The Org Culture Tipping Point

The most interesting thing to me as of late about the culture change puzzle many in OD face is that the answers might be found in the questions not being asked. Many today write about making change happen from understanding what is, yet never seem to ask how the culture got to be in the poisoned position it is.

Simply put, shouldn’t we first try to answer the questions around “How did we get here?”

  • Was the culture ever positive?
  • How do we know it changed?
  • When was it first noticed that the culture change?
  • Were new systems, processes, or institutions were implemented before change was noticed?
  • Was the change an inside job or was there external stimuli (new competition)?

Like my simple graph here tries to explain, there is a point where the agile, innovative, open culture typically found in smaller, growing organizations shifts to one that emphasizes uniformity, complacency, and compliance over humanity. A tipping point is reached where the organization loses the elements that many (larger) organizations now aspire to regain.



Past is prologue as historians might say, and if we can pinpoint the emergence of the change, doesn’t it then hold true that this knowledge could be used to create targeted measures to reverse course?

If you’re interested, several of us look to ponder the idea of culture emergence vs. culture change on Sept. 19th at 9:00pm ET. Take a look at the posts written by Chris Jones on his blog to see where we’ve been with this and where we are going, then join the conversation on Twitter at #orgdna.

Is Poor Organizational Culture a Symptom of Flawed Systems?

We can say organizations will change as Boomers leave and new technology and new generations enter but what really happens is the “next” marches in and picks up where the “last” left off. The technologies of change, like social tools, become manipulated by the current system to support the system not change it. Additionally, I chuckle about all the Millennial articles/posts on how they want things different, purpose over profit, tech savvy, blah, blah, blah. I’ve worked with plenty of folks in their 20’s and 30’s and like any generation, they enter the organization looking not to disrupt it but to serve it and collect a paycheck – quickly conforming to the system that is. Period.

I’m thinking all this talk of culture change (and I’ve done my share!) is really pointless until there is system change. The systems in play are the problem and shape the behaviors that drive the culture. Systems from recognition and rewards to HR being as a compliance machine, to L&D pumping out course after course. Each are all well entrenched and will remain there because they are the predominant systems of work.

These systems aren’t in play in small companies… yet. Start-ups begin with a passionate all hands on deck collective mentality. The founder eats lunch with her co-workers and loves to share stories of her upbringing until… until something clicks and the unconscious focus on humanity gives way to rigid systems of hierarchy, restrictive policy and a culture of conformity. This is inherited learned-helplessness of leadership. It’s the belief that they need these systems and their unconscious employment is unquestioned. It’s almost as if it’s in the business DNA like a time bomb, preset to detonate as the organization scales. HR is established primarily to protect the firm over finding the right talent. L&D is born because leaders, due to their own years of formal education, see all learning as formal; classrooms, courses, etc. even though people learned in and from their work and relationships. Marketing carves out and begins to chase what works vs. what’s right and customer conversations give way to click counts. It all better fits the system, it’s unquestioned.

We know that social activity forms around an object; a party, a hobby, an idea. Organizational culture is inherently social and similarly forms around an object; a system like hierarchy, processes and structures. Organizational culture is learned maybe much like we humans first learn to speak – through observation and reinforced/rewarded mimicry. However if the mouth isn’t structured correctly or the brain wired right for speech then speech will not happen or will be imperfect. So then if the systems in an organization are flawed, flawed behaviors develop and a flawed culture emerges?

To change our culture then systems must be changed not just behaviors within, as the system will always correct behaviors that deviate and bring them back to the norm (dominant culture). The one big thing that separates human beings from all other animals has been our ability to transcend our instincts, our internal systems. To better ourselves and our culture we regularly question ourselves, we challenge our suppositions, our processes, our internal structures and frankly organizations need to do this more if they are really desiring culture change.

Change the Default (Mind)Settings

I wondered aloud on Twitter last week about the supposed 80% fail rate of ESNs that many publications have reported in recent years. This thought was further spurred on by this CMS Wire article The Smoke and Mirrors of Enterprise Social Networking Metrics. Of course the word “fail” has a connotation that 1. NOBODY is using the platform and/or 2. an expectation (usually of the purse string holding executive) wasn’t met. I tend to think it’s the latter as the tech and maybe even your culture is just fine… your measurement may be wrong.

All enterprise social platforms come with a dashboard of metrics of their own definition. Engagement is typically the golden calf as adoption, measured in things like “likes”, “shares”, “posts”, etc all add up to success of the tool. But is it tool success that drove the desire to have a tool in the first place?? Add in whiz-bang features like badges (eh-hem, stickers) and maybe “sentiment” metrics (which something tells me can’t identify sarcasm) and VIOLA! you have even more to measure. They make it simple. But as we know simple isn’t easy and in this case it isn’t right either. Used in isolation and these metrics are the equivalent of what traditional training measures – butts in seats or “if you attended you must have learned.” A fallacy of course as all it means is one was present and the default metrics for ESN platform are similarly a false prophet.

