Inside the Petri Dish: Growing Culture

I’ve just spent 3 days at Next Jump, a tech company based in London, NYC and Boston, on their intense, immersive and infinitely fascinating Leadership Academy. There are 2 things you should know about Next Jump before reading this blog:

img_5810.jpg

  1. they love tech
  2. they want to change the world by transforming workplace culture

There is so much that I have taken away from this incredible experience, and so many approaches, tools and rituals that were striking. But for me what was really fascinating is the ‘riverbed’ of the culture; the slow-moving, ingrained cultural values beneath everything that is done that are constantly reinforced, deliberately practiced and habitualised by the aforementioned approaches, tools, rituals. And I think that to really learn from this experience and work out what to apply to our own organisational culture, it is these underlying cultural design principles that we need to interrogate.

Here are four of these underlying beliefs that really resonated with me:

1. We are what we practice: I had heard a fair bit about Next Jump before attending the Academy, but what I hadn’t appreciated, and what really struck me from very start of the first day, was the absolute belief in the power of practice.

img_5814.jpg
The ‘developmental gym’ that is working at Next Jump

The organisation builds constant opportunities for staff to practice everything, from technical skills, through organisational and leadership experiences to giving/receiving feedback and being more empathic/less arrogant/more confident/less loud/less quiet (delete as appropriate!). In fact, almost everything they do is designed as an opportunity to practice. This training ground mentality means staff are constantly exercising reflection and development.  They are, as we say at school21, ‘comfortable in the uncomfortable’, always working in their ZPD and therefore always learning. In line with this, Next Jump’s hiring approach sees them recruit for coachability, hiring for learner mindset, rather than expert mindset.

One of the tools which is a very noticeable face of their feedback culture is the app that Next Jumpers use to give instant anonymous feedback on meetings, presentations and other working interactions. This was something I had been a little sceptical of before seeing it in action, as I worried that it was a bit of a blunt instrument for critique and ran the risk of reducing face-to-face feedback and talk around development. Again though, the main purpose of this tool is practice; it is of course a means of giving and receiving feedback, but it is also, and more importantly, a tool of deliberately practicing both of these things. We saw this particularly in action in 10x (presentations of personal growth) and Throwdowns (presentations on current projects), where all Next Jumpers give their feedback on the app following the presentation, but then experienced feedbackers (in role as judges) give their critique publicly, modelling best practice and allowing other staff to compare their comments to that of experts in giving feedback; it’s another mode of practice.

2. The best companies have the best coaches: I am a massive fan of coaching, and my personal learnings as both a coach and a coachee whilst at school21 in the last 3 years have been genuinely transformational, so I was really interested in how central to their culture Next Jump hold coaching.  On the first day of our visit, it became clear that company success is down to coaching; the best companies have the best coaches. And so, unlike many organisations who use coaching just for their senior leadership, Next Jump practice ‘coaching at scale‘. This model means that every member of the company from most junior employee to CEO is built into a coaching network, with a talking partner (TP) on the same level and coaching pair of talking partners above them who lead them though ‘situational workshops’ – effectively protocolled problem solving sessions that coaches TP pairs through concerns and blocks. There is also a wider network of additional coaching on top of this.

IMG_5820
A print out of my feedback from the app following a group task – you can see where we drew out trends in a TP conversation – ‘recovery’.

And why? Because Next Jump view coaching as recovery, the vital link between the ‘practice round’ and ‘feedback loop’ mentioned above. This is really interesting – as teachers we spend so much time moving between practice and feedback, but often don’t build in that ritualised ‘recovery’ element, which is vital for contextualising and evaluating/prioritising feedback and raising focus and accountability around growth.

3. Make hiding uncomfortable: There is feedback and feedback right? It’s something that (rightly) gets loads of air-time in education chat and it seems to have got some serious air-time in Next Jump too, where the conversation circles around what ‘bad’ actually is. We are societally conditioned to believe that negative feedback is ‘bad’, but Next Jump want to redefine what ‘bad’ is; bad to them is hiding, not seeking out feedback and not engaging with it. In practical terms, their feedback app (mentioned above) is one of the places where this design principle is actualised. On it, feedback is given via comments and a rating from 1, or ‘below expectations‘, to 4, or ‘far exceeds expectations‘ (see below for example and below for more thoughts on this). Firstly, they normalise to a 2 (meaning the majority of ratings will fall round here – this is when something meets the standards you would expect from them). Secondly, they don’t view getting 1s as bad; they view it as developmental. It feels aligned with Eduardo Briceño’s thinking on categorising mistakes in that it values ‘stretch’ errors and ‘ah-ha moments’ – Next Jump  consider this ‘investment in loss’.

img_5813.jpg
Redefining bad; the grouping of staff based on feedback over time.

