Side stream, Main Salmon River, Idaho
How can we wrap our head around this conflation/conflagration of empathy, psychology, social structure, knowledge creation and design in a meaningful way, that will lead to insight on how to understand, fix, and evolve our organization? I’ve put a lot of things out on the table and tied them together — but there’s a lot of red meat to chew on with this blog.
I was inspired by a comment by Mike (who I’m pretty sure is a friend of mine from industry that I’m involved with a collaborative project with, but until he outs himself, I’ll let him keep his anonymity!) who boiled it down to ‘structure + behavior = culture.’ Well, sort of. I’m more inclined toward the basic equation ‘structure + culture = behavior’ — in other words, our organizational structure, which contains inherent, emergent dynamics, is modified by culture, both corporate and community/national/international, basically what I’ve been calling externally defined influences, to create behavior of the individuals in the system. That all sounds pretty good, and if you’re not a math major, you’re probably happy with that simple addition relationship.
But what it is, more likely, is what engineers and mathematicians call a Boundary Value Problem (BVP)– or if you want to get super-picky, it’s a time-dependent BVP. Since it is far too easy to get lost in the weeds with this kind of talk, let’s slow it down and give a simple example.
One way engineers solve complex physical phenomena is to use mathematics to construct what is called a mathematical model of a given problem. Because of mathematical models, believe it or not, your world is filled with things that otherwise couldn’t exist — or would take forever in a trial-and-error world to create. Modern aircraft, for example, are now designed completely on the computer, and actual, physical testing occurs only at very selected points in the design cycle. The Wright Brothers may have figured out their airfoil design in a little bench top wind tunnel. But the reality is that today’s aircraft have those virtual wind tunnels inside their computer models, in the form of a representation of a boundary value problem.
You don’t need to go full aerospace to have BVPs. A pot of boiling water is a great example of one. Water inside the pot is the medium we’re exploring the behavior (it’s going to boil!) The system boundary is, of course, the pot itself. That’s holding the water in. And then the boundary conditions — what’s going on outside the pot — is, of course, the flame from the burner on your stove, and the open air the pot is exposed to on all the other sides. Engineers might be interested in lots of different aspects of this situation (we boil lots of stuff to make all sorts of stuff!) and will adjust their analysis accordingly. Maybe we want to predict how the water acts when it boils. Maybe we want to see how long it takes for the water to boil off. Modelers would adjust the complexity and time scale of the model — and on and on. Trust me — it’s endless.
Similar in both form and function, the parts of our Theory of Everything — our Elephant wrapped in Spaghetti — map well to this concept. Organizational and empathetic structure are the internal medium — the core stuff (the water) that we’re looking at. Boundary conditions map well, conceptually, to culture and elements of change we can bring on the outside. We can rearrange the internal structure (you want to make water boil faster, for example, add salt) and expect different organizational results when we let it stew for a while. As well, we can change the external culture of our organizations and also expect similar kinds of development. Dragon boat racing events might have a similar effect on team unity in the Pearl River Delta of Guongdong Province as softball tournaments in the Midwest.
We’ve done a lot of understanding of the fundamental constituent relationships inside social organizations, with Spiral Dynamics and its various v-Memes. But what exactly, is culture? Can we understand culture using our BVP analogy in a way that could allow meaningful application?
Culture is a popular subject in the academy. There are entire departments devoted to studying different aspects of it, and it maps well to the v-Memes present across the academic system. But what is it? Here’s my shot at a definition:
Culture is a trans v-Memetic set of sidebars and conditions that influence the individuals inside a given social system to display certain behaviors. Culture comes from a broad spectrum of influences, mainly relating to persistence and continuity in living conditions and environments of the people inside it, and establishes In-Group and Out-Group dynamics of those people. Additionally, culture allots, on average, different degrees of agency to those people influenced by it, and demands certain empathetic behavior in certain situations. People who evolve past the agency the culture allots can either be change agents inside that culture. Or they can be cast out of that culture. Culture can create, as well as offer accepted solution paths, to the various v-Meme conflicts individuals inside that group. Culture is adaptive, but slowly adaptive, as it is based on many averages of many situations inside a group of people possessing it.
Boy, now that’s a word salad! Let’s pull this apart.
One term I’m fond of using when discussing culture is the idea of what I’ve named cultural sidebars. Cultural sidebars are primary empathetic influencers of people. They create behavior inside an organization that conflicts with the fundamental, emergent behavior of that social structure. Often, the cultural sidebar is a highly evolved, empathetic behavior that ameliorates bad behavior. Other times, the cultural sidebar can create terrible violence and tragedy that otherwise would be outside the nominal range of behavior for a society. Think Nazi-ism and the Jews.
Let’s consider an example –Chinese society. It is a great example of a Magical/Authoritarian society –that would be the water in our pot–with extremely strong empathetic sidebars — cultural influences on the outside designed to keep, in this case, the Authoritarian water from boiling!
The value of individual agency is extremely low in China, making many Westerners declare China to be a ‘group’ culture, which would, on the surface, imply a high level of inherent empathy and sharing. And while anyone who’s spent much time in China will certainly acknowledge the fundamental graciousness and highly developed sense of hospitality toward foreigners inside China, it’s an authoritarian, egocentric culture. Han Chinese believe (like lots of folks around the world — Chinese people are certainly not alone in this In-Group affectation) that they are the Chosen people.
