Developmental Culture

Developmental Culture

Human beings have survived and thrived worldwide because we are naturally superb at learning and adapting to changing circumstances. Organisations can also become places where learning occurs naturally and easily without being driven.

If your organisation is to survive and thrive, you must think and plan how to help it learn and adapt. An organisation’s culture is the set of habits, assumptions, typical behaviour, values and skills that influence the behaviour and attitudes of most people in the organisation. It can encourage or inhibit learning. The culture usually “just is”; however, you can decide to influence or change it.

The rest of this note describes some of the features of an ideal culture to support learning and development and what you can do to create one. You will already have or do some of these and may wish to strengthen or spread them more widely.

What happens in a developmental culture?

  • People think about the long-term and the short-term.

Doing anything different takes time and energy. Organisations need some slack so people have time to think, plan, try new things, and reflect. Of course, short-term objectives and activities are vital, but development is challenging if there is no time to learn because every moment is taken up with “doing”. You can use some of the slack to think about your actions and decide if they all need doing.

A way forward?

Spend an hour at a workgroup meeting, taking turns talking about your work. Decide together what the least valuable work is and agree not to do it. This will create some slack.

  • Leaders are models of developmental behaviour and attitudes

People want to copy attractive and successful behaviour, particularly of leaders. If top managers, for example, show appreciation for people trying new things, even if they are not immediately successful, they will encourage others to do the same. If you practice the ideas listed here, the rest of the organisation will copy you.

A way forward?

Discuss the ideas in this list with a colleague and decide which one(s) appeal to you the most. Try some small experiments in low-risk situations and see what happens.

  • Good ideas come from everywhere.

An idea can come from anywhere in the organisation or outside. People will give you their ideas if they see you as willing to listen to them with an open mind. This is worth doing systematically.

You could start by asking the people who work for you, individually or in a group, what thoughts they have about what is working well and what ideas they have about making their and your work effective and more enjoyable. Good ideas can “hide” anywhere. How about asking your customers or suppliers for their thoughts on how you might be able to work better together?

A way forward?

Think about an area of work where improvement would be valuable. Ask people who might know about it for any ideas they may have. Listen carefully and show your appreciation for their contribution.

  • People work in a stimulating environment.

The physical environment influences people. We make our homes interesting with objects and pictures that reflect who we are and stimulate thought and happy memories.

The work environment can be just as rich if we want it to be. This will help people be more creative. It will help them appreciate the variety and richness of the mixture of people and their experiences and resources. Standard environments will encourage conformity. You need some difference to spark development.

A way forward?

Make your own office or place of work more personal and more stimulating by putting up a picture or two or some posters that mean something to you. Observe the effect this has on you and the people who visit you.

  • People have scope to act and are helped to act intelligently

Most people respond well to having a small number of clear goals and being encouraged and supported to reach them. They need the authority and resources they require to achieve their goals. When the purposes of the group, department and company are clear, making intelligent decisions about priorities is easy.

You will free more energy from people if you limit the external rules they must follow to the minimum required to conform to regulations. People can work together to find the best system to do work and operate it. Then, they will follow the rules they invent themselves.

A way forward?

Share your perceptions of your company, department and group goals with your colleagues and staff. Talk with your colleagues about their work goals and ask them about any “rules”, written or unwritten, that get in their way. If there are any, think about how to question or change them.

  • There is excellent informal communication.

If people are to learn well, they need to understand a situation or possibility fully and from many different viewpoints. A solution may require inputs from various places within and without the organisation. These require a functioning informal communication network where people can easily exchange ideas and experiences.

You can encourage this by having simple, informal meetings on or offline where people build trusting relationships and learn about each other’s skills and interests.

A way forward?

Set up a large group event where people can meet and talk about their work hopes and concerns and start to help each other. “Open Space” is a good structure and process.

  • Learn from mistakes

If you try anything new or give people scope, mistakes are inevitable. If you make a mistake, apologise, think about what happened and why and how to avoid making the mistake in future. If someone else makes a mistake,  talk with that person about what happened and why and how to prevent the mistake from happening again.

By working together, without blaming, you will create cooperation and learning. Blaming will create defensiveness and mistrust and is much less helpful.

A way forward?

The next time something goes wrong, discuss it in the spirit of the above idea. 

  • Focus on what works and spread good practice.

In any organisation, many things work well, sometimes remarkably well. You can help your organisation develop by looking for what works and talking about it. For example, a manager in one part of the organisation might have a very effective way of getting comments from their customers that help with customer service.

In a developmental culture, it would be natural and expected for that manager to talk about what they did with other managers, etc. This would lead to everyone’s practice rising.

A way forward?

Take turns next time you meet as a management group or with your team, talking about what has gone well for each of you in the last two weeks and what has led to this. Then, reflect on the value of working like this for a few minutes.

  • People ask for and offer help.

It takes a big person to admit their vulnerability by asking for help. However, no one is good at everything, and one of the advantages of an organisation is that there are people around who like to help. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. You can also gently offer help to people who appear to be struggling and let them know that you see accepting your help as a sign of strength.

Often, listening to people as they think aloud is the most helpful thing you can do.

A way forward?

If you feel stuck on something, talk it over with a colleague. Ask that person to listen to you for a few minutes. You will find that after a minute or two, your thoughts will have become clearer, and you will know what to do.

  • Talk to each other about how you do things.

People work together in organisations to produce valuable products or services. To do so, they use some universal skills. Some that occur to me are listening to each other and your customers and suppliers, sharing information, learning from experience, solving problems, developing people, making decisions, investing resources, developing new products and services, marketing and selling.

In a developmental culture, there are constant conversations about how you are doing these things and how you could do them better. You will have other items to add to the list.

A way forward?

Talk to a colleague about any of these that you care about. For example, you could say, “I would love to know how you develop your people. I find it quite interesting and challenging and could always do with some new ideas”.

Finally, over 300 other articles and developmental resources are on my Practical Developmental Ideas site. They are all free for anyone to access, use and adapt. Please help yourself. Please contact me if you want me to help you use these ideas.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick