How to change an organization’s culture

Is 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, and 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 “needs to be” or “might be” changed.

Third, culture is an emergent property of the interactions between people in the organization, not a linear consequence of deeply buried assumptions that can be challenged and “treated” 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 might we be able to 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, a process that Chris describes as “cruel and violent”. Participation process tools that allow people to safely explore interacting in new ways allow organizations to transform through the resulting emergent changes that interaction tools facilitate and support.

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

Jeremy Lin and the myth of the conference curator

“There is talent everywhere. We just don’t know how to find it.”
–Jonah Lehrer

Today’s Wired article by Jonah Lehrer describes recent research on the NFL scouting combine that concludes that highly paid sports scouts barely do better than chance at picking great players like Jeremy Lin out of the pool of promising candidates.

If sports scouts, with all the information, statistics, tests, and direct observations at their disposal can’t pick the best players, why should we believe that “conference curators” can pick the best presenters and presentations?

In my twenty years of organizing conferences, I’ve never found a program committee that predicted more than half of the session topics that conference attendees chose when they were given the choice. During that time I’ve seen no evidence that any one person, whether they are given the title of “curator” or not, can put together a conference program that can match what attendees actually need and want.

Sure, taking a thematic, big picture approach to constructing a conference program and then soliciting appropriate presenters may produce better results than issuing a call for speakers and picking sessions from the offerings of those who choose to respond. If you insist on leaving attendees out of the loop, it’s probably the best you can do. (Sadly, I’ve found that polling attendees before the event doesn’t work.) But it doesn’t, in my experience, create a conference program that truly serves attendees.

It’s elitist and untrue to claim that only “curators” can put together a conference experience that attendees will value. “Attendees don’t know what they don’t know,” says Jeff Hurt. Yes, that’s often true if you’re comparing the knowledge of a single attendee with the knowledge of an expert. But, in my experience, attendees collectively know what they don’t know far better than any outside “expert”. As David Weinberger puts it in his latest book Too Big To Know: “The smartest person in the room is the room.”

Finally, who are these conference curators supposed to be? Is it possible to be a conference curator for any kind of conference, or do you need to be a subject matter expert on the conference topic? What are the credentials needed to be a conference curator? None of the articles I’ve read answer these questions.

I think that the need for a conference curator is a myth created by those who desire to maintain the role of experts in the construction of conference programs. Let it go, guys. The people formerly known as the audience can do a much better job.

I’m sticking my neck out again. It’s a great way to learn. Are you a champion of the conference curator? Chop away in the comments below.

Photo attribution Flickr user nikk_la

The myth of control

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Misconception 7: Conflict is bad…The reality is that whenever you have more than one living person in a room, you’ll have more than one set of interests, and that’s not a bad thing.
—The Change Handbook by Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, and Steven Cady

Why do we cling to traditional event structure? One powerful reason is because we want to avoid dealing with messy differences of opinion. When we give attendees the power to choose what happens at our conferences, people are going to disagree. And when people disagree, there’s the possibility of controversy and conflict. Who’d want that at their event?

Perhaps you believe that learning is some kind of linear process that happens painlessly. That’s certainly the paradigm we’re fed in school. Even though most of us struggle to learn there, the underlying message is usually “if you were smart enough, this would be easy”.

If you do believe that conference learning should be painless, let me ask you this. Think for a moment about the most important things you’ve learned in your life. How many of them came to you in the absence of disagreement, pain, or conflict? And how many of them did you learn while sitting in a room listening to someone talk for an hour?

Do you want your conferences to maximize learning, even at the cost of some disagreement or discomfort? Or would you rather settle for a safe second best?

We are scared about not having control in our lives and at our events. That’s why we lock down our conferences, forcing their essence into tightly choreographed sessions. Attendees are carefully restricted to choosing, at most, which concurrent session room they’ll sit in.

The reality is that you never had control to begin with, just the semblance. You’ve been kidding yourself all these years. Unless your constituency is bound to your event via a requirement to earn CEUs, members can withhold their attendance or avoid sessions at will.

Fortunately, there are multiple ways to give up the unnecessary control exercised at traditional conferences and give attendees the freedom and responsibility to make the event theirs. All participant-driven event formats like Open Space, Conferences That Work, and Future Search treat attendees like intelligent adults.

What’s amazing to discover is how liberating these event designs are for conference organizers too. When we give up over-control, we become largely freed of the responsibility to choose the content, format, and instigators of our conference sessions, concentrating instead on supervisory, facilitation, and support roles. Yes, the result is an event that is less predictable, and often more challenging. But the richer experience, the creation of an event that reflects what participants truly need and want, and the joy of uncovered valuable, unexpected, appropriate learning make it all worthwhile for everyone involved.