This past week I had the experience of participating in a large scale brainstorming project during my off-site meeting in Philadelphia. Over 220 people were divided into teams, intentionally putting people together that have not even met before. We were then given a problem and told to come up with a solution, all in the framework of a (friendly) competition. But what followed was the most intense experience of team storming I have ever observed. Soon, four divisions fractured our table group, so subsets of the table shared some of the same beliefs and values, but it felt like a moving target trying to reach consensus. It was difficult to work together since we had skipped any number of steps in trying to build a team and went straight into trying to solve the problem without any ground rules. (How my table participants would benefit from our Groups and Teams class!) After three hours of painful discussion, we reached the outline of an idea. With only an hour in the morning to prepare our presentation, we were surely facing public failure. Somehow, some sleep and coffee in the morning provided two of us some clarity. (We wrote a skit that mirrored Match.com as our customers looked for the right match – a bank that would love them.) In an hour we created a script for the skit, drew props and did a run-through for each couple. Our only hope was that we would not embarrass ourselves in front of our senior executives. To our TOTAL surprise, we were named as semi-finalists. To receive this social validation from the executives was more than we expected. Next, we presented in front of the entire room, trying to quickly change our shared basic assumption that our solution and skit weren’t good enough. Needless to say, we didn’t win, but all I could do was ponder the wasted opportunity.
The participants at my table did not share the same beliefs about our bank culture and therefore were unable to reach consensus or effectively generate new ideas. We even lacked common language to communicate normally with each other. As Schein explains it, “When a group is first created or when it faces a new task, issue or problem, the first solution proposed to deal with it reflects some individual’s own assumptions about what is right or wrong, what will work or not work” (Schein, p. 25). Not every table experienced the same struggles that we did, but I know that many did. We spent approximately 1100 hours of collective time on that activity. If they had only set up the exercise differently, created an environment of creativity but created boundaries and a framework, incredible ideas could have been born. Connections could have been created. Teams could have been formed.
As another commentary on our culture, in his opening remarks, our HR senior executive said “leaving Card and coming to Bank was like going to another country…” A great culture is not easy to replicate, even within the same organization. Different lines of business have very different ways of treating their associates, communicating with them, and getting things done. As Schein points out, changing a culture creates a lot of anxiety and in some cases distortion and denial in order to minimize the stress of our reality. My hope is that our new HR executive will be able to bring over artifacts of greatness from the Card side before the Bank’s norms and rules become all he can see.