Culture Creators

Culture Creator: Sarah Singer-Nourie

This is part of a series of posts about people who directly shape organizational cultures.

Photo Credit: Sarah Singer Nourie

Photo Credit: Sarah Singer Nourie

Sarah Singer-Nourie coaches leaders and their teams on how to tap energy, talent and motivation for accelerated results in school systems, communities and companies worldwide. Weaving practical application of brain research into team dynamics, personal development and human performance, her work has sparked clients including Jump Associates, American Eagle Outfitters, Quantum Learning Network and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and Alliance Data to breakthrough. I interviewed Sarah by phone.

How do you help teams create intentional culture through workshops?

I start with a team intensive event, and coaching will follow. Sometimes companies will take their employees on a retreat that take lot of time and cost a lot of money, but at the retreats, they don’t talk about the workplace dynamics. They don’t work on the culture or try to fix things. I suggest that companies replace a retreat with a team workshop.

It’s important to make these intensives positive. I try to get people laughing and smiling in a way that’s relaxed. This leads to more open conversations. I have teams play games to make them see patterns. In games, their normal team dynamics happen, but they don’t have any stakes. Games create an alternative reality of the same dynamics. The dynamics happen in safe space where we can dig into the issues. They have time to dig in because there’s not a client waiting

Image Credit: Sarah Singer-Nourie

Image Credit: Sarah Singer-Nourie

What tools have you developed for helping companies define their culture?

I help companies set up agreements. All high-performing teams have some kind of an agreement. People need to know what they can expect from everyone else. You can have 100 “upsets” every day (from tiny upsets to a full-blown fight). There are two kinds of upsets: the extroverted version (open fights) and the introverted version (silent standoff). I breakdown any “upset” into the following components: an expectation that someone had that didn’t get met by someone else. Someone might think, “I thought you were going to handle that in a certain way and you didn’t.”

Team is not a natural thing. It’s rare to have natural chemistry. People are complex, and the higher the pressure, and the more intimate the work, the more challenging it is. At Jump Associates, project teams work in a little room for five months at a time on serious work. For these teams to be successful, they need to take the time to figure out their dynamics, and their expectations. I help them walk through all the interactions that come up in normal human dynamics and make agreements. This frees people up to bring their best ideas. Organizations will incur a monetary cost if people are holding back.

The agreements cover things like how people treat each other and how they handle certain situations. They allow people to feel that, “I know I can count on everyone in a certain way. My brain can relax and ideate.”

I talk about “pure intention.” This is based on research by psychologist Albert Bandura. People are judgment machines, and we automatically put a number from 1 through 10 above everyone’s head. If someone is in a management position in an organization and he or she has a low number over an employee’s head, then it doesn’t matter how much that employee works or what he or she is capable of, that number will influence how much the employee can produce. We see this with multimillion-dollar athletes who can’t perform. When these athletes are coached by someone who doesn’t believe in them, they don’t perform well. As soon as they switch to another team with a coach who believes in them, they become star players. People have to be able to give employees and team members feedback on their work in a way that is separate from who they are as people. Then the feedback is coming from “pure intention.” Pure intention is something that we all should be able to expect from everyone else. If we can’t hold a 10 over someone’s head, we need to figure out how we can work through that, and give feedback from a place of pure intention.

Photo Credit: Sarah Singer-Nourie

Photo Credit: Sarah Singer-Nourie

 What tools do you find most effective for start-ups?

 I’ve worked with L3, a Chicago hospitality group who started the first franchise of LYFE Kitchen restaurants in Chicago. They came to me with 3 people, and now they have 12 restaurants. I’ve also worked with Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and helped all of their restaurant managers. Another great startup example is Jump. When I started working with Jump, they were 5 people, and now they’re over 50, having launched at least that many more people out into the world to make a difference in other companies. 

I encourage start-ups to take the agreements that I talked about earlier and post them in public places. This makes them tangible. These agreements become woven into their habits. People reference them in meetings.

I also help start-ups get rituals into place. Sports teams are a great example—not because everyone has to love or relate to sports, but because sports are a big fishbowl where we can watch human dynamics as a spectator. A great basketball team would never just walk out on the court and start playing. They always have a pep-talk, a huddle, a cheer. They do this off camera because it’s not for the spectators, it’s for them. It’s about getting mentally, physically, and emotionally aligned.

At Jump Associates, the team developed a scrum, which is an opening ritual. An opening ritual is very important. As busy human beings, we have to remember that where we work and what we’re doing is only a part of what we’re doing. Our heads are all over the place. The attitude that we bring to a meeting may be leftover from an upset we had two hours ago, and we’re still upset about. An opening ritual gets people present, so that people can be engaged. It keeps the current interactions clean and not contaminated.

