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Why Culture Must Evolve
"A general principle of the historical development of any system: that the conditions which make possible the coming into being of a state of the system are abolished by that state." - Richard Lewonti
Sustaining excellence is inherently challenging. It's part of why we're fascinated with dynasties in sports. How do the Patriots of the 2000s, Warriors of the 2010s, Bulls of the 1990s, maintain success year after year? How do they manage to stay at the top?
This is the holy grail of performance. How can we dominate year after year?
The answer is: by evolving our culture, year after year.
Too many people think of culture as static. We've been led to believe that the best way to build a culture is to identify values, ask people to adopt and embody those values, and then put posters up on the wall.
We'd rather push forward and focus on the tactical, sexy stuff like "strategy" than spend any more time than necessary building a system to sustain excellence. And it makes sense, because sustaining excellence is hard, and creating a culture isn't so tangible.
It's something you feel when you walk into a building, but sometimes have a hard time describing. Though it's lived out in the behaviors of the organization day-to-day, most people living within the culture would have a hard time clearly articulating what those behaviors are that demonstrate the values and bring about this "feeling" we have when we show up to work.
It's much easier to focus on the plays you need to install next week than it is to identify how your team's current status means the old rules of operating don't apply anymore.
In professional sports, the (mostly failed) solution to this problem has been a rapid turnaround of leaders and coaches. New leaders are brought in to instill a new culture, with the idea that once that culture has been put into place, the conditions will then be set for excellence to materialize. It's like planting seeds, tilling the soil, watering, waiting for the sun, and hoping something incredible blossoms. And then, once it blossoms, deciding it doesn't look quite right, ripping the plant out, and starting over.
Performers are a lot like plants (in this metaphor, anyway). Each time we rip them out, we force them to adjust to a new set of conditions and a new culture, without ever seeing the fruits of the original labor in helping these athletes blossom.
The result is the anti-legacy. Rather than alienate any of those teams, just think about playoff droughts, winless seasons, and the carousels of coaches. We all know who they are.
This is evolution gone wrong.
The quote above illustrates how the conditions required to bring about a certain consequence often become irrelevant as soon as that new state is reached. In the plant metaphor, the conditions required to keep the plants alive and thriving are often different than what helped them blossom. In business lingo, we'd say "what got you here won't get you there."
The most successful coaches are those who make the transition from cultivating to tending. These are very different skills, facilitated by the understanding that the conditions that brought about success in the first place might look materially different from the conditions that will sustain success moving forward. Though some of the principles may stay the same, how they're executed and what's emphasized might be different, and new conditions must be added.
This means that, for coaches and leaders to reach their full potential, they need both the time and opportunity to evolve their cultures.
But coaches and leaders also need to be challenged to consider how they continue evolving their cultures. The greatest all-time coaches give us subtle examples of how to do this all the time. How Coach K started is certainly not how he ended his career. Though some of his core values were evident throughout his tenure, the way he managed his players, coaches, and program evolved as the landscape around him evolved and the needs of his players evolved.
All this points to a need to reimagine the way we think about culture building.
Some Practical Tips for Sustaining a Culture of Excellence
We're not here to tell you that you can't have the same values over time, or that your core principles need to change every year or more often.
What we are here to tell you is that, if you want to sustain excellence, you should expect to change. If the rule is that the conditions required to reach excellence will be abolished as soon as we reach that point, what does it look like to create new conditions to facilitate continued success?
It starts with understanding what's changed about your team. What conditions allowed them to succeed in rising to the top, and how are they different from where they started? With a more accurate awareness of how your team is operating currently, rather than the narrative we are predisposed to hold on to about how they were when we started, you can think more constructively about what this essentially new person needs to be even greater.
The second step is to reimagine expectations. If you've just won the championship or reached the top, it's largely unhelpful to compare yourself to the people you just surpassed. You have to identify how, by focusing solely on yourselves, you can continue to improve. You have to figure out how to surpass yourself.
The final step is to identify what new values, systems, and processes are needed to help you surpass the old best version of yourself/your team. This is where the culture evolves. If you find yourself saying we just need to work harder, you're not working hard enough. Really think critically about what your team needs to embody to reach new heights, without the added motivation of being the underdog or having a clear benchmark outside your group to aspire to.
Though this list is simplified and there's nuance at every step, the key is really in the final step. If you believe that just doing steps 1 and 2 will allow you to sustain success, you're suffering from the arrival fallacy - the idea that once we achieve a certain stature, we'll remain that way. To remain at the top, you have to evolve.