through kitschy mantras. Start with questions is one of them and I believe this is a systemic pattern and habit forms the foundation of our ecosystem. We attract the curious, the empathetic, and the futurists.

Living as curious people, we are constantly learning through observation and wonder. We leverage curiosity to empower our professional development and project planning. At our best, we never assume we know everything and are empowered by the ambiguous pursuit of learning.

We are cultivators of empathy realizing that the work we do is so very difficult to separate from the rest of our lives. We understand and give space when there are bad days or when we feel over-committed. We ask question like, “How can I help?” or “How are you?” and are authentic about it.

Finally, we look for those who are uncomfortable with the status quo not for the guts and glory, but for the pursuit of future-making through meeting the needs of others. Questioning is at the heart of innovative teams.

Prototyping a Networked Hierarchy

In a recent TED Talk by John Maeda (above), former president at the Rhode Island School of Design, references a new form of organizational leadership called a network dis-organizational hierarchy. Influenced by his work with the pioneers of the creative class, he proposes that the world our students are inheriting is only going to become more complex. Such a world requires a restructuring of how teams assign and account for responsibility. It demands flexible leaders that can twist and turn with the unknown. Traditional infrastructures limit the flexibility with rigid job descriptions and up-down hierarchies.

A new infrastructure demands those of us who facilitate learning to expose students to opportunities that call them to prototype leadership with interconnected systemic problems that have ambitious variables. Conversely, How could we expect our students to practice a form of leadership without prototyping and modeling this form of leadership in our own organization?

Fortunately, I believe we at MVIFI are doing just that. It is not unusual for our teams to take cues from Agile Thinking and tech philosophies like “Ship fast to iterate” or “Fail fast, Fail often.” Such a culture is often in direct conflict of a typical hierarchy. Networked organizational leadership flattens influence, removes direct-reports, and blends departments. This is what our team is beginning to look like. At MVIFI we are attempting to live as examples of future organizations that must be nimble, wise, and willing to embrace the complexity of rapid change so our students may learn as we learn.

What’s Next?
More ingredients to our secret sauce is on the way. Stay tuned!

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