Organizacional Culture: Complexity, Stories and the Path to Better Decision Making

When we face a group or organization, a collective that carry their stories and ways of making decisions, how do we understand and evaluate current results and redirect for different results?

One complex emergent factors when relating to a group of people is the culture that is created to sustain their relations. How to understand and be conscious of that culture? How to identify which decisions are recurring and maintained that eventually trap the collective into an unsustainable state? How to possibly steer to another direction?

It is not possible to work with culture based purely in analytical ways. Searching known practices of the past overlooks the property of culture recreating itself on every day choices.

In order to work with culture while acknowledging its complexity, there are three tenets that are supportive to go beyond comparing to the past:

  1. Contextualised Content
  2. Disintermediation
  3. Collective Judgement

Those three tenets will support developing the assumption of this approach which is to investigate how we are making the decisions we are making in the moment we make them.

That does not through away analysis and hypothesis, since we also reflect to understand the past decisions we are sustaining with the current one and why. By focusing in what decisions we are using to base our current choices, we can choose and act better in the future.

In order to surface current decisions in a culture, we ask for stories that are alive in an organisation, but do so following the three tenets below.

Contextualised Content

Do you remember that story that made sense when told in a party but did not have the same effect on your business meeting? Or the joke that is just not funny when you cross the border?

Every text has its container, its context. Stories work the same way. To collect stories and register them off context makes them either vague or transformed into something else by the listener who carries in himself a different context.

One strategy to separate text and context is to create a concept, an abstraction. Have you ever heard about Ubuntu or Ikigai, for example?

How many organisations carry the same concept described in a different form? What do they really mean in context?

This also happens when we transform our daily experiences into an abstract representation using a list of values, basic needs or archetypes.

Abstraction can be valid and representative, but if created by one and interpreted by others stripped of context, it’s common that narratives are normalised and therefore loose their originality together to the weak signals that make them unique and powerful for the original environment.


The proverb says: “tale never loses in the telling”, which the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs explains: “A story is very often exaggerated or embellished by the people who tell it”.

Disintermediation is to work to exclude the interpretation by a middleman, to get the narratives and the data associated with them directly form the teller to the relevant decision maker.

In order to exclude the middleman, instead of having someone interpreting narratives and its patterns, we invite the tellers themselves to interpret their own stories publicly.

In this process we withdraw the filter of whom did not live the tale and preserve the story so it can be judged directly from the source.

One common way to intermediate is to create an abstraction, like mentioned above. Another is the side effect of hierarchy, where in many cases the information is chewed by one and then eaten by the decision maker, something that might be effective when analyzing P&L, but not so much in matters of understanding culture. When decision makers are far from the source, a known sentence emerges in the corridors: “they don’t know how things really work here”.

Collective Judgement

Besides retiring out middleman, there is always a need to carefully look to out inside man. This is to look inside ourselves, our interpretative lenses that can challenge us. How can we protect ourselves from the common tendency of judging the way we always judge?

One way to work this tendency, specially when in a collective space like an organization, is to open spaces to allow matters to be collective judged.

Our goal here, facing the stories we have collected from organizations and communities, is to them judge more and not less. Here is not about suspending judgement, but quite the opposite, to twist them together embracing more views.

Judgements are richer when intertwined by the people who carry relevant context for decision making, allowing broader options for future steps.

Better Decisions

Organizational culture is about complex decision making in a collective environment. To relate to cultural phenomena, projects should be interpretative by nature and not purely analytical, bringing stories rather than concepts; should be interpreted by the source of stories so weak signals are not filtered out; and finally should allow for intertwined interpretations, an encounter of many judgements rather than a single one.

This conversational approach might not have been practical in the past due to our inability to structure productive collective conversations, so the only option was to divide and conquer. This is not the case anymore: we can have better, more complete and more collectively owned judgement of organizational culture by approaching it in conversation.

Alterophobia 3 – Afraid of the Other

Chapter III – Being Different and Dealing with Difference

Imagine being different in a world of equals? Imagine to be at home “Here” and not knowing what you can expect “There”?

