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Culture Devours Strategy for Lunch (the Jackson version)

This blog is unapologetically focused on the future, not the past. It is meant to start a conversation with the community I love that helps each one of us consider the part we play in moving us Forward. It’s up to us, right here, right now, to stop apologizing and complaining and do something different. It is meant to spark constructive conversations that focus on the positive.

Culture Devours Strategy for Lunch (the Jackson version) “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” is a famous quotation attributed to the late business management guru Peter Drucker. When I read some of Mr. Drucker’s books in college (shout out to Spring Arbor University’s MBA program!), I wouldn’t have thought then that we might be able to translate some of these business concepts into the complex ways our community is trying to make change happen. The culture in our community can keep us stuck from moving our community forward even when it looks like we have good strategies.

If you don’t know it already, we have been gradually building a culture of collaboration right here in Jackson County that feels tangibly different and is intentionally being built for sustainability. I had an opportunity to talk with a new(er) leader in our community, Tim Rogers of the Enterprise Group, our economic development engine in Jackson County. He said he noticed almost immediately, that the culture of collaboration in Jackson was different than other communities he has worked in, that there is an expectation that we will work together to get “hard things” done, and that we aren’t afraid to take “hard conversations” head on.

So, what exactly were Mr. Drucker and Mr. Rogers talking about? Let’s define the key words first. Culture is a way of life of a group of people – the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next. The verb eat, is to put (food) into the mouth and chew and swallow it, but I prefer the word devour, which is to eat up greedily or ravenously. Strategy is a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim (most every business, nonprofit, city and county has one on paper somewhere on a shelf). Lastly, breakfast is a meal eaten in the morning, the first of the day. It seems to me, that most of my Jackson peers prefer lunch over breakfast, a light meal typically eaten at midday. Even though we do have many breakfast meetings around town, we really, really like to meet for lunch.

In other words, people are loyal to culture, not strategy. Culture influences the ways in which we behave even though our strategies show we are trying to do something different. Most of the time, we don’t even know that there might be a disconnect between what we say we want to accomplish and what we are really doing. That is why cultural change and systems change is so hard because we focus on building strategic plans and even great strategies, but forget that there are lots of cultural things that hold us back. It takes a long time to build a culture of anything (a culture of education, a culture of diversity, a culture of collaboration).

In our community, there are several collaborative groups working together to solve complex social problems like the Jackson County Cradle to Career Network (C2C), the Health Improvement Organization (HIO) and a new one called the Financial Stability Coalition. When you bump into one of these groups, it DOES feel tangibly different. When we talk about why this work feels different, we talk about the culture that is being built around some key values, values that influence our behavior in major ways:

• Relationships, relationships, relationships – We have taken the time, and continue to spend time to build relationship which in turn helps build trust.

• Trust and Transparency – Working together for the long haul means that you must trust each other to at least say the hard things when they need to be said. It also means that each must adhere to the norms of openness and transparency, especially of our individual or organizational needs versus the community’s needs.

• Low Hierarchy – Decision-making happens throughout the network where people who know best can make changes or adjustments when things aren’t going as planned.

• Adaptiveness and Failing Forward – There is an understanding upfront that what we are doing will change, especially if we are following the data. We will need to learn from past mistakes, get over the guilt, blame, shame and try again…quickly.

• Data and Results – EVERYTHING must come back to the data and the results. Who said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”? Ring a bell?!

• Humility and Humor – Even in the tensest moments, we are all just people trying to work together differently because we love the community we live, work and play in and we want to see it grow and thrive. Coming to the table with humility and humor helps, not only to keep building our relationships, but also to realize that this work can be rewarding and fun too.

From that list of values, you can tell that behaving this way takes conscious thought and consideration at every move. It takes patience and an understanding that sometimes it will get messy and we will take some steps backward, but we are in this together.

Culture Devours Strategy for Lunch in ACTION

To help illustrate this concept, here is an example of a real and recent cultural shift in the area of education. K-12 and colleges have often been miles apart on their expectations of student readiness as they prepare to leave high school. C2C received a grant in the amount of $110,000 from the Lumina Foundation, to help build relationships between Jackson High School and Jackson College, specifically by helping African American and low income students to be proficient in the area of math so that they can take credit-bearing math classes when they enroll at the community college. Within months of bringing the two administrations and their educators together, they made a plan to identify students who were planning on going to Jackson College but were too far behind in math. In the last trimester of high school, using an applied math curriculum, an instructor from the college co-taught with a math teacher in the high school. Together they were able to help 8 of 25 students reach college readiness and another 8 raise their math proficiency. Now the two organizations have built relationships, dug into the data, developed trust, learned from their first try, have made plans to improve the program, and are anxious to start this fall to identify students earlier and get the supports they need to be really ready. They have begun to change the culture of education right before our eyes.

The upshot is that Jackson IS accomplishing something incredibly difficult, a cultural shift to collaborate and trust one another for the greater good of our community even if behaving this way might not benefit each individual directly right now. Other communities are watching us and asking us, how the heck did we get this far? I am incredibly proud of our community, I am excited to watch cultural shifts through collaborative efforts in our community, and I can’t wait to see what’s next!

Most of our thinking comes from several articles published since 2011 on the subject of Collective Impact starting with the original article by John Kania and Mark Kramer. Check them out and see what you think! Please share if you think this might be a useful message or part of the ongoing efforts to think, talk, and move Forward. #Forward #conversationswithmycommunity #fireupjackson #experiencejxn #jxnyp #jxncf #TalentTuesdays

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