The Culture Game

By: Daniel Mezick



What is the culture game? Mezick suggests it is a game we can win by introducing continuous training into our organisational culture. He believes - as a consequence of the current rapid pace of change - that organisations that learn fast can outflank their competitors. He states that teams that learn quickly are more adaptive and adaptability gets better results by responding to change.

How can we engage in the culture game? Mezick suggests we can benefit from a close study of software development and engage the agile practices and the scrum framework used therein to significant benefit. Join us for the next ten minutes or so as we take a look at his book “The Culture Game: Tools for the Agile Manager” to find out how we can follow his advice.

Agile 101

So what are Agile practices? What have software developers been hiding?

Mezick suggests Agile practices enhance, encourage, and help support genuine team learning. Using Agile, software houses have been able to rapidly and successfully bring software to bear on every facet of life at the same time making sure they understand and build in elements of customer feedback.

As a result there is a big demand to apply Agile techniques to non-technology domains like sales, marketing, finance and even leadership. The challenge is to take small-team learning behaviours and then apply them to the wider enterprise at scale.

But this is not quite so easy. For typical organisations, scaling Agile learning practices to the level of enterprise is a non-starter. Why? The primary reason is that successful Agile teams operate in safe space – a social space where it is safe to take interpersonal risk. Safe space is essential for group-level learning where people can interact in a non-threatening way. The problem is creation of enterprise-wide safe space is a non-trivial problem often too big to take on.

To build Agile practices requires adoption of appropriate frameworks which encourage group participation. Scrum is such a framework consisting of five elements.

  • Element 1: Respect: Respect secures peer to peer appreciation and mutual understanding. Without Respect there is no meaningful positive communication.
  • Element 2: Commitment: Commitment is the act tying ourselves to a course of action. If we cannot commit, we cannot act.
  • Element 3: Focus: Focus is the concentration of attention to a purpose. If we cannot focus, we are not paying attention in a meaningful way.
  • Element 4: Courage: Courage is the spirit to look reality in the eye. When there is no courage teams often feel unsafe to describe reality honestly in the workplace.
  • Element 5: Openness: Openness is all about secret avoidance. No secrets no surprises.

Mezick calls the social learning practice which supports the Culture Game - Tribal Learning. It involves learning not just about the work, but also about the people doing the work. In his book Mezick describes 16 activities we can adopt to engage in the Culture Game and apply Agile processes to our benefit. While there is no time to cover all sixteen, in the following lessons we’ve picked out six that we think will set us on our way.

Practice 1: Be Purposeful

As Mezick points out it’s easy for us to maintain focus when we have a clear purpose and a defined purpose is a fundamental of Agile. We need to do our best to commit to our purpose and ensure everyone else knows what the scope is. This gives us a benchmark for reality. Against this benchmark we can create goals and objectives, set values and principles and define actions to take. All of which ties in with Mazlow’s needs and a sense of belonging.

A well-defined purpose contributes to the creation of safe space - as we already have been made aware - an essential element for group-level learning. In Japanese, such a space would be called the ba - not just a physical place but also a social and psychological space.

Where work is complex and changing, purpose provides clarity. Clarity enables us to identify gaps between the current reality and future we want to create and helps identify the tasks we need to carry out. Tasks and actions aligned with purpose become meaningful work and when our efforts create results, we feel a sense of progress.

So how do we establish purpose? Here is Mezick’s advice.

  • Ask. Use all available forms of communication to solicit feedback and ideas on what the purpose of the group is.
  • Listen. Don’t drive the discussion; instead create the space to enable it to happen.
  • Meet. Hold some meetings and make sure we have a facilitator (more on this later).
  • Keep It Light. Exploring a clearly defined purpose can be very triggering and may evoke strong emotions - potentially negative emotions that express frustration with the organisation.
  • Play Games. When meeting around developing a sense of purpose, play some games to help generate ideas, movement, and agreement. (More on this later too!)
  • Keep it Short and Get It Done. Enough said!

Practice 2: Facilitate Your Meetings

Mezick advises us that facilitated meetings are more focused, organised, and constructive. When attendees, goals and boundaries are defined, meetings can be successful but the challenge is - if we call the meeting how can we separate meeting management from participation?

Enter the facilitator. In facilitated meetings we - the convenor - are able to participate more fully and observer without the additional responsibility of running the meeting. Facilitators are there to keep meetings flowing and to end on time.