How would it feel to be the only one with a beard in a world of unbearded people? How would a world which does not know what a “beard” is deal with you? How would you, the only beard individual, deal with it?1

How does one deal with the unknown if that possibility has never been explored before? And what if this new possibility triggers a complex situation that is extremely hard to process?

Peoples’ reactions when facing complex issues have been present in our society these days. Reactions towards minorities, the team we are playing against, anything that are different really.

How do I deal with difference of colour, belief, ideology and sexual orientation? How do I deal with the other who process the world differently than me?

Defense Strategies

Generalizations, putting people into preconceived boxes, fight and flight are some of the automatic strategies to defend ourselves from the challenge of being in contact with difference.

Difference troubles us.

We talked about how hard it is to deal with the complexities of the world. As a coping mechanism, we judge and pre-judge in ways we can create approximations of things we don’t understand by making them more simple or connected to something already part of our current reality.

It’s just the way we work. The problem starts when our approximations do not answer the challenges anymore. When that happens we cannot continue to operate based on old judgements and it is likely that we will be flooded by emotions like confusion, anger, frustration.

Can this emotional flooding be prevented?

Could the reaction of being afraid of the other simply our natural defense mechanism?

If we can’t prevent it, what should we do? What could prepare us for this moment?

Strategies to Live With the Different

To accept that we have a tendency to simplify the world and also that difference can put us in reaction mode can, at one hand, relief us from the burden: we accept we are indeed reductionists without feeling guilty and also that we can sometimes judge the different as a threat automatically.

If this is to be human, we are human beings.

But being human does not justify acting in inhuman ways.

How to respond rather than react to this ‘reaction mode’ we fall in? How to respond to a cultural shock, a threaten belief or the inconceivable?

How can we be wholly responsible for the responses we give?

I don’t believe this is a question for an individual to tackle. We are not able to answer well to the things we are unable to see or when we are in reaction mode.

If we believe that sometimes we might be like this and in those cases we just can’t handle, what can we end up doing when we ourselves are not enough to handle something?

I’d imagine that one can ask for help. You can ask for help for those who walk this life journey with you, family, friends…

This work is not individual work, it is relational work. It is work to process collectively, in group or within a community.

The more diverse the community is and the more this diversity is shown and discussed explicitly, less transparent the world will be and bigger will be our capacity to respond. The more we are capable to respond, the closer we are to integrity as individuals, collectives and as humans.

Recognize the fear of difference is the first step towards, with the support of others, responding with integrity and courage to the complex world we live in .

  1. To see what comes out of this story please check the great The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil.

Alterophobia 2 – Afraid of the Other

Chapter II – The Need to Control

Why do we need to be in control, to generate previsibility and create a purposeful future?

I believe this need for control has little to do with our personality or “level of consciousness”. My sense is that is might be deeply rooted in the way we are as human beings.

And the way we are as human beings in two different domains: our biological nature and our social nature. Despite the first being very present in the last decades, informing us about how we work as biological beings (take neuropsychology, for instance), it all falls short when we do not take into account the way we relate as human beings, our social construction and fabric together.

Relational and Social Complexity

We are relational beings and use language to structure how we relate as a collective. We bring our learnings, including the ones on our biological complexity, to the domain of language.

It is by the use of language that we give meaning to the world and our lived experiences. And those experiences can be fully predicted. It is uncommon to known in advance and be in control of what will unfold of them.

Think about what happens when you meet someone for the first time – how many possibilites can unfold from that! The sensation of not knowing how the other will respond. Or how a group, an institution or someone at your family will respond to the “abnormal” situation that has just happened.

How do we deal with the constant complexity of the relational and social world?

Not a ride in the park, I’d say. Minimum side effects are us going through emotions like anxiety and fear or physical sensations like goosebumps and a revolting stomach. All typical of the emotional beings that we are.

