Keepers of the Culture

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“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!

  • Jack Johnston

    Two concepts stand out in this discussion: 1.) that in organizational culture, as in social culture, it is the esoteric knowledge that is understood to be critical to past, present and future success. This esoteric knowledge is not avaiolable to everyone but 2.) only to those who are prepared to inhabit the culture, as opposed to passing through it. To take this a bit further only to those in management who are prepared to lead as well as manage, to take an active role in shaping the future direction for the use of culture knowledge and energy, are entitled to share in the knowledge embeddeed in the “underground”.

    This is true in all forms of organization and I think especially as it relates to the creative spark of organizations. The further our organizations evolve into economies of implicit knowledge the more powerful this dynamic will become. Hence the critical role of relationship capital in determining a leader’s effectiveness.

  • Deary Duffie

    I believe there are three types of R&D; employees who are “underground”. One group is active and risk-takers. This group is likely to say, “I ask for forgiveness rather than permission.” A second group is there for safety. Their mantra could be, “I keep my head down and do my job.” A third group is in hiding. This group could be heard saying, “I don’t want to be noticed for fear I could be assigned to a non-strategic project or even worse laid-off.”

    R&D; leaders will need to engage these employees in different ways. First, create an environment where provocative and “risky” ideas are openly presented without fear of retribution. Second, encourage all employees to help shape the “vision of the future”. You can’t do this with your head down. Third, require all employees to actively drive their professional careers by clarifying and communicating their personal values, their career aspirations, and how they both align with the lab’s strategic direction.

    R&D; leaders who do this will engage more employees and build a leadership pipeline as well.