Thirdly, they view the directional movement in feedback over time as how ‘bad’ in assessed, rather than the individual feedback itself. This for me is the most interesting bit. One of the functions of the app allows them to map the these shifts in feedback received over time and they group staff into 4 ‘buckets’ based on this. Those trending up and those trending down (investment in loss) are viewed as learning. Those ‘flat’ (sitting on the same feedback ratings over time) and those ‘hiding’ are viewed as not learning. These stats are published; they want to make hiding uncomfortable. One new-ish Next Jumper we spoke to pointed to his name on the ‘hiding’ list saying “Basically I wasn’t putting myself into growth situations” before listing the opportunities he had since put himself into to ensure both risk and feedback.

4. Give away what you are good at: Just yes.

Next Jump’s next jump?

This experience really got me thinking deeply again about both coaching and feedback. Two particular thought/challenges/questions I’d pose to Next Jump on this are:

  1. Do you have the right coaching model/underlying coaching beliefs to really push coachees to transformation? There are a couple of half-formed thoughts I have on this. Firstly, is the ‘backhand’ model the right view for transformational coaching?  It feels like a deficit model believing that we are broken and need fixing. Our ‘backhand’ is an opinion. It is based in the past, in experiences, feelings, memories; opinions. The more we state it as fact, the more it becomes written into our narrative, defining our present (and future), and possibly then holding us in a cycle defined by what has gone before. What if you flipped this, and instead of stating your backhand (“I lack empathy.”) you explored something like your ‘winning strategy’: how you act in the present as a result of your opinions, preconceptions, experiences, the past. To me the other threats of the backhand are it becoming a way of ‘armouring up’/defending ourselves (“well, you know that’s my backhand”), an excuse (“I acted like that because I lack empathy”), or even a catch all cover for problems, which may have more nuanced root causes. I found over my 3 days it almost becomes something to lean in to – I felt more able to play up traits identified as a backhand as they were identified and openly spoken about.  Is this ok? Then, I guess at it’s most extreme end, I’d worry about the backhand becoming what my coaching group recently defined during our explorations around masculinity as ‘Hollywood Vulnerability’; that single tear rolling down the cheek of the action hero as they ‘open up’. All very controlled, very staged; just enough ‘vulnerability’ to show willing, give the people their ’emotion’, but not really going to those most vulnerable places, the place we don’t want to see them and they don’t want to be. And for me, over the week, it was not the backhand, but the Talking Partners (TP) that were often the exposure of true vulnerability. One of the most powerful observations for me was they way every single Next Jumper lit up (literally became animated, gave a cute smile or laughed nervously) when talking about their TP.  This is powerful; this is genuine vulnerability via investment in a relationship and so leaning in to risk. We are hard-wired to be able to self-abuse emotionally, but not to open ourselves to authentic, genuine recognition and gratitude. It takes a real growth mindset to authentically celebrate the success of another who is in a position of competition or comparison with us. And yet this is exactly what we saw in TP relationships at all levels in the company. Maybe explore the vulnerability that lies in this?
  2. Is the sharing of ratings (the 1-4 mentioned above) restrictive to growth? Loads of interesting research has been done in teaching into the impact of formative and summative assessment in giving developmental feedback. Arguably most prominent is the work of Dylan William (It might be in William and Black’s Inside the Black Box, but I can’t find it…!) which found that students only made progress when given formative feedback alone; however developmental the comments, as soon as numbers, ratings, grades etc were introduced, improvement stopped. As I wrote a few months back in a blog around lesson feedback for teachers, we are fixated by data. I wonder if removing the numbers from the feedback app would increase response to feedback from it. Many Next Jumpers mentioned gravitating to the 1s in their feedback (as I did!) – would removing the numbers increase the takeaways and deepen engagement with what is actually being said?

Thanks!

Thanks so much to all the team at Next Jump: it has been a brilliantly provocative and inspirational experience. The rigourous talk felt wonderfully home-from-home from school21, but being immersed in the powerful culture was energising and challenging in a refreshing way and helped me see what we have from a new perspective.

Advertisements

Published by

Jess Hughes

English teacher and coach at School21 in Stratford, East London. Interested in authentic learning, CPD, literacy and culture. @jess_k_hughes

One thought on “Inside the Petri Dish: Growing Culture”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s