I help start-ups become aware of what I call their “state.” This “state” is where you are mentally, physically, and emotionally interconnected. Are you annoyed, excited, focused, or curious? Most people aren’t aware of their state. People allow things like that to take over, and that compromises what they can bring to a meeting. There are productive and unproductive states. Being worried is an unproductive state, but being curious is actually very close to worried, yet a really productive state. Being curious can open up a process and being worried shut it down. I encourage people to take ownership of their state.

Imagine: what if you could work in a culture so honest that you could make this statement to someone else: “The negative state you’re in right now is getting all over me. Can you go take care of that?” And then the person could go take a walk and come back.


Culture Creator: Joanna Kirtley, Design Thinking Strategist at Capital One

This is part of a series of posts about people who directly shape the culture of their organizations.

Joanna at work in the Capital One Lab space

Joanna at work in the Capital One Lab space

Joanna Kirtley is a Design Thinking Strategist at Capital One Labs. I interviewed her at the Capital One Lab in Clarendon, Virginia.


What led you to where you are now?

I did my undergrad in product design, and then I realized I more interested in people than products. I started working at Jump Associates, where I focused on design innovation strategy. Jump has a very learning-oriented culture. Everyone is constantly teaching each other new methods through workshops. When I moved to Boston, I started working at Continuum. I enjoyed being at a company where I could actually see the physical results of the design on the shelf. When I moved to DC, I joined a design meet up group and found out about Capital One.


What is your current job position and organization? How do you and your team shape the culture of your organization?

I am a design strategist at Capital One Labs. Our team focuses on two types of work. One is creating design thinking learning experiences such as workshops and training. The other is project coaching work, where we embed ourselves into a line of business as design thinking coaches or team members.

Our team has grown from a group of four to 11. We don’t really know how the culture is going to change, but we know that it is about to. There is a part of us that is already nostalgic and sad to grow. One way that we create culture is by doing activities together. Last year we went on a retreat. We made dinners together. We discussed our successes and challenges, and did visioning for one year, two years, and five years out. We each created a journey map visualizing the experience we’d had of working with a team of business partners.

 It’s harder now to get on the same page as a team. We used to have weekly informal one-hour calls. We shared inspiration via email on Monday mornings. Now there are too many people for everyone to share individually. We might end up subdividing the team.


Talk about a specific initiative you’re working on related to work culture.

When we brought on another team member, this was a chance to do a mini-retreat. We did a day of workshopping so we could help her understand the lay of the land, and how we do things.

We have a culture of informally soliciting feedback. The head of our group will solicit feedback from the whole group by polling the team. However, there is less accountability for people to respond as we grow. We make a point of using Google hangouts for check-ins so we can see each other in person. We have a lot of shared Google docs. There is a lot of ability to peek in and look around. Nothing is off limits.

When we lead workshops, we try to make the environment feel very different than the normal bank environment. We have music playing, have post-its everywhere…

The last way we share our culture is through the stories we tell and how we present out our work. We all aspire to tell the story of the project, to not just make it a deck, but also to have videos, quotes, and pictures of the customers. We make sure the story we present is well-designed.


The Clarendon Lab Space

The Clarendon Lab Space

Where are they best levels (individual, team, or unit) and times (meetings, rituals, regular check-ins) within an organization’s routines to intervene and develop human-centered culture in an explicit way?

When I work on projects with teams from the bank, I’ve had the most impact in changing the way people think about work through a personal basis. It’s important to go out to dinner with each other and have informal conversations in the car.

The best way to explain the importance of having a human-centered culture is to show someone how to interview a customer. I try to take my teams and talk to customers who are different than we are. The teams have a moment in which they think, “Wow, THESE are the people who are our customers.” This is especially important if we are trying to understand the needs of customers who have a lack of financial literacy. I try to show that it’s important to do the research, be human centered, and be customer driven.


How have you seen the culture of Capital One change?

 The digital design team recently had a quarterly all-hands meeting and they used a clever activity. We were all on a dinner boat cruise, and before we arrived, the organizers had collected from each of us the top five things that we each “geek out” over. They created a set of trading cards with this information, plus our bio, office location, and a picture of ourselves. Each card had a number, and you had to find the other people with the same number. This led to better conversations, and also let us keep a physical artifact.


The Design Thinking Library: an artifact of culture

The Design Thinking Library: an artifact of culture

For fun: Tell me about how you started your blog.

I started my blog, JoWritesBlog, because when I was doing business development at Continuum, I was selling the tools to others, but not using them. I wanted to keep using them.