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Culture vulture

By Stephen Langton - June 28, 2011

The Bush House Telegraph
News and views from the Deloitte Center for Strategic Leadership, Bush House, London

sun in the skyIt’s summer, and, last week, after the driest and warmest spring on record, the heavens opened on London. Yes, in time-honored tradition, it was sunshine and showers for the first week of Wimbledon—an annual ritual in the culture of the British.

“Flaming June,” it seems, came early; and April showers have come late.

To some, this kind of seasonal topsy-turvyness is evidence of the calamities awaiting the planet. But I’m not here to discuss what climate change means for a once temperate mid-latitudinous country like the UK—worthwhile though that would be. It’s not a meteorological hot spot I want to talk to you about today. It’s the one in the office.

Why are some organizations “hot houses” for ideas and innovation and others the equivalent of a steppe in winter? Why do some teams “grow” and others die? What separates a high-energy organization from a moribund one?

Lynda Gratton, London Business School professor, explored questions like these in her 2007 book Hot Spots, and, revisiting my well-thumbed copy, I find the answer can be summed up in two words: effective leadership.

Professor Gratton says there are four key qualities that distinguish organizational hot spots: co-operative mindset; boundary spanning; igniting purpose; productive capacity.

A hot spot works and, importantly, survives, says Professor Gratton, because of the co-operative mindset of its members. The individuals are connected to each other; the unit fulfils their “higher level” needs. They see work through a social, emotional, and intellectual prism. It’s never just a job that pays the bills.

The co-operative mindset, what’s more, in the effective organization, extends beyond the confines of the group. Thus, “boundary spanners”—people from the outside who introduce new ways of thinking and stimulate innovation—are welcomed. To use a natural science metaphor, in the ecosystem of the effective organization, Professor Gratton seems to be saying, all units are interdependent.

To sustain the co-operative mindset, though, you need a common purpose. People must collaborate for a reason. A group only has the potential to become a hot spot if members have a common vision. Leaders must set challenging tasks or questions for managers who must engage others in meeting them. The hot spot is a “trickledown,” water-cycle effect.

Needed too, is a productive way of working—the productive capacity, as Professor Gratton calls it. There must be structures that allow individuals to participate fully—and to the best of their abilities. Tasks need to synchronized. The unit must be organized.

I might be misinterpreting Professor Gratton but it seems to me that underlying all her four factors or qualities is culture. And culture, I believe, comes from the top. The wrong behaviors become institutionalized when those who could do something about them don’t—or, worse still, when they sanction them themselves. If you want to achieve things, you have to lead by example. As we're so often told, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

What does all this mean on a practical level? At Bush House, we’ve been interested recently by the work of psychologist and TED regular Barry Schwartz. Author of the Paradox of Choice and, more recently, Practical Wisdom, Schwartz reminds us that every interaction with another human being is a moral interaction. The corollary is that the culture of an organization begins to develop on the day of the first hire or contract. The founder can choose to start a virtuous circle—or they can take the unenlightened path.

We might not be able to do anything about the climate outside our organizations, but we can certainly do something about that inside. Culture is within our control—a fact just as reassuring as it frightening.

* Blog updated July 28th, 2011 to reflect the name change of the center, which is now known as the Deloitte Center for Strategic Leadership.

Stephen LangtonStephen Langton is Managing Director, Deloitte Center for Strategic Leadership, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited and has specialized in the field of leadership consulting for the past 16 years. His aim for DCSL is simple but ambitious: to be a center of excellence that understands, defines, and advances a knowledge and standard of leadership for the world. 


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