Action Changes Culture

It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting – Millard Fuller. 

To many in management, culture seems like a soft topic best left to Human Resources or Communications . To this mindset, culture is a matter of getting the words right, saying the right things and having the right tools & programs to change culture. Culture change is a communications issue. Often this results in culture change programs dictated by senior management with a goal of uniformity of culture in the organisation. These approaches at best fail quickly and at worst are counterproductive, generating employee cynicism.

Culture doesn’t work this way. Culture arises in a group of people when there is an expected pattern to interactions. The expectation forms from a consistent and predictable pattern of actions. Rituals are a classic example of how culture is transmitted. Words may help us to notice a change and tools may enable new actions but only the actions done consistently create the new mindsets.

The focus on expectations and actions also highlights how unlikely uniformity is. With consistent behaviour to shape expectations groups may develop a commonality of expectation. However uniformity of expectations remains unlikely. There will always be local variations for good reason. A good reason may be that a different pattern of action is better at fulfilling the organisation’s purpose or customer needs in this context. The heart of embracing diversity as an organisation is understanding these variations and leveraging them too

Expectations cannot be imposed. Begin with discovery of the expectations and the actions that really exist. Be honest. Failure to accept reality won’t help. Creating change then becomes a matter of understanding how to change actions to consistently deliver new patterns and to shape different expectations.

I am often asked ‘how does an enterprise social network change culture?’ There is no universal answer to that question. There are no guaranteed changes in expectations and actions in an enterprise social network just as there is no universal culture. Enterprise social networks in the right circumstances enable transparency, leadership, learning, problem solving, innovation and enablement of people. Where the culture is hostile to these things they do not, without significant investment in changing the way people act and interact.

Better questions are ‘what actions and interactions in our culture will be facilitated by an enterprise social network? How can we encourage these actions to become more consistent? What would these actions do for the expectations of our people as to how we behave here?’ These questions focus attention on the hard work of creating consistency in a community of new and different actions.

The impact of culture on the actions and interactions in the organisation is ultimately why Peter Drucker famously said ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Strategy that hopes for action inconsistent with the culture’s expectations will fail.

Start new and different actions now. Start small. Build new habits. Experiment with new ways of working. Action matters

Action creates culture. Focus on the actions, not the words or the tools.

Lead Culture Change From the Outside-in

Leaders need an external perspective to change culture in organisations.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” – David Foster Wallace

In a recent twitter chat, the question was asked “Why do organisations decide to change their culture?”  At first I thought that was obvious, but on deeper reflection I realised the answer wasn’t always clear cut.

Culture, which is a pattern of predictable behaviours in a group of people, can be like water to fish. The patterns are so predictable we often can’t see them. Inside a culture, all the pressures are to conform.

Leaders who see the need for change in culture in an organisation do so because they are connected to and embrace external perspectives. Through their exposure to the world around the organisation, they can see:

  • externally pressures for a change such as the feedback of competitors, analysts, customers, community, regulators, etc
  • the organisation has to respond to new norms that are being adopted in society, the industry or other organisations
  • better practices are in use by other managers externally and could be leveraged
  • the attractive aspects of other cultures to the talented people leaving to other organisations or to the disgruntled people in your own organisation; or
  • the different mindsets an externally appointed CEO or group of managers might bring.

If your small group of executives want to build a movement for change in culture, you will need to start by connecting to an external perspective that can help them and others see the need for change. You can’t change if you can’t see the behaviour or the need for it to change.

A critical role for change leaders is to help foster an outside-in perspective in an organisation. Social collaboration is an important way to surface and share new views and create new accountability & energy for change.

Start bringing in and sharing customer views. They are usually easiest to incorporate into your company conversation and often quite disruptive. Then broaden your perspectives to competitors and other industries. Ultimately you will want to engage a diverse range of stakeholders to understand where your settled patterns of behaviour might need disruption.

Engaging critics and supporters will not tell you what you need to do. However, Each of these disruptions are an opportunity to reflect on how you want people in the organisation to behave consistently differently to build new and better patterns.

Because culture is like water to a fish, we are often unaware of its impacts unless an external perspective makes us stop and reflect. Leaders must help create the conversations with an external orientation to remind us continually that:

‘This is Water’

No Island. Connected.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 

John Donne
Recently, discussing corporate culture and disruption, I was asked how is it that organisations cling to old views in the face of disruptive change.  How do people whose businesses are threatened still deny the need for fundamental change.  Many of these organisations cling to the past even when their performance has already begun to change for the worse.
As we talked familiar patterns of conversations in these organisations came to mind:
  • fad spotters who declare the inconvenient trend will is temporary or suits only marginal customers or competitors
  • past successes who can’t move beyond what worked before
  • boiled frogs that never don’t jump out until too late
  • safety first who fear loss and demand certainty, less risk, better proof or ROI
  • ostriches who see only what is convenient and celebrate variation as reversals of the trend
  • the wiser who know better than their colleagues, customers and competitors
  • premium providers who forget premium means more valuable and more relevant
  • technicians who see the great unravelling of the trend ahead because of a better technical solution or a flaw in the new technology
  • underlying performers who adjust away the difficulties to show sunshine underneath
  • tried & failed who know that their organisation’s failures define the limits of all future success…

I could go on this way.

