How to lay the foundation for a successful year ahead.

Written by Chris Hardy - January 28, 2021

Alex – our lead designer lays some funky foundations in his home.

At Wholegrain Digital we’re in the midst of an experiment into building great culture. This article comes from a desire to share the insights and learning as we go. We’re a work in progress and so welcome feedback and comments.

This January our team coach Chris (that’s me, also the author of this article alongside Nick) launched an intervention to help team members lay the foundations for a successful year ahead. In this article you’ll read about why we’re doing this, instructions on how you could do your own, and a few tips for building culture.

Chris joined Wholegrain in June 2020 and has been working exclusively in the realm of culture change with a specific focus on creating a developmental culture – something he’s seriously into and thinks you should be too!  

Real culture change deals with the messy underbelly of your organisation

Culture is one of those often used and mostly misunderstood terms in organisational work. I won’t claim that I can define it concisely here. What I’m learning is that effective cultural interventions mean getting under the surface of your organisation. They deal with the underbelly, the underlying issues that generally don’t surface, the murky emotional landscape, the complexity of human relationships, the inner and outer conflicts (that can simmer unrecognised in their potential as learning opportunities), and not least the convoluted and inter-personal and cross-functional power dynamics that are inherent in any gathering of people.

And yet this is the all important territory (as far as I can see). It’s the compost, the hummus from which culture grows. And upon culture rests effective meetings, staff wellbeing, agile leadership and ultimately profit and impact.

Culture change is best through the lens of adult development theory

In order to successfully delve into this organisational underworld, and feel safe, and have some idea of the territory through which you’re traversing (and no doubt upsetting a few people in the process) it’s essential to have a map. 

The theory of adult development (AD) provides that map. And more specifically the application of AD theory to the world of organisational culture. Robert Kega, the main proponent of AD theory in this current manifestation has a plethora of excellent books on this topic, the most recent and concise being ‘An Everyone Culture’. 

Rooting culture change work in rigorous academic theory gives necessary depth, structure and methodology to the approach you take. The approach expounded in ‘An Everyone Culture’ follows the idea of creating a Deliberately Developmental Organisation (DDO) – yes, that’s a complete mouth full, especially when working with a team of developers with me as the developmental lead!!

As above, we’re on a journey of exploration and experimentation in becoming a DDO and would love to share this journey with other B Corps who feel that people development is a similar priority. One way to join us on this journey is to run your own January mapping exercise. 

The January mapping exercise is a developmentally orientated cultural intervention that you could try

During the second week of January I sent out a Google form to the team at Wholegrain asking them to answer questions about their professional vision for December 2021.

Responses are conveniently captured in a Google sheet. What we’re doing here is capturing their current perspective, or view, on their end of year journey. As David Whyte says ‘There is no path that leads all the way’ – and without doubt we won’t end up exactly where we planned, or indeed where we had once thought that we wanted to be.

The purpose of this survey is not to try to narrowly constrict our pathway to a single destination to which we’ll rigidly stick. Rather we’re using this exercise to make explicit and objective our beliefs, views, desires, values and thoughts about the future. Once declared (or written down) the idea is to hold these pieces of our vision lightly. In this vein I ask that people complete the survey going with initial gut responses, that it’s not about a right or wrong answer, it’s a simple capturing of this current moment, and that if / when we refer to their responses it’ll be from a place of curiosity, not accountability!

Let’s hear from Nick, one of our brilliant Project Managers on his experience of this January mapping exercise and more broadly his experience in being part of this experiment into building a developmental culture at Wholegrain.

Nick, one of our brilliant Project Managers

A snippet from a Slack chat with Nick with him giving positive feedback on the process.

While I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions, I find the turning of the year a powerful moment for reflection. It’s a unique milestone, and one that transcends religious holidays (for the most part). This past New Year’s Eve I did something slightly different. I wrote a letter to my future self. It’s something I’d been wanting to do for years, and getting to the end of 2020(!) seemed like the perfect reason to do it. I wrote a letter to my future self that I will receive on New Year’s Eve… in ten years time.

I found it oddly therapeutic. I’ve journaled since I was 17, but I’ve never written to myself. It prompted me to imagine where I might be, and of course, what job I might be doing.

And this is what interested me the most. What we do for our livelihoods has a huge sway on our happiness and sense of purpose. It was a big topic of conversation in my letter.

How wonderful it was then, after pressing send (and now not being able to see the letter for a while…), to come back to Wholegrain and be invited to try out Chris’ January mapping exercise. Wholegrain, more than most, really get that it’s difficult to separate work and personal life. Work is personal. Indeed, Tom’s blog post welcoming me to Wholegrain summarises that perfectly.

And that’s why I’m so grateful for the personal development work we’ve been doing as a team with Chris. The January mapping exercise is an excellent opportunity to imagine where you want to be at the end of the year, and then figure out what steps you need to take to get there.

Nick. PM at Wholegrain Digital

I have some wonderful goals to work on with Chris in our coaching sessions — and this will ultimately have a positive impact on my role as a project manager. Relationships with clients benefit from a more considered approach. Building websites is a digital service, but the process of getting there is very human.

Why not trial this for yourself?

It’d be grand if you wanted to try this January mapping exercise yourself. Not only will it be good for your own troops, it’ll also be interesting to hear about other purpose-driven organisations testing out an approach to building a more developmentally orientated culture.

There’s a number of ways you could approach this.

I could grant you access to a Google folder that contains: the survey, text I shared with the team, and a video explaining how this is a snapshot of current thinking and will be held lightly.

If you’d like further support in implementing this intervention (perhaps you have a larger team) then let me know and we can explore options, perhaps a group workshop to give context to the survey and why you’re prioritising this kind of cultural intervention now.

There are, of course, multiple other ways this can be done that could work inside or outside of your organisation. One would be to use the link Nick provided: www.futureme.org at which you can write yourself an email / letter that will be returned to you on your specified future date.

Something I’ve done with my coaches, and previous clients have done with me, is to write an actually hand written letter with a specified date for return. This has been a profound exercise and I’d love to offer this opportunity to anybody in the B Corp community – if you wanted to write a letter and have it returned to you in the future let me know and I’ll share my address. The letter, obviously, can be sealed and I promise not to peek!

Conclusion

Working within Wholegrain Digital using the adult development framework is hugely rewarding and enjoyable. Although very much a work in progress we’re already noticing considerable benefits from focusing on our people and our culture. Adult development is a hopeful theory; it suggests that the challenge or limitation that you’re currently bumping up against is only temporary, that there is a possibility of moving beyond it. This applies to both individuals and organisations.

By developing our team’s and our leader’s capacities we’re better able to deal with the complex demands of our world. As a B Corp we see the growth of our team as an essential component of enhancing the profitability and sustainability of our business all while creating more positive impact.

Please email Chris at [email protected]m with any questions about this article or to request free access to the resources.