Edge and point of a knife

The knifes edge!

Culture, culture, culture – the success of every change that is considered or implemented balances on the knife edge of culture. Culture not important enough?  Then remember, culture guides what work gets done and how that work is done. Culture is a summation of all of the things we use to distinguish one group from another.  The more significant the difference is perceived, the more drastic we will perceive the culture difference. Differences invite comparison which reduces trust and generates resistance to change   Aligning cultures so that change is possible requires seeing the differences and then minimizing enough of those differences. Culture is shaped or shapes many common organizational attributes, including:

  • Values, defined as a set of principles or standards. A more overarching definition is what is import in life.  
  • Attitudes, which are an outcome of a  settled way of thinking or feeling and are often reflected in behavior.
  • Habits – regular practices or tendencies.  
  • Customs – traditional and widely accepted ways of acting or doing.
  • Beliefs, defined as acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.

Change agents use these cultural attributes as tools to motivate changes by developing aspirations that are supported by aspects of the culture. Using cultural attributes is meant to make change easier.  However, cultural attributes are easy to talk about but are very difficult to define and describe without specifying behavior. While culture is directly exhibited as a set of behaviors, most change programs are very reticent to define how people should act.  For example, every agile transformation I have been part of or observed esposuses transparency as a value. However, every person has a different operational definition that guides behavior. Even within the boundaries of a non-dynamic team, some members share information easily with all team members including product owners while others tend only to share with their technical or application specialty. The lack of specifically defined behaviors means that team members will fall back to their interpretation of organizational culture.

Peter Drucker famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The saying has been modified to “culture eats change for breakfast.” Part of the problem is that change agents are afraid to tackle behavior because they find it more comfortable to hit the easy button and talk about glittering generalities in the hope that values, customs, and beliefs will provide guidance without being prescriptive.