In an earlier post, we gave a very brief account of a major arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s School of Business, designed to create new behaviors in a group of senior project managers in the oil and gas exploration industry. The aim was to create a new culture of ‘open-mindedness’: the ability to form more effective working relationships with the other stakeholders involved in major capital projects and an increased ability to ‘improvise’ – to react quickly and effectively to rapidly changing situations.
In 2011, a major oil and gas exploration company based in the UK set out on an extraordinary, arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and led by Dr. Mark Powell, one of the authors of this article. The company’s senior project managers are responsible for multi-million-dollar exploration projects around the world and the programme was designed, not to give these senior managers enhanced skillsets or new theoretical frameworks, but to change their behaviors and mindsets — to change their culture. More specifically, the aim was to create a new culture, the key element of which could be described as ‘open-mindedness’, in two distinct forms:
Our emerging workforce is not interested in command-and-control leadership. They don’t want to do things because I said so; they want to do things because they want to do them.
~Irene Rosenfeld, CEO, Mendelēz International
In an earlier post, ‘Culture for the age of ideas’, we argued that the culture of many organisations is still unthinkingly based on the old industrial-era mindset of scientific management and command and control. We suggested that there are a number of persistent organizational behaviors that have their origins in this outmoded culture that are now actively preventing the things that modern organisations know they most need: employee engagement, commitment and creativity, for example. This idea was fully explored in our book. My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the age of ideas.
Organizations are communities of people, and when those communities become upset, the organization is in serious trouble.
All organizations face problems from time to time; what matters is whether there is a collective will to solve those problems, or whether the culture of the organization has broken down in some way: when one group of people feels that another group is trying to impose its vision without any real consensus or agreement, for example, or – especially – feels that one group is not acting in the best interests of the organization’s core purpose.
Many modern organizations are locked into a mindset – an organizational culture – that began with the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century Britain and was fully developed during the Second Industrial Revolution in the US. The great success of these revolutions – creating modern business and generating huge wealth – makes it easy to believe that what worked as a way of managing great corporations in the early 1900s is still the best way to run an organization in the twenty-first century. But times have changed.