Bear Hanging Out In The Tree!

Bear Hanging Out In The Tree!

Culture is the elephant in the room for most change programs. The problem is that change or process improvement leaders don’t understand the risk presented by culture.  Every presentation or book on change harps on the idea that culture eats change for breakfast. Leaders often don’t understand the nuances of their own cultures but think they do.  The most thorough fix for this problem is to hire a specialist organization to perform a study on corporate culture. The cost and impact of these types of studies preclude using them except to support large and extremely risky change programs.  However, every continuous improvement change or rolling transformation program can have access to a set of tools to delve into the culture. Having a set of tools to explore an organization’s or team’s culture will reduce the risk of failure. To be effective the toolset needs to help whoever applies it to dispassionately evaluate the organization and team culture.

This comes with a serious warning: our experience as part of an organization will create cognitive biases that make attributes of culture invisible. As noted in the essay, Culture: The Knife’s Edge of Change, we tend to identify the attributes of culture through comparison. Without a benchmark, assessing culture requires planning and a diverse set of eyes.  A pallet of simple techniques to help assess culture include:

  • Execute a culture Gemba Walk – A Gemba walk is a formal tool that gets people out of their office to see what is happening. Using a Gemba walk to look for culture requires looking at how people operate and “live” within an organization.  Look at how people are interacting. including tone, body language, as well as the words people are speaking. Are people eating at their desks or going out to lunch? Do they go to lunch together or not?  Is the workspace spartan or homey? What is on the walls in public spaces or in cubes? All of these attributes are a reflection of culture. While I enjoy my daily dose of Dilbert, if every cube is plastered with pointy-haired boss comics a message is being sent. Observation is a powerful tool to identify culture.
  • Perform interviews – Plan, script and perform formal interviews.  Interviews are one of the most powerful tools to find the stories that organizations and teams tell about themselves. Stories often reflect how an organization sees itself in terms of culture. A few culture-oriented seed questions to ask the person you are interviewing:
  1.      Who are the heroes and why?
  2.      How are decisions made?  (follow-up with how fast are decisions made?)
  3.      What decisions are avoided in the organization?

When you ask questions ask for examples.  Like a Gemba walk observe the person you are talking with to see how they react when you ask a question and how their emotions change as they answer.  Emotion is an important indication of how important the concept or idea embedded in the answer is to the interview.

  • Surveys – Surveys are structured data collection tools. The positive attributes of surveys are that they are cheap and can be used to bring in lots of data across multiple sites.  Surveys tend to be broad nets to identify topics; they act as targeting devices for more personal techniques such as interviews and Gemba walks. Surveys require careful construction and wording or you end up with biased data that is impossible to quantitatively analyze.

Gathering data is the first step. The next step is analysis and interpreting the data gathered from observing, interviewing, and/or surveying. Effective analysis and interpretation of data require careful effort to avoid bias.  The diversity of mindsets in those performing analysis helps break down team level biases. Another pitfall to avoid when analyzing data on culture is that if you ask people directly about culture and values it is highly likely that you hear about aspirations rather than how people really behave (observation will help avoid this issue). Not that knowing aspirations is bad; but when planning change we need to understand what the culture is today because that is the culture we are going to have breakfast with every day until it changes.