Culture is Unconscious Water

by | Jul 4, 2020 | Change |

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace

Culture is like water to the fish.

“It’s just the way we do things around here.” We’ve all heard that phrase before. Perhaps we hear when we join a new team, a new organisation, a new group. Sometimes it is a moment of awe or surprise. And sometimes it’s said when we’ve done something that is different.

When humans come together in groups, culture is created. We all create it, live in it. We can use it to help introduce our ideas or we can fight against it. Culture is constantly changing, but also has significant staying power.

Organisational culture is one of the most powerful aspects of an organisation. It is the number one reason many projects fail. One of the reasons for this is that we often forget it exists. We, like the young fish, are immersed in it everyday and it becomes an unconscious navigation.

The hard work of change involves surfacing the unconscious. Making it conscious. Teasing out the unwritten rules in your own head and in the collective group and organisation.

Once they are conscious, we are better placed to figure out how to best navigate them to give our project the best chance of success. Where are the pockets of people with the worldview needed for your idea, your technology to succeed? Who needs to hear they have permission to change? And what parts of the culture need to be sidestepped?

When we are aware, we can change.

Discuss this with your team, with a diverse group of others. We never ‘see’ culture in its entirety. We see snippets. And so does everyone else. Do the hard work of embracing this reality, it can save you a lot of heartache.

Photo by wembley


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