A discussion series on mindset and methodology for strategic organizational culture; Pt.1 – What’s your problem?

The problem with problems is that we often don’t start working on them until it’s too late.

This is especially true of organizational culture. By the time an issue becomes big enough to demand attention and real effort, the symptoms have usually been coursing unchecked through the system and wreaking havoc for quite a while. It’s not that we’re negligent and irresponsible (I mean, we might be, but diligent, attentive people have problems too.) It generally has more to do with our capacity for strategic thinking and the efforts we invest in that process. We may be good at solving problems, we’re just not so great at preventing them.

Some problems are obvious and the solutions easy to recognize. Others may be more subtle, hidden within subsystems that generate indirect symptoms. In operations we can easily see when a conveyor belt isn’t moving, a door is jammed or a process is breaking down and causing waste or inefficiency. With culture, we have to rely on a deeper level of insight and awareness in order to get to the true cause. What may initially seem like marketplace or management issues such as losing a contract or declining productivity more likely have their roots in unexamined culture.

This isn’t exactly breaking news; it seems like culture is the hot topic everywhere you turn these days. So much so that 82% of respondents to Deloitte’s 2016 Human Capital Trends report consider culture to be a potential competitive advantage. But when it comes to culture, most organizations stumble along in the status quo until something happens rather than seek improvement before its collapse. The reason? Sadly, the answer often comes down to the fact that we just don’t know what to do about it.

In the same survey, fewer than 28% of surveyed executives and HR leaders believe that they truly understand their own culture, and 19% believe that they have the right culture in place.

Take a minute to think about that. 82% believe culture is a key to success. Only 28% understand their culture and only 19% think they’re getting it right.

So we agree that culture is important, and we don’t think we’ve mastered it. But if we don’t understand it, how can we hope to change it?

Social psychologist and organizational theorist Kurt Lewin observed that “to break open the shell of complacency and self-righteousness it is sometimes necessary to bring about deliberately an emotional stir up.” Similarly, noted psychologist Carl Jung commented in his work with the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous that “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements” were critical in propelling alcoholics to experience an internal transformation capable of sustaining them through the stages of change required to achieve permanent sobriety.

The practical wisdom of such claims shows itself in our organizations daily. In most cases, cultural change occurs only when driven by outside forces – a merger or acquisition, the exit or entrance of a notable leader or influential player, a corporate downsizing; something happens, and we react. Sometimes that something is mild, like a new person on a team with a fresh set of ideas that cause us to rethink the way we do things, and sometimes it’s more drastic like a loss of market share and the grim specter of imminent layoffs that causes us to scramble our resources and react out of self-preservation. Or maybe it’s the rising tide of Millennials in the workforce that we’re struggling to properly engage. Whatever the case, it takes a wake up call to get us moving and by that point we’re forced to address damage control and forward motion simultaneously.

The downside of all this is that if we wait until we’re in crisis to implement change we’re stuck in a reactive mode, and living, working and operating in a state of reaction sucks. It costs us momentum, morale, and often money. But what if we could bring about a level of self-awareness sufficient to prompt action in the absence of a crisis? What if we could, as Lewin suggests, bring about a stir up intentionally and with strategic forethought in order to avoid tragedy later on?

Before we dive into such depths of organizational psychology, let’s step back and look at a simpler example to illustrate how change occurs from a practical standpoint using a fairly universal metaphor: fire

If we haven’t encountered fire before, we may reach out and touch the flame out of curiosity. We get burned, it hurts, we pull our hand away. Cause, effect, reaction. But maybe we didn’t really get burned all that badly. Perhaps we’re so fascinated by the warmth and flickering light that after a while we try again. We reach out into the heat a second time only to be met with the same result. We maybe get singed a bit more harshly this time around and we give up our heroic notions of conquering the mysteries of the flame once and for all.

It all really comes down to a simple proposition: at what point do the negative consequences of dysfunctional behavior outweigh the effort and discomfort required to honestly identify the source of the problem and put a solution in place? Put simply – how bad does it have to get before we get honest and do something about it? The answer to that question typically boils down to a matter of pattern recognition, resource allocation and where we fall on the functional-pain spectrum.

  • Pattern recognition – can we see what’s really happening? Just because it hurt the first time, we weren’t convinced that it would always be that way. The second time around we learned our lesson: fire is always hot, and getting burned is no fun.
  • Resource allocation – what will it cost us to change? Do we have, or can we create, the capacity to stop reaching into the fire? Yes. We don’t need any special tools or additional personnel. In fact, it would take less energy to stop than it would to continue; the benefit seems obvious.
  • Functional vs. Painful – what are we willing to tolerate? Here’s where the decision really gets made. The first burn was just a quick, mild hit. It was a shock and there was discomfort, but it wasn’t catastrophic. It may have even felt like a challenge, increased our need to master the fire and claim victory over it. We could tolerate the pain (and the memory of the pain) and continue to investigate. The second burn told us that we couldn’t beat the heat. It may have felt a bit stronger on our already flame-kissed skin, and we were hurt and sick enough of these results to change our actions and avoid future pain.

Now we had a second memory that compounded our initial discomfort, the needed resources to change our behavior, and a couple of data points as evidence that the fire will burn us every time. From this we establish an enduring perception based on our experience and we opt to change our behavior.

If change were easy or comfortable, there wouldn’t be so many books, workshops, consultants, and resources dedicated to it. We’d simply change whenever we needed or wanted to and that would be that. But while it is rarely such a simple proposition, the solution needn’t be overly complex. The fire example presents an overly-simplified reduction of a change process, but it contains the key elements we need to begin an effective transformation effort. The first phase always requires objective observation and reflection. If we dive headfirst into action, we miss the entire point of strategic thinking. If we think without acting, we’re equally ineffective. Significant effort is required to initiate and sustain change, but if we’re prepared to spend a little time developing a strategy then the process can be our guide on the path from where we find ourselves to where we envision that we must go.

In the coming weeks we will continue this discussion to dive deeper into models and strategies for cultural transformation, but for now let’s simply familiarize ourselves with the concepts and begin to generate awareness for the work ahead. What are the patterns that you think you might find as you begin to analyze your organization? Where do you think you’ll meet with resistance, and where will the idea of cultural change be the most strongly supported? Take just a minute to write down your initial thoughts, while not getting too caught up in the details or expectations.

Questions for reflection:

* Pattern Recognition: What is my current practice for identifying problems as they develop? Do I generally acknowledge when an issue is developing or do I tend to avoid the early signs?

* Resource Allocation: What would I have to invest (time, effort, $) to address this situation differently? Can I afford to do so? Can I afford not to?

* Functional vs Painful: How do I define “pain” as relating to the culture of my organization? How might I measure this in order to understand what is tolerable and what is not?

Feel free to comment below with questions, thoughts or experiences that come to mind along the way!

Also published on Medium.