There are, of course, strategies. One way of dealing with the ocean of complexity is through reducing, individually and collectively, our possibilities: we create deals, routines, habits and institutions, all to make sense of a world where everything changes in such an unpredictable way.

It is those creations we simplify the world, create certain previsibility and then soothe our social operations.

We can reduce the unexpected by creating agreements and conventions. Remember the meeting someone for the first time? Soon you might be talking about the weather, traffic, politics or about something that has in common the fact that we have little agency about it.

It is a relief: we can relax from the complexities of the world for a while. For a while, but for how long?

Next Chapter of the Alterophobic series… Being Different and Dealing with Difference:

How to deal with something I don’t know how to deal with? What do I do when I don’t know what to do?

Alterophobia: Afraid of the Other

Chapter I – Anxiety of the Unknown

What can be more terrifying than what we haven’t yet come across? How much our own imagination can travel way beyond our experiences to imagine a negative future?

I was part of a training some years ago in the exact moment when moving to another country, an unknown place for an unknown period of time. When I shared my anxiety with the group, our very experienced facilitator brought what in her definition meant to be anxious. Anxiety, she said, comes with making a negative prediction of the future.

Why would I project a negative future about moving to this new place?

I definitely could find reasons and create stories of a change that wasn’t sucessful, but when taking the time to explore more, I could also find reasons and stories to support the very opposite. My previous experience could inform me that a culture change would mean challenges but also learnings and sweet discoveries.

And in knowing all that, why create a negative version of the future?

I went on to imagine that what makes us (me) anxious has to do with not knowing what story will unfold. Not knowing makes us (me) apprehensive and afraid. Something about not being in control of my story, about not knowing what will happen, that brings up these emotions.

And even if I repeatedly heard the central motto of many self-help books about there: control both the present and the future is a myth, how to actually deal with this?

If with this investigation emerges a possible answer, there might be a self-help book with my name out there one day. 🙂

The next chapter on the Alterophobic series… The Need to Control:

Why do we feel we need to be in control, to create previsibility and a future purpose?

Conversational Competencies | The Work of the Present

Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction. – Bakhtin

Our capacity to produce alone or even to accumulate knowledge fail to grant us more power and influence in today’s systems.

To act better we need to increase our conversational competence, our capacity to coordinate our perception with others, in a process of continuous shared construction.

Why a conversational focus?

Conversation is the primary form of intervention of the century: it is how we act, we work and we produce today. We are in a world where conversational work takes the central place in our daily actions, leaving manual work behind for good.

If Taylor was the reference in productivity for organising peoples actions over time, today the greater part of production lies on people coordinating actions among themselves.

What changed?

Doing-together is mandatory because complexity in our current issues do not allow the presence of an omniscient entity with the ability to distribute concatenated actions from beginning to end. Instead, we have the need to pay attention in a wider range of issues at the same time so we can produce something of relevance.

This reality asks for many people paying attention to interconnected parts of the whole at the same time they are creating a process of continuous coordination among them.

How do we coordinate? We coordinate via conversations, manipulating language, closing agreements, making and fulfilling promises so the collaboration among many becomes effective.

There are things that can be produced individually, but the complexity of our time, of our systems and issues at hand indicate it is time for collective production more than ever before.

What are the competencies to produce together that we should learn to value?

On Loneliness and Responsibility

The Experience of Learning | Why You Should Be Less Productive and Stay More Present

We are in the productivity era. The work seems to be finding a way to get things done better, faster and simpler. It all looks good, but our focus on productivity is killing our experience of learning.

Yes, being more productive is also preventing you to learn. Here is why.

Of course I want to be productive, so sometimes I ask myself the question ‘how can I do this better?’ and then instantly my mind goes for a walk and I enter in organising mode, trying to put order on my mess.

In my case, where learning opportunities are being ‘produced’, be better at producing led me to think that focusing on productivity works more like a knitting obsession.



You can get ten thousand hours of not-learning-much by focusing on productivity.

