Check your culture ABCDE

In my last post, I mentioned the many crises and challenges of today’s world and that our culture is crucial for the future. It feels overwhelming and scary. How to respond? How to bridge the gap between knowing and doing? How to create systemic change? How to collaborate as organizations, and as individuals? How to make a difference and find the most effective lever? How to respond in time? We can’t think and talk about it for another decade – we need effective action. 

Both people and organizations need qualities like positive thinking, openness to new information, dialogue skills, agility, resilience, taking action, and taking ownership. Both our global, economic, science-based culture and our societal and organizational cultures can help or hinder us to transition to a future where we are well.

In this series, I explore several aspects of culture and what is needed to face our current ecological, social, and governance challenges and to become future-fit. My main focus is organizational culture, but also our global and societal culture that influences organizations and vice versa. Organizations can play a crucial role to bring about change when they make their products, services, and actions sustainable and just. But their culture has an even deeper effect. Organizations can be great spaces where people learn crucial new ways of thinking and doing, and where they find support and meaning. People take their culture home and to their communities and spread it. Organizations can help people learn and adapt as the world faces several transitions.

A future-fit culture provides the glue, the speed and trust, the shared identity, the narrative, the purpose, the core values and priorities, the key behaviors, and the openness to learn new skills needed in the VUCA-world, that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

The word culture applies to any group culture – your organization, team, community, church, sports club, choir, etc.

Logical levels of a culture

To map the deep levels of culture, we can use the “logical levels” of reality, developed by Gregory Bateson and adapted by Robert Dilts. The five levels are easy to remember with ABCDE.

In short, a culture entails:

A, we Are – identity and narrative of a group
B, we Believe – shared values, beliefs, norms, priorities, goals
C, we Can – the capabilities, skills, and resources that make up our potential
D, we Do – the behaviors (actions and interactions)
E, our Effect – our results, what we bring about with our products, services, actions

The levels ABC are the invisible elements: identity, narrative, beliefs, and skills (the potential things we can do even if we don’t do them).
The D-level of behavior is visible: “The way we do things around here.” This produces effects that can be seen and measured on level E. If not enough people change certain behaviors, there is no change.
The higher levels determine the lower levels D and E. Solutions to problems are mostly found by solving a blockage on a higher level – just like Einstein said. You can’t solve a problem at the same level of thinking as when you created those problems.

Change your ABC and D and E

The DE-levels are crucial to solve the current global crises. We need to DO something to create the outcomes we need for the world we want to live in. We need to stop global warming, and social injustice, we need to stop pollution, polarization and so much more. We need to start sustainable actions, increase biodiversity, keep the interests of future generations at heart, secure our quality of living, and create a fair playing field in our global economy, and our democracies. We need effective, timely actions to realize the effects we want.

But the ABC-levels are crucial as well. We need to reflect on who we are, our role, and what is happening in the world – we need to agree on the facts. In the VUCA world – the more uncertainty, the more conflicts arise as everyone tries to make sense of new, shifting situations. Everyone may see something different or emphasize some facts over others.
Also, if people don’t really believe in change or if actions somehow conflict with their worldview, new behaviors won’t last. People easily return to old habits. And if they want to do something but they can’t – they lack the skills, the time, the energy – then not much will change either.

That’s why we must always work with the inside and outside of a culture, whether it’s our organizational or team culture, or the mainstream economic, and technological culture that guides the global economy and financial markets. The logical levels help you see the many layers of culture and identify where roadblocks might be. Developing a new story and a new culture is a bit like solving an equation with many variables. The ABCDE helps you analyze the phenomenon of culture.

Culture offers a comprehensive worldview that provides meaning, certainty (this is true!), priorities and goals, behavioral norms, criteria for good/bad, etc, and it directs the skills, actions, and interactions – what people say and what they do, and the outcomes.

Analyze the ABCDE

The ABCDE questions help to unwind these convoluted threads of the culture that runs through a group.
Answer these questions for yourself or with some team members – and imagine you have to explain this culture to E.T. coming from outer space.

“Here’s how we think, feel, act, and interact and the effects and outcomes we cause in our culture:”

We Are. Identity and narrative – Who are we? Why are we here? What are our self-image, our mission, and our purpose as an organization? If we had to pick an animal to represent us – what would it be and why?

We Believe. Beliefs, values, goals – What do we Believe? What do we value and prioritize? What are the shared values, norms, and goals in our organization?

We Can. Capabilities – What are our skills, resources – our shared potential? Our strengths? Our weaknesses – what we can’t (so well)?

We Do. Behaviors – What do we Do? Services, processes, products, and structures of an organization. How do we do it? What’s normal around here and is copied automatically by most? Interactions – what do we say and how? This level is palpable. What do I see, hear, sense – in meetings, in corridors, during breaks, in one-on-one meetings? What events and incidents happen? What are typical examples?

Our Effect. The Effects of our behaviors – What do we affect? What environment do we create? What outcomes?

Checking the ABCDE of a culture is the first step to understanding what the culture entails – and what needs to change, how, and what action will be effective. (To be continued!)

So, who are we in the global mainstream culture? Why are we here? Where are we? How did we get here? What is needed now, and when? The series that follows will explore these questions and see what organizations can contribute – and how organizational culture plays a crucial role.

In the next post, let’s quickly scan the global challenges that we face – ecological, social, and governance issues. Let’s look at the narrative that got us here and what a new story and culture might look like.

© Marcella Bremer, 2023

The time for a positive transition is now. This decade until 2030 determines the future. Let’s help people and organizations become future-fit.

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