Organizational culture can be defined as the established and accepted system of behaviors, values, beliefs, and assumptions that are shared by an organization. That is, the line (often implicit or assumed) between what is okay and what is not in a company.
The culture of an organization is not defined or created by someone; it is the product of the organization’s evolution over the years, molded by its achievements or failures. This is not to be confused with the innermost beliefs of an organization – those often come from the founders’ initial intent. To summarize, Brian Chesky (Airbnb) said that “culture is just a shared way of doing something with passion.”
Most organizations today are facing some kind of transformation. No matter if you call it a digital transformation or an agile transformation, one of most difficult aspects of reaching the finish line involves changing organizational culture. This is always a complex and lengthy task – we’re talking about years. The pivotal thing to make culture change happen is not the use of new technologies, techniques, or methods, but the internal change that each person, at all levels, goes through – the transformation in their collective way of thinking. Of course, frameworks, processes, tools, and techniques are very important, but a transformation that does not transform people is only a cosmetic change. A lasting change will shift the mental paradigms (mindset) of every person in the organization.
Reach All 3 Layers
Just like an iceberg, the organizational culture consists of three levels:
- Visible Level: The superficial, visible level consists of what we associate with “work” – all the artifacts and visible products (offices’ disposition, workplace, decoration, colors, and behaviors).
- Deep Level: Just below the surface are elements that aren’t visible, such as rules, procedures, regulations, policies, mental models, and cognitive structures.
- Deepest Level: The deepest level contains the basic assumptions, beliefs, and values that people in the organization have.
Carolyn Taylor suggested that we must address each of the three levels of the iceberg. Every level must be nourished by the lower one. If a company does not have a good alignment between their visible level and their basic assumptions, it would be like someone who says one thing but does another. This is an easy way for an organization to lose credibility and trust with both their employees and their customers.
Organizational Culture Origin
Unfortunately, organizational culture cannot be planned (Ralph Stacey). It arises after a long, continuous period of consistent interactions between people. Many times, the existing culture comes from the beliefs and values that the founders of the company had. We could suggest, therefore, that an organization’s culture was initially created at the deepest level. The basic assumptions of people who work for an organization shaped its collective actions (the way they understand and rationalize work), and this gave rise to the visible parts, from the behavior of the people to the layout of the office.
When faced with the challenge of changing the culture in an organization, it is important to understand that culture is deeply engrained and that a better approach is trying to reverse engineer it.
Culture change will often start at the top. The visible elements help to create alignment and a feeling that “something is happening”. Two important keys to start with when starting to change the culture in your organization are visual elements and transparency.
Let Them See
Visible and visual elements, therefore, are key success factors for cultural change. In the context of an agile transformation this includes post its, Kanban boards, and regular ceremonies. This is not to say that agile is just a bunch of post its on a board. It is much more, of course, but don’t underestimate the power of the visual elements that agile promotes.
They help to visualize change within the organization. By seeing that something is really shifting, the change becomes more than a concept; it becomes tangible. Early adopters will use this as motivation to not only start changing themselves but to become change agents and promote adoption. The visual elements will also expose the late adopters to the changes that are coming. When the change reaches them, they will have a sense of comfort knowing what they have seen.
In Lean Change Management, this is referred to as “Working out loud.” I say the louder you can work, the better!
Don’t forget though: to truly change culture, you must reach the deepest level of the organization.
And… Let Them See the Kitchen
In order to do this, the important focus is on behaviors and attitudes (especially those of the leaders). How we behave, and being consistent in these behaviors, will allow mental structures to change, and then the deepest beliefs and values start to align. Behavior changes culture. Not the other way around.
Imagine that your company wants to improve collaboration and transparency. Of course, frameworks and processes are important, but we also need to change the way we behave. I’d like to illustrate this with a simple example.
Recently, I had a conversation with a student about an agile transformation taking shape at his company. We talked about the importance of transparency as a way to encourage collaboration between the customer and themselves, the supplier.
Student: We can’t be transparent with everything.
Me: Why do you say that?
Student: Because there are some things that the customer doesn’t need to see.
Me: For example?
Student: I don’t know, the way we work, sometimes we work on other projects or sometimes we are not experts in a specific technology.
Me: And, knowing that, how would this affect the customer?
Student: I don’t know about a direct impact, but there are some things that might alarm them because they don’t understand how complex development is.
Me: Let me ask you this: as a restaurant patron, would you like to see the kitchen? To see how they cook?
Me: I’m not talking about just any restaurant, but those where the kitchen is open to the dining room so you can see them working. You might even be ok with paying more for food coming out of these kitchens, is that correct?
Student: Of course, it is an added value.
Me: Then, the problem is not whether we should let guests see the kitchen, but rather that we should be keeping the kitchen clean.
Effectively, transparency is an appreciated value. However, it’s not enough to just say you are transparent (or that you want to be). It requires internal habits of “cleanliness” that must be previously established; this is the most important piece of the transparency puzzle.
By creating a habit of cleanliness in your teams, you will improve transparency and, in the end, collaboration. People will be proud and willing to share their work.
Cultural change involves thinking that anything that we do should be ready to share with anyone in our organization, or the customer’s organization. A cultural change allows people to feel less afraid to share their daily mistakes. Work today is complex; sharing mistakes with the customer can generate empathy and a feeling of teamwork and will position everyone as better professionals.
These are just 2 recommendations to start changing organizational culture in your organization. For more on driving change from the top down and the bottom up, see my post from earlier this week!