As a teenager, I used to row for a local club. I remember I preferred rowing practice on the river to the gym and dry land exercises. There was something really exciting about being surrounded by fast moving water, first using its flow to get to the end of the planned track and then fighting against it to return to the club. And then doing it all over again.
Many years later, as I was sitting on the train on the w
ay to a client, it dawned on me that rowing on the river was a good metaphor for attempting a business change within the context of an organisation’s culture. Is it easier to achieve your business goal if your organisation’s culture supports you or hinders you? Would you rather row upstream or downstream to reach your set destination? With the river, it’s easy to tell; not so with an organisation’s culture. The effect is the same though: it is much harder and takes longer if you are “rowing against the flow of culture”.
It is naïve to embark on a significant business transformation without doing a thorough and honest assessment of the existing culture. Successful organisations and their leaders are consciously aware of their culture and are actively engaged in evolving it. However, we have seen many companies that are trying to ‘become agile’ purely by adopting a selection of agile practices, without challenging existing organisational values, beliefs and behaviours. The results are without exception short-term and less significant than expected.
Do you know if your organisation’s culture will support your business transformation?
A common definition of organisational culture is that it is “the way things get done around here”. It informs and influences everything people in an organisation do and how they do it. For example, culture determines how decisions are made, by whom and at what level.
It is self-evident that the best informed and most timely decisions are made in the close proximity of the customer. When I call my bank or my mobile phone provider, I want the customer services representative to be able to help me, and that means he or she will have to make some decisions during our call. Every time they refer to the ‘company policy’ or defer the decision to their manager, I feel I should switch to a competitor with a more ‘empowered’ customer-facing staff. Unfortunately, those are still few and far between.
Reorganising your customer services or any other team, agreeing a new set of targets and measures, and introducing different practices, agile or otherwise, won’t cut it. While it is better than “doing the same thing and expecting different results”, it is unlikely to lead to a meaningful, positive, lasting change.
We use the ‘culture pyramid’ model to illustrate the interplay of different elements of the organisational culture. The approach above is represented by the top two layers of the pyramid: do something different (actions) and you will get different results. This could work over time through new experiences, challenging and slowly affecting a change of the organisation’s existing value system and intrinsic behaviours. However, it would be too much like getting into a boat and setting off without checking the weather forecast and assessing the tide. We’d never do it on the river so why are we doing it in our organisations?
At Radtac, we help you build shared understanding of your existing organisational culture, identify desired behaviours, and measure and visualise progress. We get engaged at different levels, all the way up to the Board and CEO, to coach individuals and teams so that everyone can play a more active role in bringing about the change. Our clients stand as evidence that this approach works: it has recently helped one of them to win the UK Agile Award for “Best use of agile in the private sector”.
Have you experienced any challenges that could be attributed to your organisation’s culture? Are you interested in knowing more about organisational culture and how you could make it work for you rather than against you? Share your thoughts using the comments box below or get in touch with us for a more detailed conversation.
Head of Radtac:Culture