September and January are two months in the year when I feel called to pause and reflect on my efficiency and effectiveness, both personally and professionally. These are times for me when I find myself performing an audit of what I do and how I do it, asking myself the familiar Dr. Phil question, “How’s that working for you?” In this audit-mode I am looking at inputs and outputs; I am trying to look across my life portfolio and seek out what’s working well, and what are the areas where I am losing time and energy. I’m trying to get back in control of things, to be proactive in my behaviors and rituals, not reactive, so that I don’t run around like a fire-fighter trying to stamp out little fires that threaten to engulf my productivity and peace of mind.
I’m not sure if it is worse now than at previous historical times; I’m not sure if technology is to blame for the problem or what we should look to for the solution; but I am convinced that individuals and organizations are maxed out, stressed out, pressed for time, short on resources, and challenged to achieve greater results with less. This reality often means that our first instinct is to think that there isn’t time to reflect on what we do and how we do it; we have to go hard, go fast, go now.
I get it; I really do. As a father of four, the head of an organization, as a person involved in church, community and my kids’ school, I get it. We don’t have the time or resources we need to do what we want to do, the way we ought to do it. But, this is in fact, the very reason why we have to continuously establish and recover intentionality in our lives. INTENTIONALITY: there’s no more important concept, for achieving your goals with efficiency and effectiveness. Why do we do what we do, when we do it, in the way we do it?—if you’re not sure of the answers, slow down for a minute to recover some intentionality and watch your efficiency and effectiveness improve.
This is at the center of work at the Institute for Excellence & Ethics—shaping intentional culture. Culture is generally defined as the shared values, beliefs, and operational norms of a group or organization. It’s a shared way. Leaders shape culture by establishing and reinforcing the shared norms and organizational habits. It is in and through your shared organizational habits that individual habits are shaped. As Aristotle put it, “Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit. It is what we are repeatedly lead to do.”
Whether you hold the title “leader” or not, you are a leader. In some part of your life, in some portion of your day, you are a leader, whether you’re a teacher, a coach, a parent, a spouse, an employer or employee. As the head of your group you have the opportunity (and responsibility) to repeatedly lead those in your group to do things your way; if you lead them to repeatedly and consistently do things your way they will in turn develop habits as a result. It takes time and energy; but you can either spend time intentionally shaping the culture to develop the positive habits needed for the realization of your core mission, or spend time reactively responding to the negative behaviors shaped by the unintentional de facto culture—what John Dewey called “mis-education” or “collateral learning.” (Sounds like: “No, not like that, like this.” “Not that way, this way”).
Pick a classroom, family, team, or organization that stands out to you for its exceptionality, and you will invariably find great intentionality regarding their organizational habits—they
do things a very specific way, for a very specific reason. There is also intensity: deliberate guided education and practice promotes fidelity; commitment of resources (especially time), and strong accountability leads to widespread buy-in ensuring that the shared norms are pervasive throughout the organization—not relegated to “pockets of excellence.”
Intense and intentional cultures leave a mark on the individual; as the sociologist Gerald Grant described it, these are cultures that “imprint.” It’s not just that they technically
or functionally fulfill their core mission, but rather that the organizational habits—how
they fulfill their core mission—are done with such intensity and intentionality that a distinctive organization mark is transferred onto the individual, which is evident in their personal habits (i.e., character). For example, a school culture that imprints certainly fulfills its core mission to transfer knowledge from teachers to students; but, in an intentional culture of excellence and ethics there is significant attention paid to developing the character and culture needed for the general philosophy and specific pedagogy,paying as much attention to how we do things, as to what we do.
The key to shaping intentional culture is developing and regularly renewing your foundational rituals and routines. Thoughtful rituals and routines are so important because they operationalize our espoused values and ensure that they are in fact lived reality—and they do so in an efficient and consistent way. So, If you espouse a commitment to trust, respect, teamwork, and collaboration, and see these as essential to accomplishing your core mission, then you can’t leave it to chance your group will figure out how to live these out in the context of your shared work together. Therefore, you need to define HOW you do things so that those animating values are experienced. The espoused values must be linked to clearly defined operative verbs. For example, espoused value: trust. Operative verbs to define: communicate like this, negotiate like this, work in groups like this, solve problems like this, etc. What we believe must be linked to intentional norms for HOW we will live.
Defining what we do and how we do it will contribute to overall efficiency and effectiveness. In an effort to be more intentional, consider the following: Can you identify and describe the
“signature practices”—those strategies, norms, or organizational habits that render on your group members the “distinguishing marks” (i.e., character) of the classroom, family, school, team, or organization? Not a list of things you do (we eat together, we have an awards ceremony, we go away together, etc.), but a description of HOW what you do is done with intensity and consistency so that they result in a set of shared ideas, beliefs, and habits that uniquely impact and define their group.
Ask yourself this around any ritual or habit of your group: “how does doing this, this way, help us to more fully realize our mission and goals?” List the practices of your group and ask
yourself, “why do we do it this way?” And, “is there anything we could change or improve to that would add intentionality so that we better reach our goals?Look across your organization or group and ask yourself: “What are the areas where we are routinely expending resources to reactively respond to problems, inefficiencies, and inconsistencies?” “What habits have begun to detract from their intended purpose and the core organizational philosophy and goals?” “What lived habits and behaviors conflict with or are in tension with their espoused value (e.g., we are doing this to build trust, but it’s being done in a way that actually undermines trust)?”
If indeed, “we are what we are repeatedly lead to do,” then we must examine our rituals and routines to ensure that they contribute to (and do not detract from) our core mission, shared
values, and stated goals. As Tom Lickona put it, “you must practice what you preach, but you must also preach what you practice.” What do we do? Why do we do it this way? Why is doing it this way better than the other ways? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, or the answers aren’t convincing to you or those you lead, it’s not the end of the world. Intentional culture is not a destination; it’s an ideal to strive for. However, reconsidering and reformulating the what, why, and how of your rituals and routines can pay huge dividends towards becoming more efficient and effective in achieving your goals.