I’ve known Dave for a few years, and we’ve had a chance to work together a few times, like the panel we did at SxSW Interactive a few years ago with Megan Murray (see Socialogy: Interview with Megan Murray) and Gordon Ross (see Socialogy: Interview with Gordon Ross). Dave is one of the most prescient thought leaders wrestling with the future of business.
Dave is the founder of xPlane, now a part of Dachis Group, the founder of Limini, and the author of Gamestorming, and The Connected Company (with Thomas Vander Wal).
The InterviewStowe Boyd: I want to explore your recent work on culture mapping. How did you come up with the premise of the culture map approach, and could you outline it?
Dave Gray: In my book The Connected Company, I wanted to find and share the big principles and practices that were driving successful 21st-century companies. I think the book did a good job of describing those organizing principles, but there wasn’t a lot in the book about how to transform an existing companies. In other words, the book did a good job describing the WHAT: What is a connected company? And that was the job the book was intended to do. But once the book was out there, I started to get more and more people asking about the HOW: How can our company become a connected company?• If you’re going to start a transformation process, the first question to answer is what you want to become. - Dave Gray •
Now, if you’re going to start a transformation process, the first question to answer is what you want to become. So I think it’s a good thing that people now have a better sense of where they want to go. But that doesn’t get them there. The culture mapping came about as an answer to that HOW question, because if you want to become a more connected company, the most important thing to tackle is the company’s culture. You have to really grapple with it, ask the hard questions, start the conversations about the culture of the company, what it is, what it can be, what it enables and what it constrains. And that’s an incredibly difficult conversation for most companies to have. The culture map is a tool to help companies start to dig into those difficult but very important questions.
SB: I wonder what has to proceed the culture mapping? How much explanation of culture has to go on, first?
DG: The goal of the culture map tool is that you can use it at any level to initiate the conversation, starting from zero. Still, the facilitator needs some understanding of the tool and how to use it. I’ve been working with people to help them do this in their organizations.
SB: The values section of the culture map seems a lot like Edgar Schein’s Artifacts/Rituals/Tacit Assumptions. Were you influenced by that? (I’m a huge fan of that model, by the way.) Do you think organizations can be helped by holding up a mirror to help them clarify what their culture is? Is that what you are planning to do at Limini, your new outfit?
DG: Absolutely. The biggest influences on the culture map categories were Edgar Schein and Chris Argyris, who have similar and complementary approaches to understanding organizational culture. Schein uses an iceberg metaphor to describe culture, and I’ve found that is an excellent way to talk about it. It helps people understand that the important stuff is under the surface, invisible. In a lot of ways when you look at culture you have to get into the unconscious mind of the organization, to try to understand what motivates and drives behavior as well as the blind spots that constrain thinking.
I also would like to mention another big influence, which is more about the structure of the tool than the content. That influence is Alex Osterwalder, the creator of the Business Model Canvas. Alex is a good friend of mine and he has some strong opinions about what makes a good business tool. I won’t try to describe them all here, but those opinions are embedded in the structure of the culture map and I think that helped make it a great tool.• As business-employee loyalty and longevity has decreased, and businesses move toward a leaner and faster operating model, perhaps we can accept that corporate cultures are shallow, and instead we can affiliate through a deeper work culture that is larger than any business.- Stowe Boyd •
SB: I am also a fan of Argyris, who passed away only a few weeks ago. What aspects of his work are involved in culture map?
DG: Most specifically his ideas about double-loop learning, including the differentiation between espoused theories and theories-in-use. A nice read on this is his essay “Teaching smart people how to learn.”
SB: I have been advocating something contrary: as business-employee loyalty and longevity has decreased, and businesses move toward a leaner and faster operating model, perhaps we can accept that corporate cultures are shallow, and instead we can affiliate through a deeper work culture that is larger than any business.
DG: I don’t think that’s contrary at all, in fact I agree fully. I think it’s important to differentiate between the culture-as-expressed-on-the-website, which I agree is usually shallow and meaningless, versus the culture-as-lived in the organization, which is deeply embedded and hard to change. I’ve said this before elsewhere, but changing the culture of a group is about as difficult as a bunch of people trying to quit smoking at the same time. Very hard. And I also agree that work culture doesn’t end at the boundaries of the business. Culture is complex. Cultures are like natural environments and ecosystems in that they overlap, they are contained in super-systems and they contain sub-systems. If you’re going to look at culture you need to figure out the scope of what you want to look at, just like any biologist studying a natural ecosystem. Depending on the scope of your inquiry, an ecosystem can be as big as the Amazon rain forest or the planet Earth, or it can be as small as a rotten log. It’s the same with examining culture: A culture can be as big as a country, a profession or an industry, or a small as a work team. It depends what you’re looking to understand.
SB: I wrote a piece recently where I used the terms ‘sets’, ‘scenes’ and ‘worlds’ to talk about different social scales, and how they need to be conceptualized differently. The social dynamics at different scales are very different, so the culture as manifested in a social ‘scene’, like the marketing department of a corporation, can be quite different — and much slower to change — than the ‘world’ of the entire company.
DG: Makes perfect sense to me.
SB: The central thesis of the Socialogy series is ‘How do you think a scientifically-grounded understanding of people as social beings will change business in the future and how?’ In The Connected Company you explored the science of social networks. Is that the scientific domain that you think is most critical for management to absorb?
DG: I think that’s important, for sure, but if you were to force me to pick a domain I would pick complexity science. In a way that’s cheating though, because I would think that social network science is actually a subset of complexity science. But for companies that want to succeed in this next wave of business thinking, a basic understanding the dynamics of complexity is the number one thing people need to think about and understand.
SB: I definitely have complexity on the short list. Thanks for your time, Dave.
DG: Thank you Stowe!