Culture change is dead. Long live culture change!

By Jussi Mäkelä
19.02.2016
Business & leadership, HR innovation,

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Culture change, or change management in general, is probably one of the most popular topics of management literature.

The company culture is touted as the secret ingredient of successful companies. Countless articles describing Google doing this or Amazon doing that. And even more failed culture change programs hidden in the archives of any given business. I bet you’ve been through at least a couple of townhall meetings where the new espoused values are proudly presented. Maybe even painted on the corridor walls throughout the building.

The problem with many of these attempts to change the culture is that nothing really changes. Despite the new management having shuffled the organisational pyramid the shadow organisation is still there, everybody knows how the work really gets done. You still know which topics are a taboo. How to “succeed”, how to climb the pyramid, it’s all the same. And what’s worse, the customer doesn’t notice a thing. The service is still the same, the IVR queue is just as long and irritating and when you finally get a hold of an actual person you get the same rehearsed and scripted responses. There is no profound change.

Why is that? Because culture, whatever it is, can’t really be changed. Culture is to a large extent an effect of the underlying system that governs how the work gets done. Let me quote Sami Honkonen’s wise words here:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Yet system eats culture for lunch. To create a great
culture, you need a system that enables and supports that culture.”

And how exactly does one do that? By changing the way you think.

A lot has been said about culture change, but many seem to completely ignore the complex and systemic nature of our organisations, or human systems in other words. When you’re dealing with a complex system you simply cannot plan your way forward like you can in a simpler context. The unpredictability that comes with complexity means you need to employ a completely different set of strategies and skills.

To increase the probability of creating profound change in your organisation, you should consider doing two things:

  1. Learn to see below the surface in order to find the real issues instead of focusing on the tip of the iceberg
  2. Understand complexity and how to navigate in such a context

To see the underlying system and different possibilities to tweak it, consider all the constraints in your organisation. Usually there are plenty of them which typically can be categorised into four different quadrants: Behaviors, capabilities, structures and processes. To understand the  individual-focused constraints start asking questions such as: What kind of needs do people have? What kind of mental models do they possess? What about their competences and skills? Do we have the right number of people? Do they have “hidden” skills that aren’t used for whatever reasons?

To understand the constraints more related to the organisation itself  you might consider asking questions such as: What kind of roles have we in place? How do we compensate people? What behavior results in compensation or promotion? How does governance work and how do we create alignment? What habits do people have? What about the formal processes and practices?

If you study your organisation with such questions you should be able to start seeing things that support or hinder you on your way to the goal. It is only then you can start designing small experiments you can conduct and learn from as the results emerge. In a complex context cause and effect don’t have a foreseeable relation which is why you can only understand it in retrospect. Thus the importance of designing small, safe to fail experiments.

HR plays a significant role here as many of the constraints are at least partly controlled by HR. When you drill down deep enough to uncover the real causes you need to be prepared to face some potentially uncomfortable truths so grab your lab coat and safety glasses and start experimenting!

Author

Jussi Mäkelä
Consultant at Avega Group AB

Jussi works as a consultant at Avega Group AB, a Swedish consultancy focusing on IT and business development. He has a long technical background and nowadays focuses on helping organisations become more responsive. His specialties include Lean and Agile product development.

Jussi Mäkelä
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