Because of the culture, it’s a great place to visit. At the same time, considering its cataclysmic history in the last one hundred years, it’s amazing that it’s there at all. I’m not discounting the Japanese Invasion of Manchuria, and its consequences. Yet China has waged war against itself internally as well, with the Communist Revolution in 1949, the Great Leap Forward in 1958, and the Cultural Revolution, from 1966-1976, that found over 37 million persecuted, and millions dead.
Yet China has persisted as an entity for over 2500 years, and though there have been periods of reform, and great philosophical advancement, the fundamental context of a narcissistic authoritarian government has not changed. How is that so?
The answer is in sophistication of cultural sidebars down through the ages, that prescribe behavior in literally thousands of situations, as well as provide safety valves for people living under the authoritarian thumb of warlord or emperor. I discussed chengyu in an earlier post. Chengyu are those idiomatic expressions that describe many life situations in China (and other cultures as well!) that often possess a double meaning. One is what I call the noble meaning — the high-minded sounding of whatever words are rolling off the tongue. But often, chengyu have another, more palliative definition — designed to make fun of those same noblemen, who might be not that noble.
Another great example of a cultural sidebar in Chinese culture might be found in this example from the documentary, Last Train Home, by Lixin Fan, about the largest yearly human migration on Earth — the yearly return of literally 138 million people from across China, to their homeland, for the celebration of Chinese New Year. In the movie is one particular, striking scene — there are thousands of Chinese workers, waiting to get on a train to take them back to their families. The passenger car door is surrounded by those moveable metal fences, and most of the people are waiting behind them. Guards are on the inside of the fences.
But not all. Every now and again, an individual will jump over the fence. What do you think happens? What do the guards do, and what can we learn about Chinese society from this simple example? (I’ve put a nice picture for you to meditate on! Scroll down when you want the answer!)
Friend Steve flyfishing, Main Salmon River, Frank Church/River of No Return, ID
The guards caught him, and gently placed him back on the other side of the railing!
This is a perfect example of a cultural sidebar — a behavior that’s out-of-character for the fundamental Authoritarianism that China is known for. If this happened in the U.S., the guards would likely have beaten him up and had him arrested. Why? Because we have a much higher evolved sense of legalism in the society. The guy broke the rules, and deserved to be punished.
But China is an evolved, authoritarian society — laws don’t hold the same as they do in our world. And if you want to stay in power, you don’t just beat the hell out of everyone that does something you don’t want them do. You let it slide. Empathetic? Absolutely. But pragmatic as well. There are 1,000 people on the other side of those barriers. The guards might get to beat up one guy. But there are 1000 people on the other side with the same Authoritarian v-Meme programmed in their head, with the same potential for impulsive behavior. If you want to extend the timescale of your Authoritarian system, you have to give a little, too.
Academia is another space where the social structure — a very harsh Legalistic Authoritarianism — is modulated by cultural sidebars. The concept of collegiality, for example, dictates the terms of engagement for a whole group of highly intelligent folks with often very limited social skills, and egocentric objectives. Responsibilities toward students are often very prescribed in academic cultures, because a larger sense of responsibility and trust aren’t cultivated in the social structure.
It’s also a great example of how cultures can decline when environmental conditions change. The lack of money and material support from the public sector has been in decline for a number of years, and instead of faculty having cultural sidebars to protect them from the vicissitudes of the social structure (that’s what tenure is supposed to be about!) more and more are contingent. It leads to a decline of cohesion, and not surprisingly, all levels of empathy across the board. The historic academic culture won’t maintain itself, with the more egalitarian influences and sidebars folks have taken for granted. Faculty commentators themselves are prone to using terms like ‘the increased corporatism’ of the university system. But what’s really happening is the decline of the sidebars — which lets the social structure exercise its more unsavory, authoritarian aspects.
How can we apply this to the world of modern business? The modern business organization often straddles the Legalistic/Performance-Based v-Meme divide — hence the tons of already extant business literature (Covey, etc.) working on that transformation. If we want those higher levels of synergistic behavior, it might not be a bad idea to steal some pages from a higher v-Meme socialist country’s playbook.
Here’s an example. I was recently at a project sponsor for my Industrial Design Clinic’s open house. I asked him, just out of curiosity, if there was on-site child care. He said ‘no’. I told him that it would increase the receptivity of women wanting to come work for him. I’ve worked on the child care issue before, and while it is important for men, it turns out to be a critical factor in decision making for women.
He’s a really nice, progressive guy, and wasn’t particularly un-receptive to the idea. But he replied ‘we already have an over 50/50 split in female employment, with quite an assortment of accomplished female scientists. I think it would be a tough sell to top management that we need to attract more.’ I replied, “so you’re comfortable having these women worry about their kids all day instead of thinking about their responsibilities and being creative? How much are you paying all these Ph.Ds per hour anyway?”
Understanding this post means you’re walking away with two thoughts — what can you do to change the structure of your organization? That structural change will likely have lots of reverberations inside your organization, and may be a great long-term goal. But you can attack some of your synergy and coordination problems with cultural sidebars. Don’t be afraid to contact me with stories of unpredictable, positive consequence!
Takeaway: Stick with simple for the first round of any explanation. Structure + Culture = Behavior. Then let loose the BVPs on them…