At the SAIS Annual Conference in Atlanta earlier this week, it was remarkable how many times and in how many different contexts people used the word “culture.” It was everywhere, and it has echoed in my ear since. It strikes me that we do not operate with enough of a commonly held definition of “culture”, and it also seems apparent that we don’t know what to do with it or about it no matter how we define it. I was particularly interested to note how often in one moment someone called culture out as an intractable obstacle and in the next moment someone else called it the best tool we have in our toolbox. Strangely, I think they may have both been right.
It would be naive to attempt to provide any comprehensive insight into culture, in this case school culture, in a single blog post. I do, however, have a couple of rough observations resulting from conversations and presentations at the Conference:
- School culture seems to crave stability or stasis, but it is ill-equipped to create or to maintain either. A school’s culture holds together separate individuals and groups, and as such, the friction internally between those individuals and groups is certain to produce tension resulting in evolution punctuated at times by revolution.
Additionally, the forces external to a school’s culture, including importantly and powerfully, the larger elements of culture surrounding the school (local, regional, and national, etc.) create a mixed bag of forces bound to push and pull a school culture. External forces can affect a school’s culture for good or for ill, often at the same time.
- School leadership at the administrative and governance levels faces two frustrating conundrums. Conundrum #1: leaders grown from within the school’s culture have a significant challenge in accurately seeing or developing perspective on the culture, for they are borne of it—a tree in a forest cannot see the forest, yet leaders grown from the culture are most likely to have the greatest potential to lead cultural change as they have the credibility and sense of nuance necessary to create a landscape for change.
- Conundrum #2: someone brought in from the outside of the school culture often cannot get enough of a feel for a school culture to lead school change despite having a vision for what might be necessary to move the institution forward and perhaps having experience from other schools that might inform progress toward that vision. Adding to the challenge here is that building cultural credibility within a school is most often a slower process than creating a vision for where a school should go.
- For both conundrums, confirmation bias adds a layer of significant threat. For the leader grown up from within the school culture, the tendency may be to deny the validity of new evidence if that evidence challenges cultural norms or presents the prospect of cultural conflict. Leaders brought in from the outside may be too quick to find parallel between past experience and the current milieu, and such prejudice may lead to a critical misread of the current school culture, particularly in terms of change readiness.
- Defining a school’s culture is difficult to do honestly, particularly perhaps for those who are most deeply initiated within the culture, yet storytelling from that very group is essential in getting a clear sense of culture. Nostalgia, wish-fullness, old wounds, recent successes and far more get in the way of truthful assessment of culture. Interestingly, the culture of a school can interfere with the rational attempts to define that same culture.
- Our metaphors for culture’s relationship with strategy can be scary—take for instance Peter Drucker’s oft-quoted statement: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I like the idea that we should seek to have strategy and culture live in a kind of symbiosis—they should need each other. Ideally, strategy is a kind of oxygen for cultural renewal, while culture should create a foundation for strategy and at times serve as a governor of it. Strategy should nudge culture, leverage culture, challenge culture, and preserve culture for generations to come. Culture and strategy should exist in relationship, if not always equilibrium.
As I write this evening, I am thinking about how these observations about culture relate to my work describing Progress Culture, as well as the “Two, Five, Ten” approach to change management. My takeaway: in order to rise to meet all the challenges either arrived or headed our way in schools, we have to find, put in place, and establish the legacy of ways to make strategic thinking both an expression of and an accelerant for cultural progress.