Business Columns & Blogs

Nancy Napier on Creativity: Venn diagrams and organizations

Remember when you learned about Venn diagrams? I can almost pinpoint the time and place because I was so excited. It felt like a secret door had opened, and I joined millions of others who’d known about them since John Venn developed those crafty circles around 1880.

Venn diagrams just made so much sense, and I use them a lot, probably in ways they weren’t intended for showing how mixing red and yellow make orange, for understanding things like what’s the “overlap between animals with two legs and animals that fly?” I even use them to show overlap (or gap) between what I want to do and how close I am to being in that perfect place.

I do fairly well in most of my Venn diagrams showing “where I want to be and where I am in life” but in some, the overlap is skimpy. But because I know how hard it is for me to increase that overlap (“where I want to be” and “where I am),” I understand what some leaders face when they deal with their own form of Venn diagrams, looking at “desired state vs. actual state” of their organizations.

One area that leaders wrestle with a lot is developing and maintaining strong organizational cultures. In particular, we’ve talked about the difference between the values they want for their organizations and the cultures they have, which aren’t always the same.

Values are the ideal desired state — how organizational leaders want the organization to be, such as a place where people show integrity, respect others, or exhibit teamwork. Culture is how those values are shown (or not) through the ways that people get things done. Again, in the ideal world, the Venn circles of values and culture would overlap a lot. But they don’t always. An organizational value statement may say, “we value work-life balance,” but then managers demand long hours or provide little support for employees who have children or elderly parents with chronic illnesses who need more flexible work hours.

As the leaders I work with say, “you get the culture that you allow to happen.” If the values include respect for others, but the behaviors that employees show each other do not, then the default will be lack of respect because that’s what people see happening.

The power of culture matching values is phenomenal, when it happens. Recently I was at a meeting with several influential senior leaders. A student had joined me to help take notes. One of the CEOs led the meeting, and at the end of it, went around the table asking for any last comments from each person, except my student, whom he skipped over. I thought of jumping in to suggest the student might have ideas but stopped, figuring it was the CEO’s meeting.

After the meeting, the student and I met with the CEO on another project. He apologized immediately.

“Respect for others is huge in my organization and I did not show you that. I forgot your name so I skipped over you. I’m sorry.”

That behavior, that manifestation of his values through his action said more about what his organization cares about than any statement on any wall. It was a tiny piece of Venn diagram nirvana, where the two circles of values and culture, overlap almost completely.