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A Movie Microcosm on Culture

When I was in high school (and probably part of college) my friends and I had this thing. And when I say “thing” I mean contest.

The contest involved a ritual we would follow before going to the movies. First, we'd stop at a gas station to load up on an obscene amount of food. Next, we’d drive to the local movie theater to buy tickets while simultaneously trying to sneak the previously purchased food inside.

I’m still not sure how a person would have won the contest, but I think it had something to do with quantity or whoever brought in the most outlandish item (e.g. chicken wings with various dipping sauces).

When I look back on our time together, I realize a few things. First, we were idiots. Second, there was no doubt we created a culture together. And third, if our parents had discovered our ridiculous ritual they would have concurred; we were idiots.

They probably would have tried to change our behavior too (or at least warned us about trying to sneak 2-liters of soda inside). But changing culture is not always easy.

And one of the most challenging things about changing culture is how ambiguous it can seem at times. (I’m going to depart from the movie-theater microcosm for just a second now.) Telling a team to “be more collaborative” doesn’t usually move the needle as much as we might like. And mandating innovation…or results...isn’t really all that helpful either. What does help is showing somebody where the tangible handles are that will help them grasp the thing they hope to change.

Now back to the movie theater example. Only this time you’ll be part of the story.

Imagine your team wants to go see a movie and you get invited. Whether you realize it or not, you and your team are about to make several decisions (directly or by default).

What movie is everyone hoping to see?

Will you join your team for the movie or pretend you didn’t get the email?

Will everyone drive separately or will there be some sort of carpool?

(If anyone is riding together, how will they decide who drives?)

Will you stop by a gas station to load up on candy first? (I’m partially kidding.)

Will you meet everyone early enough to catch the previews?

Will everyone hit up the actual concession stand before the movie starts or after?

Same question as above, except now we’re talking about the restroom…

Where will your team sit once you’re in the movie?

Will you put your feet on the seat or railing in front of your chair?

How much talking is permissible?

(And what if your co-worker is a really loud whisperer?)

Will you suppress that really awkward laugh you have during the funny parts?

Will you let the floodgates open during the sad parts?

If you were too cheap to buy your own popcorn, will you attempt to eat from your co-worker’s mega-popcorn tub when they’re not looking?

Same question as above, except for their extra-large slushy…

If somebody who is not on your team sits with your group, how will you respond?

Will you stay for the final credits?

(Perhaps this decision will be made by default as you observe what others do…)

And if you disagree because you really love watching the credits…will you speak up?

Do you use the restroom one last time before heading out?

Do you wash your hands? (Please, please, please say yes.)

When is it appropriate to text your family (if applicable) to tell them you’ll be home soon?

Will you check your teeth for popcorn kernels before offering to help with gas money?

Will you ever go to a movie again with these people?

And the list goes on…

Culture is created and changed, at least in part, by a series of individual and collective choices. Conversations. Decisions made by default. Processes created by consensus. And traditions that are adopted and sustained with great intentionality.

Each of these things is like a handle.

And one of the most important ways to grasp a handle is to talk about it with your team. Talk about what the handle is, what it could be, why it’s important to you, and what the people you serve need it to be. And do lots of listening.

If this blog post resonated, you might like my newest book, Reclaiming Our Calling: Hold on to the Heart, Mind, and Hope of Education. The book tackles a tension many educators are feeling using a combination of stories and practical strategies. If you’re interested in technology integration, Renegade Leadership: Creating Innovative Schools for Digital-Age Students is a best-seller with Corwin Press. Both books are built on the belief that everything we do in education starts with relationships and connectedness.



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