We can use facilitators to stay organised, complete meeting agendas, and learn faster as a group. Using facilitators allows us to gain group focus and take the benefits to the organisation as a whole.

A facilitator can encourage progress and avoid an early end to keep the discussions open for inquiry and when the time is right for the group to decide, the facilitator can assist in reaching a conclusion.

So who should be the facilitator? A good practice is to have a person from outside our group to facilitate our meeting. Later you can return the favour, and send over one of your team to facilitate their meetings increasing collaboration across departments.

So how do we set up Facilitated meetings? Here are Mezick’s thoughts.

  • Socialise the idea of facilitated meetings. Stimulate discussion.
  • Identify a facilitator. Listen and watch carefully for the people who willingly opt-in to try facilitation.
  • Experiment and Inspect. Experiment by convening a facilitated meeting. What benefits did it bring? Is there a better sense of progress?

Practice 3: Examine Your Norms

Mezick suggests the activities that we do together as a group matter a great deal. How we handle communication, brainstorming, meetings, email, and other interactions matter. Positive interactions support alignment with purpose, values, principles, and goals. Ambiguous goals, fuzzy rules, and lack of feedback can work against our interests.

When our group change habits to increase alignment with purpose and values, it is easy to do what’s familiar: old habits die hard. Mezick says we must constantly examine our norms to make sure that they remain in line with our wider purposes and values.

We need to look at everything. This involves recognising that we need to improve, and some of it may be interpreted as being personal. That’s why the safe space is so important. It shields us from getting to emotional about the old ways.

So how do we start to examine our norms?

  • Identify. Identify an inspection point. Create opportunities to inspect what is going on.
  • Group Think. Perform the inspection as a group.
  • Contextualise. Engage in dialogue about the stories behind the norms.
  • Brainstorm and Choose. Brainstorm alternatives and choose a set of candidate changes. Narrow down the discussion of changes to three or four ideas.
  • Pick and Progress. Pick one and agree then monitor participation. In theory, after the decision everyone will have made a commitment to the new norm. Make sure they do so and reaffirm consensus if needed.

Practice 4: Game Your Meetings

As we’ve discussed in previous reviews, meetings are a major source of waste. Meeting can suck your energy when attendance is not optional, when the goal and rules are fuzzy, and when there is no way to gauge the progress of the meeting.

Mezick tells us to make meetings fun, enjoyable, and engaging by gaming them. Not a game- as in play – but a game where there is structure, clarity and a set of rules to follow.

By establishing a clear goal, clear set of rules, and a clear way to receive feedback makes any meeting enjoyable and if participation is optional and opt-in, the four essentials for a satisfying game exist. When a meeting is set up as a good game, each participant can locate themselves within the flow of the game and enjoy the experience.

Here are a few pointers from Mezick.

Have one conversation. Try to establish the rule that when one person talks, everyone else listens. Forbid side conversations and over-talking.

Make meetings manageable. If we always have marathon meetings, we need to ask: Why are they so? Why is this the normal? Can we break meetings up into smaller meetings? Long meetings are drag. We need to game our meetings by making them short and adding clearly defined breaks for longer meetings, so people can pace themselves.

Provide feedback on how the meeting is progressing. This can be a Task Board or a set of agenda items with empty check boxes. Anything that visibly indicates progress.

Practice 5: Manage Your Boundaries

Mezick tells us to be mindful of boundaries. Fuzzy boundaries require constant negotiation. Clear boundaries do not. Agreed-upon boundaries create containment. Fuzzy boundaries tend to favour people who have negotiation skills.

We need to focus on boundaries expressed in time, expressed as tasks and expressed as physical territory.

When in a development mode we should loosen boundaries to encourage discussion and dialogue. When seeking agreement we should tighten boundaries for tight definitions.

In summary, without boundary management, every behaviour is normal. Everything is up for negotiation. When good boundary management is in play, all energy can be focused on the work.

Practice 6: Socialise Books

It wouldn’t be fair for us to re-affirm our commitment to learning from books and Mezick supports this belief. He suggests we shape, confirm, and validate our culture by making books widely available. By doing this for our tribe, we make a high-impact statement about our culture and commitment to collective learning.

He tells us to use the active socialisation of books to signal what we value: by making books available we state that our organisation values learning.

Such a statement supports the development of a tribal learning culture and can be used as a focal point for socialising. We can develop opportunities for face-to-face meetings, reading circles, and discussion groups around the books. In turn the people that actively participate are signalling their own willingness to commit themselves to the new culture: tribal learning.