In fact, many people stay years in school just doing that: producing mostly useless material, sometimes thriving on being trained on something, but learning very little.

I’d say the big bad wolf here relates to anxiety, anticipation, expectation.

While becoming anxious in producing learning for ourselves or others, we don’t actually experience learning. And with no experience, what you end up getting is just another set of stuff in your toolbox or bookshelf, another energy and focus drainer made to prevent you from keep on flowing and actually learning something after all.

Learning is like water flowing out of the source. It is an event where one pays attention to the now, to the moment when an offer becomes available to be recognised and there is an opportunity to stare at it in awe.



So this is it: when people say learning, they usually mean training. To learn the piano, algebra or Japanese means to do a lot of training until you get good at it.

And to master chords, maths and kanjis are wonderful achievements, so go for your classes and practices, but don’t clutter. Not jumping to the next item on your checklist allows you to listen to the key learning opportunities, the ones which pull the rug from under your feet.

Those opportunities happen when you are paying attention to the experience of being here and now.

Authority, Power and Experience

What is the connection between Authority, Power and Experience?

I’ve learned that authority is not related to “being an author”, but rather with growing, making it grown. And also that ‘to have power’ or ‘be powerful’ means being capable of performing a deed.

We can make our power to influence and action grow, our capacity to act on something, when we have authority. To be an authority means to grow our actions so they carry more power, they generate more possibilities.

To have authority and power does not mean to be pre-potent, to be someone who puts his own power ahead, before everything else. Our power and authority can be at service, it can be both great and humble.

Power comes from Authority

To have more capacity to and for something means to have grown in the direction of being capable. To have power is the result of making our capacity grow, of being an authority.

This wasn’t (and still isn’t) always the case. In past societies, authority could be declared by birth right or divine decision, for the ones belonging to one specific societal cast or having a specific role. This type of authority was many times considered unauthentic as it would not be a result of perceived capacity from others.

Looking to it in our current social system, authority is normally declared in a specific system in which we can see many domains and dimensions. We can be an authority of law but not an educational one, or a political authority but not an artistic one, etc.

Every human system and subsystem defines what it takes to be an authority and have power within the system. The capacities of whom has power are also very different, both in terms of distinct domains and in levels of expertise.

To look at distinct domains it is sufficient to imagine the developed capacities of a sumo wrestler compared with a buddhist monk, or a CEO and a ballerina.

On leves of expertise, we can vary from beginner to a master’s level in a given capacity. [1]

Levels of Expertise
MasterObserved and/or participated in practical historical changesDesires and it is capable of reinventing the practice facing the world’s changing context
VirtuousSuccessful output in past practices in a variety of different contextsMoves without deliberation in the world of practice, produce excellence in others
ExpertPast actions with a number of situations, and experience with its consequencesPerforms with excellence and starts to see the practice in its world context
CompetentReacted previously to symptoms and has initial practical experience in the domainCan complete satisfactory practices in clients and community
Advanced BeginnerUsed in the past rules that relate situational characteristics with concrete actionsStarts to recognise aspects of practical situations as symptoms of future possibilities
BeginnerUndertook previous practices on related domainsFollow rules, instructions and standard practices previously learnt

Capacity Over the Self

These capacities can be, like the examples above, functional, and are capacities that enable us to perform an activity with greater expertise.

Regardless of domain and level or authority in a functional capacity, we can always explore in us human beings our capacity over ourselves. It is in this capacity of self mastery that new possibilities emerge that were once hidden.

Personal mastery is not necessarily a result of a specific practice since every journey towards a functional capacity is a journey to knowledge and most likely to self knowledge as well.

Despite that, a conscious self knowledge practice allows us to observe ourselves while walking the path at the time of the journey itself.

The tipping point to greater levels of expertise are perhaps conditioned to a true journey of self knowledge as a way to allow a deep knowledge of something.

This is related to the fact that knowing is connected a great deal with the observers of the world that we have being. When we broaden our observer, we also judge with better discernment and with more authority.