One thing is common in all of these patterns: the individuals in the organisation have ceased to take inputs from their external environment. The organisation has become an echo chamber for business as usual views and any inconsistent information is discounted. 

The problem is easily rectified: engage people in the accountabilities of the real world –

  • start listening to customers and the community
  • start engaging with people beyond your own industry
  • start reading things you have not read before and 
  • start talking with people you don’t usually meet

No organisation can survive as an island.  An organisation that opens up to even the smallest amount of genuine engagement with its community discovers new insights.  This immersion and engagement will also drive to embrace new accountabilities for change.

Nobody can be an island.  We all need to be engaged in our communities.  Listening and engaging in the world outside the organisation is the surest first step to avoid the toll of disruption’s bell. 

Hack The Organisation: 6 Personal changes

The best way to change the future of work is to change how we interact.

The Responsive Organisation Manifesto recognizes that there are fundamental changes afoot in the nature of work and calls for action to make our organisations more purposeful, responsive, more engaging, more empowering, more networked, more mobile and more community oriented. Groups like Change Agents Worldwide are working to help organisations with services and solutions to navigate these big changes.

Hacking Organisations is Hard

There’s lots of enthusiasm for big change. Big change is hard. There is a lot yet to be worked out. The decision making processes take time. Experiments are required. Not all of us feel we have the power to make big change.

There are things we each can do now. In our control. Today.

Hack Yourself First

Organisations are made up of individuals. The pattern of interactions of those people determine purpose, processes, decisions, use of resources & ultimately culture. Changing these interactions is more important than changing roles, hierarchy and many of the other formal organisation trappings. There are too many companies that changed their hierarchy and found things still work the same way as ever.

We can each have an impact on the future of work by changing our own behaviours first. If we change our own interactions that contributes to change. View each new interaction as an experiment. Is it worthwhile enough to inspire others to copy it?

Six Personal Behaviour Hacks for a More Responsive Organisation

Here are some simple triggers of our common organizational life where we can adopt new responsive habits

  1. Discuss Purpose Upfront: Purpose is a critical aspect of intrinsic motivation and engagement. So why don’t we discuss it more? What’s the trigger for a purpose conversation: starting something new. Get connection to purpose clear at the start.
  2. Work Out Loud: I recently outlined a simple way to start working out loud by trying three new habits: Describe, Interact and Recognise. Give these new habits a go and discover the power of networks.
  3. Experiment.: Decision making is the engine of real power in organisations. Far too much is decided on the instincts of hierarchies. Next time you have a trigger of being asked for a decision, adopt a new habit of inviting those asking for a decision to conduct an experiment instead. If you need a decision from up the hierarchy, what experiment can you run to prove your case instead?
  4. Allocate Accountabilities for Outcomes, not Tasks: Next time you face the trigger of needing a job to be done, allocate the entire accountability for the outcome to a team or to an individual. If you are being given a task, ask for accountability for the whole outcome. Let accountability surprise you as to how best the outcome be achieved.
  5. Coach: Dan Pontefract recently highlighted coaching was a requirement of connected leaders. Start to ask, assist and build capability when you feel the trigger of a need to direct or answer. If you aren’t being coached to success, ask for it.
  6. Measure Outcomes: Measuring performance is not about task completion. Measure outcomes achieved for the individual, organisation, customers and community. Measure impact and value created. Give people the greatest flexibility to deliver the right outcome for themselves, customers and the community. Next time you are coaching someone or being coached, frame the conversation in these terms.

These small changes can have a significant impact on the responsiveness of your work and your leadership. You might even inspire a movement of others to copy you.

These actions alone are not enough. What other hacks or changes can we make? Please post your thoughts in the comments

Ask new questions

Asking the old questions will give us the old answers. New thinking comes from considering new questions. Disruptive times ask us to challenge ourselves with new questions. If we don’t, the changes ahead will ask even more of us.

At a recent Startup Australia organised by Powerhouse HQ, Kate Bennett Eriksson of PWC made the powerful point that organisations trying to create a more innovative culture need to learn to ask new questions in their decision making. Referencing Victor Frankl, Kate noted that between stimulus and response is time for thought. Changing decisions with new questions that alter our thought process generates a different outcome.

