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Consortium for Service Innovation


How do we nurture an adaptive team and create conditions where adaptive people want to work?

Complex Adaptive Systems modelWhile organizational culture is an emergent pattern, and therefore not something we can dictate, we can create the conditions in which the desired culture could thrive.

Talking about the culture - starting with a conversation about the Culture Prompts - is different from changing the culture.  Creating a list of values or attributes with a team is a first step.  Demonstrating that those values are where we default in times of stress takes intention and repetition.  How do you know it’s working?  The stories you hear (“Listen to what we went through last week!”) are reflective of the current culture in the organization.  When the stories start shifting, you know the culture is shifting.

From Member conversations, three important responsibilities of a leader in an adaptive organization emerged:

Create the Container

  • Provide clarity on Mission, Vision, and Values to the team
  • Communicate and set high level business objectives that allows the workforce to act (tell them why so they figure out how)
  • Encourage experimentation while being clear on what are absolute DO NOTs

Identify Patterns

  • Listen in order to identify the changes that are happening in the organization
  • Detect and take action when something needs attention, celebration, correction  
  • Implement a regular ‘b-loop’ review process that brings the team together to track progress and share lessons learned (Monthly Operating Reviews are a best practice)
  • Keep an eye on adjacent systems: how do they impact your team? What can we identify and celebrate on other teams? (This is a great way to influence wider culture.)
  • Tell stories that highlight success (both work and culture)

Model Interactions

  • Cultivate empathy for peers.  All knowledge workers are volunteers.
  • Act as mentor and coach. Provide positive & constructive feedback in the moment.  Provide opportunities for growth & career development
  • Learn how to hire for the workforce of the new world.  More perspectives means more creative problem solving.

Creating the Container

Assuming the list of values in the Culture Prompts section is what we’re aiming for, there are specific ways leaders can support and encourage these values.

To Encourage Curiosity

  • Model asking questions and listening with an open mind
  • Aim for curiosity when receiving feedback/criticism

To Encourage Bravery

  • Trust that your team is whole, capable, and resourceful.  Design for the most capable and manage the exceptions.
  • Celebrate learning to encourage trying new things.
  • Clarity is kindness. Uncomfortable conversations can still be kind.

To Encourage Empathy

  • Recognize colleagues and customers as humans worthy of care, who are whole, capable, and resourceful.
  • Act with good intent and assume positive intent from others.
  • Show appreciation for others: respect their individuality and knowledge and value their time.
  • Context is as important as content. Be sure you have the whole story.

To Encourage Collaboration

  • Be clear about who is the decision maker.
  • Aim for collective success over individual success.
  • Embrace generosity and reciprocity.
  • Seek to understand before seeking to solve: demonstrate diplomacy.
  • Embrace feedback, especially as it relates to outcomes. 

To Encourage Knowledge Sharing

  • Build psychological safety: learn from each other's experiences, create space for providing feedback and disagreement.
  • Communicate; keep all stakeholders informed. Appropriate transparency about hard things (projects, situations) invites trust and a sense of shared solutions.
  • Be thoughtful and explicit about priorities: when they change and where they conflict.
  • Be clear about the structure, criteria, and cadence of performance evaluations.
  • Mentor and be mentored; be willing to share what you learn, and learn from others around you.
  • Share opportunities for improvement AND successes/wins.

To Encourage Accountability

  • Encourage focus on making an impact instead of just staying busy. Deliver what matters.  Consider organizational measures through this lens. 
  • Exercise judgment and encourage others to exercise judgment.
  • Ask for help when you need it.   
  • Know and live the corporate brand promise and values.
  • Be willing to surface topics that need discussion; don't shy away from discomfort.

To Encourage a Growth Mindset

  • Be thoughtful and explicit about plans for learning and growth. Invest in the team AND in individuals.  Offer feedback & coaching.
  • When you have to choose between responding to changing dynamics or following a set plan, respond to change.
  • Publicly recognize progress and celebrate achievements/learning, not just “wins.”
  • Identify patterns and use as inputs for how to be better tomorrow. 
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