Authority comes from Experience

Both functional and self authority is connected to experience. To become a master in a specific function requires many hours of experience in it [2], while becoming a master of oneself might be a lifelong task for everyone.

Lived experience becomes embodied capacity and is this is the form of authority that we experience as authentic in ourselves and we recognise in others.

Think about someone you admire… Admiration is the result of watching and recognising an embodied capacity in someone else, regardless of our desire to achieve that capacity level or not. We admire authority and mastery.

Authority is always declared, but has more power when it is recognised as authentic by the self and others.

How does our experience translates into authority? What have we done to become an authority in the things that matter to us? And to become an authority over ourselves?

  1. Flores, Fernando (1994) “Creando Organizaciones para el futuro”, Dolmen Chile. Bear similarity to something called Inspired by the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition.  ↩
  2. Some authors, like the pop Gladwell, says that 10000 hours of practice are needed for experience in a field. There are other opinions and theories written at Business Insider and at the BBC.  ↩

In Our Work with Groups

You and the Collective

Just out on another day of hosting a group of people doing their business in collaboration.

When things go well, ego invites to the dream that it was all about how wonderful my work is and how great I was today, but time had shown that it’s not about me at all. People are just good at doing this.

At the same time, our work hosting groups is essential as an instrument to sustain the experience of collaboration and not let the conversation fall into the same old patterns usually in place. Those learned patterns are revisited so many times that it’s like falling into an old habit.

On the other hand, when things go a bit sour, we can again choose the path of taking it on our incompetence or inability – much of the same “it’s all about me” behaviour – or even just blame an external source of disaster and become the poor victim of it all.

Either way, both carry the assumption of conversations being mere cause and effect events that can be simplified by finding something or someone to blame and, of course, to fix it.

It’s never about us and also we play an essential role in it.

We are both insignificant to what will unfold and at the same time essential as we create context and container for it.

Context, Container and Content

In this work we listen and act understanding and choosing the conditions needed and then paying attention when things are unfolding.

Those can be expressed in 3 Cs: Container, Context and Content.

Before we even meet the group as a whole, we are up and running to create context and container for the conversation, usually with a great deal of previous work, some interviews to adquire language, a good choice of space and structure, etc.

Here, though the energy is diluted, is where 80% of the amount of work is done. Context and container will do some of the important work later on.

And finally when we meet, it is time for the art of being present and some deep listening to be aware of shifts in context and the emergence of content – being those feelings, actions or concepts.

This is energy intensive but less quantitative work. One does not see much being done as the job is really to just stand there paying attention.


Read More

  • Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!: Ten Principles for Leading Meetings That Matter – Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff – e-book at Amazon
  • The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter – Juanita Brown, David Isaacs and the World Cafe Community – e-book at Amazon
image by garlandcannon

We are made of stories

I’ve heard that we are made of stories, not atoms. At school, where we study people both in biology and history*, I did think we could be both. Specially because there are people who are not biology anymore but are still history and even some people that have never been biology, but are definitely part of who we are.

Atoms fall short in representing the greatness of the human family. Beyond structure, what makes us human are the stories we’ve been told and the ones we choose to tell.

We meet to build trust among ourselves and then replicate the stories (and history) that we choose to replicate and also to decide collectively on the additions and subtractions we want to make on them. Trust is what feeds social conviviality. From trust derives the knowledge of how to be together. From knowing how to be together all other knowledges emerge.

Most of our gatherings take place for us to build and rebuild trust so we can continue to agree and disagree together. Gatherings are spaces to generate stories for the collective and are in them that we are made, remade and unmade.

As the future has been built from our actions, we are in the past the stories we tell, in the future the declarations we make, and in the present we are the meeting of both things, represented in the choices we collectively make in every moment.

If we are really made of stories we’ve got to nurture them more. Not the stories directly, since they are our mothers and can take care of themselves, but to nurture the spaces of trust that can feed them.



* In Portuguese, original language of this article, we use the same word for story and history.