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.

OnsetofSocialAtrophy

 

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.

Transformation Doesn’t Happen in Silos

James Tyer and I often find ourselves chatting on Twitter about our shared observations and ideas.  One particular stream of though started to gel and we decided to formalize it some in a shared blog post (which was quite enjoyable) as an opportunity to extend the conversation. Let us know your thoughts.

 

There’s much talk of transforming HR, reimagining L&D, shaking up corp comms, disrupting marketing, “hacking” [insert your dept name here]. Transformation! Hacking! SEO buzzwords abound. LinkedIn feeds are full of it. Trade publications are recommending it. Armies of consultants are demanding it. Organizations are spending a fortune on it, yet once again nothing is fundamentally changing.

When “change” happens (and it can) it still happens within the department. This reveals our paradigm – the way our leaders see the structure of organizations – a last century, industrial era mindset. The result is a transformed department…that’s it. With the same problems, the same people – apart from the ones who were fired – the same leaders, the same titles. Really, nothing changes. It’s just the same old re-organization – not transformation.

A real transformation would see the end of these silos, an end to big departmental structures, decentralisation of power, a shift in authority, an end to the “business relationship manager”. For example, a real transformation of HR would likely result in no HR silo. Now that’s revolutionary!

Why do we do this over and over again? This time Amara’s law is particularly pertinent:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” – Roy Amara

Short Run:

Leaders are sold on technology as a solution to big problems… big problems in their areas. But this isn’t transformation, it’s piecemeal modification. For example, in HR: people analytics, performance systems, another LMS, maybe even an ESN. IT are dumping every shiny tool they see onto employees in a bid to keep up with “being digital”. Comms (the marketing of four years ago) are obsessed with new “channels” to give employees more and more information. And it’s not a question of whether comms or HR or IT are well-intentioned; it’s whether they are willing to keep repeating the same mistakes.

All we’re doing is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Long Run:

Technology is changing product development and distribution, it’s changing political discourse, it’s changing the consumer landscape, and has the potential to continue transforming our physical landscape. Take for example this Greg Ferenstein article on Medium where he reveals a simulation that showed how vast amounts of urban land could be reclaimed and 90% of cars would disappear due to automated vehicles. Technology stands to reimage the globe, physically, socially, and politically like never before.

We are naive if we don’t think organizational structures can’t change. Or are we short sighted, comfortable in our paradigm so as to unconsciously impede the progress of digital transformation by holding tight to familiar structures. Our cautious human nature prevents us from embracing real change. If we could just get out of our own way and let go of our archaic reward structures, our traditional ideas about leadership, our inability to be truly open and transparent with our work. Could we harness technology to create the modern firm – one that actually benefits consumers, workers and shareholders alike? The answer is Yes – there are already companies doing just this!

What’s Next?

If you’re fed up with endless re-orgs, talk of “transformation”, talk of disruption with no compelling alternative vision to the current state of affairs, uninspired by leadership, and feel like you’re working Einstein’s world of insanity. What do we suggest for those of you who would like to get started?

Well, the kicker is, there’s nothing easy. And when you’re out there on your own talking about new ideas, it’s tough.

Frankly you can only transform yourself. You can only change your viewpoints, outlooks, beliefs, ideas, and work. The fortunes spent on changing organizations are wasted because those who spend the money don’t change – they just tell others to. Change is social. Change happens one conversation at a time as Euan Semple has said. Be bold and talk about new ideas. Build your networks of like-minded support across departments, not just your own. Here are some frameworks to help guide your first conversations. There are no formulas – no one-size fits all. You and your organization will need to be agile to adapt to circumstance. To create your own version of the networked organizations.

A few sites, books, articles, etc to get you started.