Creating vision from culture

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As many of you know, I’ve been leading the NetSpot Consulting team (among others) for the last few years, of which the last two have seen a significant upheaval after our acquisition by Blackboard, which has seen a heap of structural, procedural and scope changes in how we operate. This week I sat down to look at performance planning for the team for the second half of 2014 and quickly realised that the amount of change has left us (me included) needing a hit of the reset button to refocus on what exactly it is we’re looking to achieve as what we now are – a regional team representing a range of learning technologies (both open source and proprietary) as part of a much larger organisation which is going through its own huge internal changes.

Yes, you guessed it, I ended up writing a vision statement.

On the whole I’ve never been a fan of ‘vision and mission statements’. Too often they are trite, meaningless, don’t reflect reality, and don’t evoke anything that actually resonates with people. My first mentor had me read Built to Last, which talks at length about vision and mission statements (both good and bad), and a lot of it still holds true today for me, in particular the need for such statements to adequately capture the culture of a team or organisation.

I remember the first time I tried to put a mission statement together. I was managing a team of about fifteen technical staff covering everything from infrastructure through to client support at the (then) Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia (SSABSA – now the SACE Board of SA) back in the nineties. For those of you unfamiliar with authorities like SSABSA, one of its roles was to ensure that every student attempting their high school certificate was given the most accurate and appropriate grades that we could give them. Some parties would attempt to ‘play the system’ to maximise their chances of good grades, in particular in terms of attempting to ‘get around’ any negative impacts from statistical moderation and scaling of grades. A good deal of effort went in behind the scenes making sure that everything was kosher for every student, regardless of their school, subjects, background – whatever. This drive to make sure that everyone was treated fairly was an unspoken rule for more or less everyone in that group – you could just feel it. Needless to say, the term ‘keep the bastards honest‘ emerged as a line in the mission statement that we created to guide our actions and measure our success (although this isn’t to say that we thought any of our clients were bastards – we just lifted the phrase from the Australian Democrats back when they were a thing).

Defining a clear vision for this group was a relatively easy task looking back at it. We were a small, autonomous team with a very clear mandate on what we needed to achieve.

But what about where I am now, part of a much larger organisation undergoing significant change?

If anything, I think I subconsciously reverted back to culture as the driving principle for a lot of what I wrote today for the team – attempting to strike a balance between some of the cultural elements which have made us what we are today combined with some of the changes to culture that we need to make to keep in step with what our clients expect from us. Yes, there were most definitely parts of the vision which ensure that we play the role we need to as part of a larger organisation, but there was also plenty which was less driven by what the broad corporate strategy is saying (which is very broad and not necessarily helpful at an operational level) and much more driven by what has made the team a success over the years.

Possibly the hardest part was taking the leap to be directive in some of the culture changes, attempting to balance the needs and wants of clients, the parent company and the team themselves. No doubt the team will give me the kind of brutally honest feedback that I’ve come to expect from them, but I hope it will at least provide a vision which looks at where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Time will tell.

The takeaway from all this? Never underestimate the role of understanding team culture when setting expectations and/or a vision for the team, and being prepared to both harness the good cultural elements, and to tackle the not-so-good ones, but most of all, to just be aware that it exists, and it can be more powerful than many people realise. The down side to all this? It often takes time to understand the culture of a team, making it nigh on impossible for a newly imported leader to gauge – at anything beyond a superficial level – the culture of a team, and to plan accordingly.