New questions are a powerful technique of change. When I want to learn a new way of thinking or consider new issues I develop a mental checklist of new questions to help me think differently in decisions. The provocation of a new set of questions changes the process and outcomes of thinking.

New questions to consider

I believe we need to lead change in the way we work and organise ourselves to survive digital disruption. This belief led me to the panel session on Startup and Corporate collaboration at which Kate spoke. It also has driven my engagement with organisations like The Responsive Organisation Manifesto, Disrupt.Sydney and Change Agents Worldwide in search of new ways of thinking and techniques for responding to the challenges of disruption. I have come away from those conversations with many new questions to ask.

Here are some of the new questions that I have learned to ask:

All confronting questions and only a beginning of the new thinking ahead.

Questions for you:

What new questions do you need to add from your decisions? What old questions are getting in the way? How can new questions drive new thinking and new results in your world?

What are you waiting for?

Infrastructure of culture

Culture eats strategy for breakfast – Peter Drucker

Enterprise social networks are a new form of communication in organisations. Culture is the outcome of how we interact. New interactions will change the culture of our organisations over time. Managing culture changes is critical for organisations coping with disruption.

Adam Pisoni recently quoted a comment I made at Disrupt.Sydney that enterprise social networks are ‘infrastructure of culture’. The comment was building on Kai Riemer’s talk at Disrupt.Sydney that technology that acts as infrastructure (of connection, of transportation or of communication) is open to novel uses and depends on users to make new sense of the infrastructure. Kai was drawing a distinction with our traditional tool based view of technology where it exists for a specific purpose. This point highlights one reason why we often have an inability to forecast where new communication technologies lead us in terms of changes in interactions and societal change.

Enterprise Social Networking is an Infrastructure for Culture

The culture of an organisations is a sum of the interactions across the organisation. It is the ‘way we do things around here’ or ‘what happens when the CEO is out of the room’.  Culture runs deep and is the outcome of thousands of interactions. Speeches, posters and announcements don’t determine culture. As social animals, people look for guides as to what is acceptable in the stories of the organisation, the daily behaviours of others as they interact and importantly in how moments of crisis or conflict in the community are resolved. What happens when things get uncertain is at the core of the culture of a company.

Disruptive change tests the culture of organisations. Shaped by purpose and values as demonstrated in action, culture has an enormous influence on how the organisation runs and what is possible. Many organisations need new strategies to respond to disruption. However, if your strategy runs counter to your culture you will face challenges and likely fail. In the face of disruption, many organisations have found they simply cannot pivot their strategy because it threatens some deep elements of their culture.

A common goal of launching an enterprise social network to execute a strategy to ‘change  culture’. Looking for more leadership, authenticity, accountability, openness or innovation, organisations assume that the network is a tool to deliver that outcome. These organisations are usually disappointed initially. Culture changes the strategy. All they see at first in the community on their network is their organisation’s current culture, just much more visible than ever before. The good, the bad and the ugly is on display. Even worse, the much vaunted new values from the strategy are often not on display because the community is not yet comfortable with those novel interactions, is waiting for a lead from others or does not accept that they can be arbitrarily imposed from above.

Communication networks are infrastructure, not tools. The change in culture is in the community adopting new behaviours, not the technology. The potential of enterprise social networks to change the culture of organisations occurs over time as the interactions change. Importantly, social networks offer opportunities to accelerate this change.

How do new interactions accelerate change the culture of the organisation?

  • Build common purpose:  Social networks are a place to discuss and connect around purpose. Purpose is not imposed.  It comes out from interactions and work in the organisation. Too often when organisations have a new strategy, it is the executive team who assumes the right to set the purpose and only they understand the context that drives the need for change. A social network allows others to discuss and question this.
  • Empower change agents:  enterprise social networking often appeals to a group of early adopters, your organisational change agents. This group of diverse individuals have been looking for a way to have a larger voice, to connect and to drive change. These early adopters will drive a lot of the initial interactions & innovations.  Their goals are each different but they are often more comfortable with many of the values that organisations seek such as collaboration, openness, innovation and experimentation. The challenge for organisations looking to leverage these individuals to drive change is to authorise their activities and encourage the new interactions in constructive directions. Senior leaders can use their authority to play a key role in ensuring that your network does not become a sub-culture of the broader organisation.
  • Lead and role model: People look for role models and leaders. They will follow their guide in the behaviours that they demonstrate. Build a group of leaders of the community and let them know that they are responsible for fostering constructive interactions. Make sure your hierarchical leaders are playing a positive role and not discouraging change.
  • Share stories:  We learn culture from stories of interactions. Social networks allow us to share those stories in new ways and with new audiences. Encourage story telling and make sure you are looking to draw out the cultural lessons of the stories being told.
  • Make interactions visible:  Social networks are a new medium to see interactions. Remember the majority of people will watch, read and learn. Your culture will be on display and shared more widely than ever before.
  • Create interactions across sub-cultures:  Large organisations are often frustrated by the number of sub-cultures as communities within the organisation develop their own interactions. These sub-cultures often create unresolved conflicts blocking progress. Connect these individuals in one community and let them learn about each others contexts. Building shared purpose, concerns and understanding will build a greater commonality of culture.
  • Create conflict:  If there are values conflicts or other regular interactions driving conflict in your organisation, they will surface in enterprise social networking. The faster you bring these out the sooner culture changes. How you work to resolve these through collaboration will be key to your future culture. Remember it is better to resolve these internally before they leak externally through employees or other partners experiencing the conflicts and sharing them.
  • Allow the creation new interactions:  As infrastructure, an enterprise social network is open to employees, leaders and other participants to create new interactions.  If you encourage experimentation and quickly weed out failures, you will be driving innovation in your culture as each new successful pattern of interaction develops.  Embrace the chaos and you will see rewards as your culture develops.

