What is Culture (and What Does It Have to Do with Baseball)?

This is the next in a series of blog articles where Royce Holladay and Mary Nations explore dynamics of Generative Engagement. Today we use an HSD lens to understand culture as patterns, and give a look at how you can create and shape a culture of generative engagement.

This dictionary definition provides a useful starting place: “. . . the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time.”

I like the ordinariness of “everyday existence,” and how the phrase “in a place or time” acknowledges the inherent shifting aspect of culture. Culture is part of the very nature of being human and alive each day. All of us are part of a multitude of cultures, each of them unique. And each of those cultures may fit a “here and now” differently from than they previously fit a “then and there.” Today’s culture is not yesterday’s. Place and time matter.

The definition also brings up a “how” question. How do people in a particular place or time come to know their shared characteristic features? We know simply through the interactions that occur.

Think of how you have been in a group of people who have some reason for being together: A family, team, department, organization, society. The setting or scale does not matter. As people interact over time, they generate patterns of behavior and relationship. In HSD, we define patterns as: “…similarities, differences and connections that have meaning across space and time.”

The culture of a group is exactly that – “the characteristic features” from the earlier definition are the similarities, differences and connections, the patterns shared by people in a place or time. Culture is established as patterns of “the way we are together.” As culture gets established in a group, the ongoing interactions of individuals are reinforced by those patterns of behavior and relationship.

The concept of Complex Adaptive Systems is helpful in visualizing this culture formation, to see how it stays in motion, ever shifting as individuals in the system interact. A snapshot in a moment may show particular patterns that are informative for that instance. Yet these patterns are not fixed. They are forever changing, with new ones emerging as people react to each other, to new ideas, or to obstacles within the group. They adapt to the entry and/or departure of individuals. The patterns are reshaped as individuals’ differences influence each other.

What happens to patterns over time? Consider the element of time in patterns seen in development cycles, pay schedules, or responses to sudden change. The rate of change in patterns of a culture may be imperceptible at times and drastic at others.

Changes in the external environment may also provoke reactions within the group and shifts in the patterns. Changes inside a system and changes in the environment affect the look and feel of culture at any given point in time.

I began with considering how culture contains “characteristic features of everyday existence…shared by people in a place or time” and added how interactions of complex adaptive systems help people explore those shared affiliations. There is another obvious and essential component of complex adaptive systems to consider. When people interact over for a period of time, differences will emerge as significant, and dissipate when other differences take precedence. Differences in expression, temperament, language, beliefs, behaviors, customs, habits, values, norms, rules, technologies, and more will arise and disappear as interactions and conditions change.

I may more keenly notice such aspects of differences when I am a newcomer to an established group. I immediately begin noticing if and how I fit in or stand out. My discernment of “how things are done around here” helps me determine my fit with the group, and whether the group is a good fit for me.

In general, differences bring energy into the group in the form of tension. Does the group’s culture have the capacity to hold emerging tension? Tension may provide an opportunity a stretch to form new options, new capabilities for a group with a strong affiliation. Tensions may cause disruptive conflict in a group with only weak ties.

Seeing and understanding the culture of a group means I notice the patterns in what holds the group together in “everyday existence” amidst the differences that emerge in their interactions in a time and place. I see patterns of culture in the way things are done, the way meaning is made, the way people are included or excluded, the way decisions develop, the way tension is held, etc. The culture, in turn, influences further interaction among the individuals in the system (including me, even in observer mode!), forming an ongoing feedback loop between the parts of the system and the whole.

Culture is emergent – it can be neither predicted nor controlled. However, culture can be influenced. Rules or policies, expectations, informal and formal reward systems are used for setting and amplifying desired patterns as well as for dampening undesired patterns. Culture is strengthened, weakened, and tested via the ongoing interactions of the people forming the patterns.

Once I can see (the What part of the Adaptive Action cycle) and understand pattern formation (the So What) in the cultures I am part of, the next step is exploring ways to influence those patterns (the Now What).

Royce and I developed the Generative Engagement model to consider how to shift patterns (individually or collectively) to form cultures of generativity. Our notion of being generative is simply when a group’s interactions allow all individuals to influence each other to help new possibilities emerge, in a “whole is greater than the sum of the parts”
 way. The model names Generative Engagement as a particular pattern of culture resulting from combination of shared identity, shared power, and shared voice. Any sized group can use these to see, understand, and influence their culture:

  • What is our shared identity, our shared affiliation? This identity may be temporary, just to complete a simple task or project, or it may be shifting as dynamics internal and external to the group change. It could also be something more robust, such as a shared identity with time-tested nuances in which the group builds collective resilience.

Example: Devoted fans of the storied Chicago Cubs resolutely supported the team for decades before the team finally became World Champions again in 2016. Over time, even in losing seasons, their shared identity was reinforced via ritual, celebration, reverence of history, and merchandising. Smart club management facilitates fan participation and commitment through both good times and bad. This recent winning season solidifies this shared identity.

  • What influence do we have via shared power? Groups have infinite differences among the individuals, and those differences provide energy for the system. By highlighting interesting and important differences in a given place and time, we can use the tension created by those differences to explore possibilities to influence each other and the willingness to be influenced to create shared power within our interactions. These differences that make a difference change moment to moment as the dynamics shift.

Example: Like many sports teams, the Chicago Cub’s line-up is chosen for a particular game, taking into consideration the health of individual players, the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, how combinations of players work together, etc. Some players may sit out a game in order to be fresh for the next, even though fans may be disappointed to not see their favorites. Over time, wise rotation of players may be the difference that makes a difference for a stand-out season. There is shared influence in the team striving to win every game, and the fans wanting to see their favorites in action. This difference between fans and management sets up a tension that can help the team have the very best season possible, in terms of both fan engagement and the overall winning record.

  • How do we develop shared voice? As we interact, we learn what connections are effective for getting the best of what we have to offer into the mix, to develop an effective shared voice. It may be important to advocate from your own perspective, but inquiry is important as well, to find out what other voices add to the whole.

Example: If I am the team manager in the example above, I need to rely on the intelligence from the specialists I work with AND I must make the call. I may want to “go with my gut” instinct, but checking in with other opinions can help me gain clarity, expose my own bias, and prevent unintended assumptions. Granting others a voice may help me make a much wiser decision in the long term.

Reflecting on the culture of a sports team helps me notice patterns in my own groups in “everyday existence”, to acknowledge how my and others differences emerge in our interactions in a time and place. As I notice the way things are done, the way meaning is made, the way people are included or excluded, the way decisions develop, the way tension is held, I can consider my part – how do I share identity, power, and voice? – to make choices on how I want to influence those patterns for generative engagement going forward. When a group shares this understanding of their own patterns, each member can be fully engaged in creating a generative culture together.

This work, creating & developing cultures of generative engagement, is necessary anytime and anywhere a group needs to actively notice new things, create new ideas, strengthen relationships, and provoke new action. How might you begin exploring this with your own groups? I used examples from a baseball team that are equally applicable to groups and organizations of any size or purpose.

A group struggling to maintain a culture of generative engagement can make course corrections. Are you part of any groups with concerns such as:

  • Ingrained or unchallenged habits/assumptions about who you are together?
  • Tensions about who gets included in/left out of decision-making, how control is used/shared?
  • Disconnects in information flow that limits group potential?

At any time, you can consider your role, individually and collectively, – how do I/we share identity, power, and voice? – to make choices on how you want to influence those patterns for generative engagement going forward. Once you can see and understand your own role in the pattern formation, you can choose wise next steps. Let us know how it goes!

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