Is Your Culture Directive Or Engaging?

Something that’s been on my mind a fair bit recently.  My eldest has been looking at ways of engaging user communities in the architectural design process, with a particular focus on active design.  Like many other industries, architecture is relatively directive in nature. The architect is, of course, seen as the expert and when consultation occurs, in the main, it is in the form of telling people what they intend to do and then answering questions, or taking some feedback and, possibly, amending the design.

Whether in a work context or a sporting one, it is difficult not to be directive, given that we are so conditioned to it from a young age, both in the classroom, from the industrial style education that most of us experience, and on the sports field.  When my boys where at primary school (many moons ago) they also played for a local football team. The coaches, all of whom were parents, acted as they perceived that coaches should telling, though mainly shouting multiple instructions at kids, both during practice and matches.  Many of you will be familiar with the group that follows the ball round the pitch like a swarm of bees despite this, though there’s usually one kid who sticks to his position, as told, out on the wing but hardly ever gets a kick of the ball!

Being directive only engages the egos of those doing the directing.  Yet it is endemic in most (though not all thankfully) working environments.  Things might be changing, but slowly.  It’s easy to see why when we are so conditioned to either direct or be directed.

My eldest son’s work (the aspiring architect) has involved looking at a number of methods outside of architecture, particularly action learning and agile development (in technology driven change).  Both involve high levels of engagement because they are collaborative and focus on the user.

It is worthwhile to reflect on the origins of action learning.  The term was initially coined by Reg Revans.  Reg was a former Olympic athlete (1928) and academic at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, humbled by the experience of witnessing a bunch of Nobel prize winning scientists struggle together for solutions to scientific problems in seminars, he adopted similar methods when he moved into industry.  Working on the premise that there were many ‘problems’ that we often sought expert help for but were better placed to resolve ourselves, he also found that this approach produced greater levels of engagement with his colleagues.  Of course this often makes the so-called expert uneasy.  It bears some similarity with non-directive coaching and it’s interesting that Gallwey made similar observations when he wrote ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’.

I mention this because some years ago I was asked to take over a failing change program at a major investment bank (a bastion of directive culture if ever there was one!).  I sold the enlightened person I worked for the concept of coaching the team to deliver.  While my approach was initially based on inner game coaching methods, it was some time later that I discovered the way it was executed (successfully I hasten to add) bore a striking resemblance to action learning.  The environment changed from one with fragmented teams and with a culture of blame, lack of ownership and chaos, to a cohesive delivery unit with a clear delivery process and strong sense of ownership.  The same principles that Gallwey had written about being effective in sport were equally so at work.

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