Communities change culture when they adopt new interactions through the role modelling of others and the support of leaders. Enterprise social networking is an infrastructure to accelerate this process through new interactions and innovation. Disruption often demands rapid changes to organisation’s cultures that have been built up over many, if not hundreds of years. Networking the community within the organisation is critical to enabling the organisation to manage that change.

We are all dead

“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” – Jack Welch

We are all dead.

The rate of change external to each of our organisations is now so great that no organisation can ensure it is changing faster than the external system. Global interconnectedness, the rapid speed of ideas in a digital economy & new means of working and collaborating means that change will only continue to accelerate.

So if we are all dead what do we do? Change the game.

Jack Welch’s quote assumed that the organisation needed to generate enough change internally to beat the system. If you are a massive diversified conglomerate like GE, then that is a real challenge

Don’t beat the system. Become the system instead. Organisations need to design their structure, boundaries and processes to integrate with opportunities going on around them in that external change. Instead of hunkering down to fight off the change, organisations need to rethink their defenses. The best defense may just be a welcome:

Have an outward facing culture: If your organisation is looking inwards for your ideas and opportunities, you are dead. If your organisation, only worries about its competitors, then don’t worry they are dead too. Open your organisation up to look globally (that really means globally including Asia, Middle East, Latin America and Africa)
– Focus on opportunities to create an ecosystem: Allowing the system to shape your products, services and customers will accelerate your change. This can be achieved in many ways such as partnership agreements, an API or a customer collaboration community. Once you start to see and think about the system in which you operate, new opportunities to change and innovate will present themselves.
– Create agile & open edges in their organisation with the freedom to interact with external changes: hackathons, experiments, partnership agreements and a handful of strategic investments can generate a lot of exposure to change externally that will help the organisation adapt. Make sure your permission and performance processes actually give your people the opportunity to interact. They need to be able to move at the speed of the system and that means trust.
– Speed the sharing of information and execution in your organisation: Copy the system where you can. Use enterprise social. Use agile. Use design. Use minimum viable products. Hack, experiment and test away.
– Kill yourself first: What business model do you most fear losing? What product are you too dependent on? What customer can’t you lose? Tackle these challenges now. Engineer a way to change them or innovate like crazy in these spaces before others realise your vulnerability.

Look for collaboration beneath the surface

Archaelogists have just discovered an ancient city north of Angkor Wat.  Using lidar they saw that they had been walking over the ancient city for which they were searching. It was buried by time and jungle.

Many organisations need a lidar for collaboration.  

Obsessed with roles, structure and the formal processes of work they are unable to see the collaboration buried beneath the jungle of complexity.

  • Organisation charts and hierarchies don’t explain how work gets done or how information flows.
  • Decision rights might be clearly recorded and followed, but the decisions that get made are influenced by complex webs of human collaboration: influence, culture, trust and the flight of knowledge.
  • Performance measures are usually based on an individual heroic model of performance.  They don’t track of assists, team contributions or enablement.  This approach can force people to avoid collaboration or keep collaboration secret so as not to diminish perceptions of achievements or be seen to be wasting time improving the performance of others.
  • Collaboration is simply not recorded anywhere.  It happens on the phone, in hallways and in meeting rooms with no ability to record it happened, capture or share the value.

If you would like to improve the collaboration in your organisation, ask yourself whether you understand well enough what is already going on.  

Build your own collaboration lidar.  Pulse check activity across the organisation.  Go looking for the collaboration that exists buried in the jungle and do what you can to get your teams to make their relationships, knowledge and collaboration open to the whole organisation.