Frankly, the only measure you can gain from the tool is about the tool. The measures that matter can’t be seen in an ESN dashboard and there are way too many other variables contributing to the outcomes that really matter in the workplace. Social interaction is a key piece however and if a platform is used by some to make them feel a part of something bigger, if it helps a handful of people find innovative solutions, and if it actually helps a team to get work done faster, easier and in the open – well that’s far from a failure.

A few thoughts to help you shift away from the lure of the default settings:

First, an ESN platform certainly helps extend and expand social interaction, but it should never be the measure of “social success”! Second, social is bigger than your business, and it carves it’s own path. If you attempt to channel conversations in the direction of business only, you are in essence sucking the soul out because all conversations in business are the conversations of business. Accept that social is important but it’s not going to be all shop talk and if it were forced to be, the relationships (so critical to organizational health) would disappear… looking much like an ESN failure.

The real failure we hear of is certainly not the technology, it’s also not that your culture isn’t collaborative either. Rather, it’s a failure in expectation and in effectively communicating what social is really about. It’s a failure in not having (or not having the ability to have) the necessary, deeper conversation with leaders that (sorry) aren’t as black and white, and easy as all those default dashboard metrics tout.

Simple Doesn’t Mean Easy

Over that last few months a local workshop for non-profits has been gathering weekly. Around 80 people from various organizations are involved. The hosts invited everyone early on to join Slack to apparently be leveraged between live sessions and carry on the dialog (I say apparently as this was not actually articulated).

After several weeks, 10 people have posted once… each. Three of the 10 were the hosts. It’s a ghost town. Go figure.

This isn’t really about Slack though…but it is. You see, Slack is often chosen because it’s free and it’s supposed to be simple and fun. It’s the gold standard for chat today. Every start-up is running to it – the “email killer”. But that doesn’t make it right for everyone or every situation and simple and fun doesn’t equate to adoption, that my friends is a people issue. But an even bigger problem than this group failing to connect with Slack is that many will walk away blaming the tool.

The reaction by this group is inevitably one of Slack is stupid. And for many that’s it, the social soup is spoiled. Wrong tool, wrong reason (if any reason), poor planning, poor implementation, and poor support. Bolting it on and flicking the switch works for very little with the exception of an electric light. Many will leave this half-baked effort viewing all enterprise social tools and efforts as pointless voids and frustrating time wastes. So next time the opportunity arises, it will likely be met with a “oh yeah, we tried social media. It didn’t work” response, making sincere efforts all the more difficult due to the often impenetrable wall of first impressions.

This is ultimately a failure of expectation, or a failure because there was an expectation that connection, conversation and collaboration are easy because you’ve employed simple technology.  Thanks to all who leap before they look…

Just because the tools are getting simpler to use, more natural, and common place and even with a lot of fun buzz and hype – it doesn’t mean it’s going to “work” out of the box. It is still and always will be people and purpose, trust and not technology that drives the social engine.

The “Too Many Social Tools” Problem

In a recent morning buzz session I led at the DevLearn Conference titled “Social at the Center“, a few attendees presented a common problem happening in their organization – having too many social tools available and in use. They were frustrated that people were entrenched in small, separated, collaborative pockets with a variety of social tools in use to get their work done. It’s actually a good problem to have, as I have shared in a previous post, Big Social Isn’t Always Best, however their desire was to reap the rewards of a largely connected company. For them, the conversations are happening just as silo’d as before social tools were adopted. Their initial reaction to this was the antithesis of social and sadly the common action of the status quo – shutting down unsanctioned/ unsupported tools.

That is the easy answer.  However it’s not the correct answer.

For starters, give credit to social technology for doing what it does best, making the invisible visible. Social technology can teach you more about your culture than can actually transform it. In this case just the availability of social tools may be revealing that there is no strong desire for these employees to share beyond their immediate team needs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this organization having individual sales goal awards, a single winners of some golden customer service trophy, and a hierarchical system where advancement is made by those who were savvy enough to out maneuver their peers. These are all strong indicators of an organization that values competition over collaboration and cooperation.

It’s rare that organizations significantly recognized those that help one another or  reward the process just as much as the product. Yet this is the correct answer if they want to realize the benefits of a social business. It’s simple, but simple doesn’t mean easy – social tools do not make an organization more social, more transparent, open or connected, people do.