With customer's you can't afford to lose, watch out for the C word [Culture vs IT]

The culture of a workplace - an organisation’s values, norms and practices - has a huge impact on our happiness and success.
— Adam Grant
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People rarely talk about the C word because it's not something easy to mention in business circles. Mention culture and at least one business person in the room will roll their eyes. Why? People are reluctant to talk about culture because they have seen many unsuccessful attempts to change the culture. Often these attempts use posters and coffee cups.

Most attempts to change culture fail. Why? Because it's tough and it's often an unequal fight between well-meaning management and the existing culture: a man and a shotgun versus a man and a tank.

So, should you give up? Start by understanding the risk to your organisation.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast
— Peter Drucker

So, if your culture doesn't fit your strategy, then you will not be able to deliver your strategy, efficiently and effectively.

How is culture formed?

You know it when you see it. "It's the way we work around here". You can't explain exactly to someone outside the organisation, "but you just know". Probably the best practical understanding of culture is from a book by Edgar Schein. Despite outstanding academic credentials, his book Organisational Culture and Leadership explains how you can practically discover culture in an organisation. The book is interesting but not an easy read because he is analysing what is going on in practice using some abstract ideas.

How can you discover your culture?

There are many academic models on the subject of culture. There are two main issues with diagnosing culture. First, it is complex, and there are many definitions. Second and more problematic, it's difficult to assess the culture of your own organisation. As a member of the organisation, your beliefs and values are often tacit. You are unaware of what you are assuming.

However, as you wrestle to understand your organisation's culture, here are a few practical activities to help you.

  1. Find someone who has been in the organisation less than 12 months. Ask what they noticed about the organisation and how it differs from their previous organisation?
  2. Think of someone who does not fit in with your organisation. Typically, you might explain this with personality - 'he is an odd person' or 'she is strange'. Consider whether you can explain the lack of fit of this person, using the culture of the organisation.
  3. Find someone who has been in the organisation more than ten years. Ask them, "what do you know now about getting things done in this organisation, that you wish you knew when you started"? 
  4. One of the strongest drivers of culture is success. Some of the explanations or stories of success can provide clues about the values and assumptions of your organisation. What stories of success are told in your organisation regularly?
  5. What are the assumptions held by your organisation?

How can you change the culture?

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Once you have established what the culture is like in your organisation, how do you go about changing that culture? In one word: slowly!

If you want to understand how to change the culture, imagine you have a glass of water. Take an ink dropper and add drops of ink to the glass of water. The colour of the water slowly gets darker as you add each drop of ink. It takes a while to change the colour of the water. Changing the colour of the water is just like changing the culture. 

However, for large organisations or old organisations, when you think about changing the culture you don't have a glass of water. You have a swimming pool.

Now, many organisations still try to change the colour of the water in the pool using an ink dropper. It takes an eternity to change the colour of the pool. So, many people give up, saying we tried and failed. In practice, an ink dropper might be posters with new values, coffee cups with slogans and a few new managers from a different culture. 

Just take a moment to consider how you could change the colour of a swimming pool much quicker. A couple of options:

  • Drain some water from the pool.
  • Instead of ink droppers, use some fire hoses to feed in the ink.

Draining water from the pool is like getting rid of some of the existing people. The swimming pool example shows you need to get rid of a large number of people to make a difference to the colour of the pool or culture.

Of course, there are often practical limits to how many people you can take out of an organisation. These limits can be because you need the skills and expertise of the people or because of industrial relations. So, you need to consider other methods too.

Using fire hoses instead of ink droppers can mean injecting more different people or more different ideas much faster. The fire hose helps us see that one or two new people will simply not be enough to change the colour of the pool or the culture. So, you need a large number of new people to make a difference.

If you want to inject more new ideas (or experiences) to change the culture, then again you see you need a lot more ideas. So, running one workshop in a year to launch the new culture will not be sufficient. Regular workshops or sessions for a good proportion of people will be necessary.