How to facilitate discussions on culture

Culture matters, but it’s hard to explore what the culture looks like in a company. In my earlier article on How to Foster Culture Change to Increase Agility, I shared my thoughts on what culture is and provided a way to visualize and explore culture with the Culture Cards. This article shows how you can use these cards to facilitate discussions around your team or company culture.

Setting up the cultural exercise

Let’s look at a session that I facilitated where a group of people wanted to share stories on culture to learn from each other and come up with ideas to coach culture change in their teams. I decided to do an exercise with them using the Culture Cards. The words on the cards can help people discover the existing culture or define a wanted or required culture.

For this online session. I picked six cards with one word on culture. I deliberately selected cards that had a challenging word, expecting that those words would lead to fruitful and interesting discussions:

I also added a card from the Psychological Safety Cards as a statement on the expected safety that would help us to share and learn:

Next, I explained the exercise to them. After checking in, I asked them to pick a card and talk about how their culture looks, how that works for them, what challenges it poses, what they would like to see changed,

Sharing insights on culture

Once a couple of people had joined my space and after checking if we were ready to start, I asked the attendees if there was a word on one of the cards that relates to their current culture. It could be something that they struggle with or something that they are proud of.

Triggered by the words, people started talking and sharing their stories. One person explained how the culture in their company felt toxic which made it hard to bring up any topic. It just didn’t feel safe, and this lack of safety has killed many initiatives.

Another person jumped in and mentioned how their culture went from feeling toxic to becoming brave and exciting. Several persons asked questions, being genuinely interested in how that went and made the culture change possible It is amazing to see how a card with just one word can trigger such a discussion.

The card with autonomous also brought up interesting discussions. Too much autonomy can lead to disconnection as we learned. But too little isn’t good either as teams might not feel empowered to take action.

We had many great exchanges between people on identifying cultures. The session that I facilitated provided a safe environment for people to share and learn from each other.

What we learned

When debriefing the session, several learnings were brought up by the attendees. Here are some that I recall.

We saw that the same word can lead to very different experiences. Also, words can have different meanings to people. And that’s ok. It’s their personal story that counts, not the word that is on the card. The cards act as enablers and they help to visualize discussions

Giving just one word can help people to express their feelings about culture. Similar to a one-word retrospective exercise, this is a simple but powerful format. Sometimes one word is all you need to bring out the story, on other occasions, it’s a starter that helps people check in and start discussing something that matters to them.

Visualizing using words can make it easier to talk about something. I don’t know if there’s any psychology behind it, but seeing the words tends to get people talking. It seems to be easier having cards with the word on it than when you say the word, both onsite and online. And it’s certainly much easier than just asking people to explain or describe their culture.

I got the question if the cards also have definitions of the terms, or if these are available for facilitators using the cards. My answer was no, I don’t want to define them. The words are there to foster discussions. Providing a definition might interfere with that. The words can be looked up in any dictionary, so if you’re unsure about the meaning, just look it up.

While having just one word makes the cards so powerful, “a fool with a tool is still a fool”. You need to have good facilitation skills and knowledge of cultural aspects to play with them.

Download the cards

If you would like to work on the culture in your team or organization to increase agility, if you want to help people focus and jointly work on a cultural blocker, or if you want to leverage cultural strengths, then the Culture Cards and Psychological Safety Cards are there as a tool for you.

Feel free to share your experiences from working with culture in the comments.

Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

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