Becoming A Cultural Sleuth

By Addam W.G. Marcotte, MSOD

"The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes."

- Sherlock Holmes (The Hound of the Baskervilles)

Have you ever been engrossed in a great detective novel or movie? The thing that makes those stories so captivating (beyond great characters) is the fact that the big reveal at the end is always the result of some small detail that everyone overlooked but the protagonist was keen enough to observe. They are the significant details accentuated by Columbo’s famous, “just one more thing…”, CSI’s tagging of some unnoticed shred, or Monk’s quizzical and curious expression over some minutia.

The details that surround our daily lives speak volumes about our values, our character, and our culture (whether at home or in the office).  Unfortunately the things that tell us the most about an organizational culture have often become invisible to the people actively living in that environment – they have become “normal” to them.

The first step to becoming an organizational culture sleuth is to gain a fresh perspective – to step back and look at the big picture with fresh eyes.  It’s what I call “reverse magic” – making the invisible reappear once again.  Until an organization or a leader is able to step back and truly see their “system” with fresh eyes, it will be very challenging to ever understand and describe the culture.

One of the keys that FMG Leading uses to define a culture is to understand the significant and true meaning of certain “artifacts” or items in an office.  This requires keen observation.  For example, pay attention to the things posted on the bulletin board in the coffee break room.  What kinds of things are up there?  Are there corporate memos?  Items for sale?  Announcements about a charity event?  Photos of employee’s families?  That is a small window into the culture or “feel” of an office.  Are people free to “own” their office space or does it belong to the company?  Or maybe a mix.  Most of the time these details either go unnoticed or people don’t step back to understand the symbolism of what it means on a cultural level.

Contrary to the popular expression, you actually can try this at home:

Next time you are in your home, take a look around whatever room you are in.  It will be filled with all your personal treasures; some homes will be stacked full with trinkets, others more minimalist.

- What are some of the key items you notice?  Maybe a photo, or a piece of art, or a personal item.

- What do those items mean to you?

- What do the items say about you?  I.e. what story might a guest in your house construct about you?

- Is that story still accurate today? 

The process is the same for uncovering your organizational culture.  It is important to take note of all the different artifacts and items that have taken home in your office.  Notice them.  Inquire about their meaning and why they are there.  Try to understand what those items represent.  Ask whether or not that story is still accurate of the culture you want in your company.

Becoming and cultural sleuth starts by becoming an expert observer.  Just like your favorite detective, you have to notice the things that everyone else would miss, because it that “one last thing” that will most likely tell you volumes about your culture.  Then comes the fun part – planning your culture change process… which is, unfortunately, not “elementary.”

For more information about how FMG Leading can help your organization define and re-shape its culture, call 714-628-2900714-628-2900 or visit www.fmgleading.com.