Ritual, culture and the key to turning values into behaviour
So Kit, tell us a bit about yourself
I really like thinking about the systems and the structures and the things that you could put in place to enable people to be more creative.
The areas of passion for me are unlocking creative capacities in individuals and organizations in the world. That’s number one. Also just thinking about new and different ways to create; new and different models. Anything that is a challenge to the status quo.
So, not the person to talk to if you’d like traditional change management?
Not really (laughs).
I like to think about new ways that people are doing things, new experiments and how to set things up for creativity, innovation and change, thinking of change is a constant.
I like to live as close to the bleeding edge of that as I can. And specifically with a bend on setting up cultures that are more diverse, that actually are more inclusive. I believe that that is the foundation for creativity. A diverse organization is a more creative organization.
Our work in diversity has revealed similar conclusions. But, what about the subtle challenges that are associated with diversity, like psychological safety. What are your views on the correlation between psychological safety and innovation?
There is a thing that happens when organisations start, whenever we put people together. There’s a lot of chaos. Essentially there’s disorder, right? And you don’t necessarily have processes or systems set up to organize your thinking. So you might be inefficient. But it tends to be in those kinds of organisations, the startups, the entrepreneurial spaces, where you see a lot of innovation and creativity. And then if organisation scales, you start to see that you have to create systems for efficiency.
How do you create a culture that walks the line of what I call “the edge of chaos”?
So you have to create processes, you have to create roles. And that is great for efficiency and for being productive. However, it often actually stifles creativity. So, how do you strike a balance between those two things? And how do you create a culture that walks the line of what I call “the edge of chaos”?
How do you walk the line between having enough chaos that ideas aren’t getting squashed, but without having so much chaos that it results in anxiety? The reason that I’m bringing in the anxiety component is because a lot of people experimenting with more destructured, decentralized organizations are running into the issues of anxiety. And the reason that they are running into those is that because of the group psychology component of what happens when you get in a group.
What ends up happening, is you get off task because you start to negotiate things like authority or role or boundaries instead of actually focusing your energy on the work. And so, what is the minimum viable structure? What are the things that you have to put in place in order to have a creative culture without stifling creativity entirely?
So, I came up with the CREATES framework – the ‘S’ stands for psychological safety.
The reason that you have to have psychological safety is because if you have any fear of ridicule or any fear of an idea being shot down, then the likelihood of you sharing an idea goes down dramatically. It’s foundational in creating opportunities for creativity.
I think we’ve all experienced this before in brainstorming sessions.
Yeah. There’s a lot going on in that context, right? There are power dynamics at play in every room. Who’s in charge? Who’s making decisions? Who’s setting the tone? The first person who shares is going out on a limb because they’re testing the water. They put their sticky note forward and then everyone in the room is watching in that first moment to see how the idea is going to be received.
The people with authority are going to be the ones that people are looking to to model that behaviour. So this is why the role of leadership and setting up psychological safety is imperative because as anyone with authority – and that can be a authority based on your role, it can be authority that you’ve taken up. It can be authority that has to do with social identity. You have to be conscious of those things because then your actions are actually going to set the pace and the tone for how people respond.
I think that’s why the organisations that have figured it out are the ones who say, okay, during this brainstorm, there’s no such thing as a bad idea. But a lot of times that really is just people saying it as opposed to really modeling it. And that’s the difference, right? It’s about creating the space for actually sharing things and not having them obliterated by the crowd, because the crowd then models authority.
What other structures do you suggest teams or organizations put in place to maintain that open space of psychological safety?
I think that one thing that’s definitely not taken seriously is just creating some of the rituals around psychological safety. So I worked with a team once – the first thing they did in every meeting, regardless of what the meeting was about, was to just check in with each other. I think for some people who come from a more traditional world that feels very ‘woo woo’ but what it does is give you context of where the person’s coming from. It creates vulnerability, which is a huge mechanism for creating psychological safety and it helps you make connections which lead to great ideas.
So, those are non-negotiables that everyone agrees to follow as rules of behaviour? And they don’t have to be limited to brainstorming, they can apply to other processes as well?
