A most valuable perspective

Assimilation - sHow quickly does your culture assimilate outsiders?

The most memorable compliment I have ever received from a client, was this: “The most valuable thing about you, Martyn, is that you know nothing.”

Memorable, partly for the obvious reason that it’s such a curious “compliment”, but I think it has stuck with me so long because it also encapsulates the value of an outside perspective.

To contextualise, I’d just completed a strategy process with a charity in, what was for me, a new part of the sector, and because I’d enjoyed it so much, I asked the CEO if she would be willing to introduce me to others in a similar niche.

She said she would be delighted, but to manage my expectations, warned me that they probably wouldn’t be interested (she was right) because they tended only to work with people with years of experience in their area, “which is ironic”, she continued, “because…” and then delivered that fabulous line.

In response to my quizzical look, she explained that because I wasn’t steeped in the preconceptions, norms and biases, I asked the simple, basic, but ultimately quite powerful questions, and I forced them to think differently and to question their own assumptions.

I was flattered. I think.

A few months later I was helping a well-known commercial brand think about how they could transform their customers’ experience. In the first meeting with their executive team, there was huge pressure for me to get out to visit lots of their sites, the unspoken subtext being very clear – my opinions on how things could be, had no value unless I had been immersed in how things were.

I asked them how many site visits each of them had done since they joined the organisation (collectively it was in the thousands) and what they thought I’d see that they hadn’t. We then talked about fresh perspectives and why they’d engaged me in the first place, and they got the message.

And by the end of the process, every single one of them got the value.

Of course, the real reason they wanted me to do the visits was not because it would add value to the conversation. It was because it would make them feel more comfortable if I’d been through their initiation. I would be less threatening, less challenging, less radical, if I they knew my thinking was grounded and bounded in the same way theirs had become.

I was given a brilliant word to describe this effect in a recent conversation about culture change with a group of charity CEOs.

I’d just observed that it’s invariably rebels, outsiders and misfits, rather than conformists, that create change; and yet we recruit for “fit”, we induct to help people “fit in”, we use mentors and internal coaches to help them adapt to the ways of the organisation.

“You’ve hit the nail on the head here,” said one of the CEOs, reflecting on bringing in trustees for their sharp commercial minds, only to find them almost changing personality when they walk into the board meeting because “it’s a charity!”

“I call it assimilation,” said another, “We bring someone in to help lead change and within three months they’ve been assimilated. Sometimes charity culture is almost like a cult.”

Just as structures and strategies need to change and evolve, so do organisational cultures – we all know this.

But to do that, we need to start recruiting people not because they will fit in, but because they will stand out; to use inductions not just to provide them a basic understanding, but to encourage them to ask us those basic, challenging questions; and we need to start coaching and supporting them, not to adapt to the norms of the organisation, but to engage with the organisation to adapt those norms to fit the future.

So, my question to you is, if three months is the benchmark, how quickly does your culture assimilate promising outsiders?

And how much valuable outsider perspective are you missing because of it?

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