Thursday, March 08, 2012

Culture Eats Vision For Breakfast : Part 2

I want to push the ideas I reflected on in my earlier post ‘Culture Eats Vision For Breakfast’ a little further, and in order to do so want to bring in an idea I wrote about back in 2006, Kester Brewin’s ‘local maximum.’

Imagine that you are climbing in a mountain range.  You climb a mountain, and its peak is as far as you can go, unless you then journey down away from the peak in order to head towards another.

Imagine that you have oversight of a particular community – a local church or school, for example.  It has a pre-existing culture, which determines what is or is not possible.  Say, for example, that the culture is one where every contribution is welcome, whether it is very good or not.  This can be a positive decision, one that helps people to discover and develop their gifts.  But say that there isn’t a culture of investment, of development, but simply a culture of settling for poor quality, driven by a lack of resources.  And so you set about changing the culture, to one that demonstrates that it values people and wants to invest in them.  You make a few quick-win changes, things that have a big impact without great expense: replacing instant coffee with filter coffee; replacing tired signage with fresh display boards; spending time listening to people, and explaining the values you hope to introduce over and over until others start taking them up as their own.  So far, so good...But any culture reinforces itself, to the point that it dominates other cultures and rules out other possibilities.  In the above scenario, real gains in professionalism will result in better-equipped and trained people; but at the cost of a ‘family feel’ and with the loss of the ability to be spontaneous and eventually generous.  That is, you eventually reach the local maximum – as far as you can go in this particular direction – and then you face a choice: settle here, and eventually decline; or choose to set of in a new direction.  This new direction will involve leaving behind the comfort zone of experience (walking down the mountain on the other side from which you climbed up it) and then the hard work of establishing a new culture (climbing the next mountain) before you reach the next local maximum – and are faced with the same decision all over again.

Any culture change goes through these stages: setting out into the unknown, leaving behind what is familiar but has become restricting; figuring out how to express a new culture; and establishing that culture in its fullest expression – until it in itself becomes restricting.  No-one sets out to found a culture that is intrinsically worse than the one they know; but anyone with wisdom will recognise that every culture eventually becomes in need of renewal, of reinvention, or face extinction.  And that the initial stages of that renewal will be ‘backward steps,’ not as good as what we currently know.

What is the culture in your context?  What stage is it in: being discovered; being developed; or mature, and in need of renewal, of a culture-change?  What is needed from leaders – exploring, embedding, dismantling – will vary depending on the stage the context is in...

That said, most churches (and most schools) are at their own local maximum, albeit that that maximum might not be very high, simply because of the enormous pull of institutions to settle for the known, the established, and merely to tweak rather than fundamentally re-imagine.  What we need from within our institutions is something very hard but not impossible: a desire to endorse and support people who love the institution enough to refuse to conform to it.  And there is, undoubtedly, vision for such a future among our senior leaders.  But without commitment to culture-change, the existing culture will eat that vision for breakfast...

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