That’s what culture is. Culture is about translating values into behaviour.
Absolutely. And I think one of my biggest pet peeves about organisations is most organisations have a mission but very few organisations think about how those values translate into behaviour.
That’s what culture is. Culture is about translating values into behaviour. But a lot of times it’s the other way around. Behaviours translate into values. What you want if you’re designing an intentional culture is to think very carefully: if you have a value of creativity, what does that mean? How does that mean you need to behave? Because if you start with behaviours then de facto you’re defining the values, right?
You spoke there about having an intentional culture, which already puts this into a different kind of conversation about culture than what’s happening in many organisations. But, once you do that, once you agree that certain values are going to be upheld and that those values have correlative behaviour, what’s your view on the skills that are required to manifest that behavior?
Well I think there are a couple of things. First, I think you have to align rewards with behaviour. I’m not specifically talking about monetary rewards because there’s a lot of evidence to show that monetary rewards don’t do much. I’m talking about what you honour and celebrate and what you publicly don’t when you speak up about things that are not okay. That’s number one.
Number two is you need to have discipline. This is really hard. Discipline is hard for people, but I think that there are a lot of amazing tools that we can use to create discipline.
For example, accountability can also include tech. I look at what Slack has done to our culture and enabled for our culture in terms of creating more transparency creating ground up movements. So, I really encourage people to think about how you can leverage the tools and technology that we’ve created to help reward and design behaviours.
What role would you say traditional roles of HR and L&D have in fostering this kind of psychological safety and fostering the, the values and the mechanisms to allow psychological safety to take root?
You’re touching on a topic that I feel deeply conflicted and ambivalent about. I’ll be transparent. I think that there’s this catch 22 in HR roles and I’ve experienced it myself being in the talent space. If you take up the role of being the person who is about making a better environment for people, then a lot of times in groups people will start to act as if it’s not their job anymore. And I think that’s really dangerous. I think that the best HR leader is really about equipping and enabling other people to be great leaders, creating the culture in their team and in the organisation as opposed to them doing it themselves
I think in this age a really strategic HR leader is someone who helps design the intentionality, who comes from a strategic point and says, “Let me show you what that line looks like from value to behaviour to reward and let’s design the system.”
If you take up the role of being the person who is about making a better environment for people, then a lot of times in groups people will start to act as if it’s not their job anymore. And I think that’s really dangerous.
Do you think that L&D has a role to play here in working with HR to functionally develop not just the vision of that system, but to also enable the capacities and capabilities that will allow the team to actualise the vision?
Again, a really tough and interesting question. I think that a strategic systems and structure curriculum designer is really where L&D should live. They should work with the organisation to talk about 1) what are the skills that enable us to succeed and to reach our goals, and live our values? and 2) how do we actually make sure that everyone has fair and equal access to develop those skills?
I think that giving equal and fair access to the set of skills that enables success in an organisation is the advocacy work of the L&D leader.
Because to me, a big challenge that we are so far from grappling is the fact that people come into organisations with very, very different skillsets and varied access to different types of education. One thing I think about a lot is that leadership training is a luxury good.
Leadership training is usually reserved for high potential performers in large organisations that have a leadership development programme. So it’s very, very rare that people are trained in leadership. And it’s not the core curriculum in most kind of public schools or even private colleges. So I think that giving equal and fair access to the set of skills that enables success in an organisation is the advocacy work of the L&D leader.
So, I suppose, combining everything that you’ve said, these approaches to creativity need to be seeded at the core of the organisation but HR and L&D really need to live and breathe this kind of attitude?
Yeah, I think that HR and L&D are historically underfunded, underprioritised – in terms of like the CEO priority – and they’re unfortunately not given equal weight. To me, the organisations of the future are learning communities. That is going to be the main draw for people. People will not stay at organisations unless they are being trained. And you can do that in lots of different ways, right?
If it doesn’t become the number one or number two priority for the top leadership, that organisation is going to fall behind from a talent perspective and from a results perspective. It is going to impact their bottom line. I just don’t think people have realised that fully yet because we’re still thinking of people as replaceable.