Keepers of the Culture

“Culture-keepers tend to be in the underground.”

That was the comment of a senior scientist in the biotech industry as we concluded an interview with him this afternoon. We are in the midst of our first round of interviews with senior leaders in R&D; concerning the relationship of culture, high performance, and leadership practices. What especially caught my attention today was this leader’s unsolicited use of the phrase “underground”. And that those who compromise the underground are the “culture-keepers”.

“Culture-keepers” may engender thoughts of preservation, conservation, and stasis. Or they might be understood as the reservoir of largely untapped resources, buried beneath layers of bureaucracy and a myriad of processes – sort of like the connective tissue that keeps everything intact despite stress and strains. Either way, culture keepers are the bearers of implicit knowledge that is transferred from generation to generation.

One of the core premises of the Politics of Creativity is that there is indeed an underground of relationships, practices, and even scientific knowledge that generally fails to hit the screen of management. One of the reasons this happens, as the leader we interviewed today added, is that senior managers are rotated through the R&D; function every few years. While management may initiate structural changes or launch other initiatives to optimize innovation and productivity, the culture is seldom affected, unless there is an intentional, trustworthy attempt to engage this “underground”.

This is not about gimmicky programs or subversive tactics but rather about more authentic engagement with people who matter because they are the guts of the R&D; lab. Valuable political skills can be honed which acknowledge the reality of the power structure(s) of the business while honoring the wisdom buried in the organization. But before even thinking about engaging the “underground” one needs to acknowledge that it exists. What prevents or encourages management from doing so? That’s the question I didn’t explore in the interview today. Next time!