How to change an organization’s culture

change an organization's cultureIs it possible to transform dysfunctional corporate culture like that of United Airlines into the employee engagement of Southwest? Or the indifferent customer service at Kmart into the customer-first approach of Wegmans?

After over thirty years working with organizations, I think that it’s possible to change organizational culture. But it’s far from easy!

First, many organizations are in denial that there’s any kind of problem with their culture. Getting leadership to think otherwise is an uphill or hopeless battle.

Second, if an organization does get to the point where “we want to change our culture”, there’s rarely an explicit consensus of what we “need” or “might” change.

Third, culture is an emergent property of the interactions between people in the organization, not a linear consequence of deeply buried assumptions to challenge and “treat” in isolation. Prescriptive, formulaic approaches to culture change, are therefore rarely if ever successful.

Finally, organizational culture self-perpetuates through a complex web of rules and relationships whose very interconnectedness resist change. Even if you have a clear idea of what you want to do, there are no uncoupled places to start.

So, what can we do?

For concise advice, I recommend Chris Corrigan‘s excellent article The myth of managed culture change. Read it!

In particular, this excerpt caught my eye:

“Culture is an emergent set of patterns that are formed from the interactions between people. These patterns cannot be reverse engineered. Once they exist you need to change the interactions between people if you want to change the patterns.”
—Chris Corrigan, The myth of managed culture change

This is why process tools like those included in The Power of Participation are so important. Imposed, top down culture change regimes attempt to force people to do things differently. Chris describes this process as “cruel and violent”. Participation process tools allow people to safely explore interacting in new ways. Organizations can then transform through the resulting emergent changes that such tools facilitate and support.

Image attribution: Animated gif excerpt from “Lawyers in Love” by Jackson Browne

Is “learning” a dirty word to management?

I rarely use the word learning these days. Business managers hear learning and think schooling and don’t want to invest a dime in it. I’m tired of having doors slammed in my face, so I now talk about Working Smarter. I’ve yet to meet a manager who didn’t want her organization to work smarter (even though learning is a major component of doing so).
Bringing Informal Learning Up To Date, by Jay Cross

Given Jay’s experience it surprises me how often I’m asked how to justify attending participant-driven conferences that don’t have a nice neat program of sessions to show to the “I-decide-whether-you-go” boss. I’d like to think that managers are able to:

  • trust that the employees they hire possess the inclination and ability to learn what they need to know to do their job better.
  • be enthusiastic about conferences that effectively leverage the combined knowledge and experience of all participants rather than that of a few “experts”.

Sadly, it’s clear that many managers see learning as a dirty word however it’s defined in their minds: whether as schooling/training or as just-in-time, focused, relevant peer learning. Having to recast “learning” into “Working Smarter” to get management on board reveals management with a fundamental misunderstanding of modern business realities.

The industrial age, when employees trained in a static skill set generated long term returns, is over. Management needs to embrace this simple truth: continuous, self-directed learning in all its forms—experiential, social, and formal—is key to sustained business success today. To paraphrase Derek Bok: if you think learning is dirty, try ignorance.

Have you experienced push-back from management when you’re making a case for learning? Do tell!

Photo attribution: Flickr user happeningfish


Leadership, management, and meetings


“Leadership is about the role of the catalysts in organizations who influence and shape both strategy and execution, while management is the discipline that guides how large numbers of people efficiently accomplish complex work. Organizations need both catalysts and discipline.

…leaders are facilitators and their defining characteristic is their ability to enable connections that drive effective collaboration among large numbers of people. When leaders are facilitators, organizations adopt the disciplines of self-organized networks that are designed to leverage collective intelligence.

…the biggest challenge for traditional organizations will be whether or not they can reinvent both leadership and management and transform themselves from top-down hierarchies to peer-to-peer networks.”
Forbes interview of Rod Collins, author of Leadership in a Wiki World: Leveraging Collective Knowledge To Make the Leap To Extraordinary Performance

Rod was the COE of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Federal Employee Program with over $19 billion annual revenues. I like how he distinguishes between leadership and management. Although he’s talking about organizations, his definitions apply beautifully to the roles of leadership and management at participant-driven meetings.

Replace “organizations” with “meetings” in the quotes above. Rod’s vision for the viable future of organizations becomes the same set of principles I’ve championed for effective, powerful conferences:

  • Supporting and encouraging conference participants to network & collaborate.
  • Using meeting designs that leverage the experience & expertise of the group.
  • Transforming meetings from top-down presentations to peer initiated & led sessions.

Isn’t that interesting?

How do you see leadership and management roles play out in your meetings? What works, what doesn’t?

Image attribution: From the classic paper by Paul Baran, “On Distributed Communications: MEMORANDUM: RM-3420-PR,” AUGUST 1964, the Rand Corporation