Concrete Culture Change

Culture is often difficult to define, and culture change even more so – what concrete actions do we need to take to change a culture?

Despite this apparent difficulty, it is possible to spend an hour or two with a group, and leave with consensus on practical actions for culture change.

This exercise achieves that by make culture change something concrete. We look to the questions we ask everyday as reinforcing values and thus being drivers of culture. Then we challenge ourselves to find better questions, and explore what it will take to adopt those better questions in our specific context.

Questions driving culture

Let’s keep our definition of culture really simple: the sum of our everyday behaviours as a group.

To give an example: typically, you and your colleagues juggle many tasks at once. Multitasking is part of your culture.

What is driving this behaviour though? One strong driver is the questions that are asked in your group. For instance, in this environment, you probably find people explicitly asking something like “can you take this on?” The multitasking behaviour is a natural response to that question. Especially if all parties are, consciously or otherwise, implicitly asking themselves “how do we get everything done?”

Now let’s assume that you want to change your multitasking culture to one where people limit their work in progress to become more productive overall.

Making change more concrete

To change the behaviour, we can look for the driving questions and change those.

For instance, we might aim to change “how do we get everything done?” to “how do we do a great job of the most important things?”

And that is the heart of the change. If everyone is asking themselves, consciously or otherwise “how do we do a great job of the most important things?”, their behaviours will follow that question. In this case (and with training and support as required), we expect they will try to identify priorities, understand success and deliver on that before moving on to the next thing. People can helpfully answer “no” to the old question “can you take this on?”, but more importantly, that question will no longer be asked as frequently, because it will cease to make sense.

However, that’s still not as concrete a recipe as we would like. The exercise (below) helps us get down to the concrete actions required in a given context to change one driving question to another.

Before we go any further, though, a reminder that questions do not exist in isolation, and that we must tackle consistent set of questions simultaneously:

Today’s orthodoxy has institutionalised a set of internally consistent but dysfunctional beliefs. This has created a tightly interlocking and self-reinforcing system, a system from which it is very difficult to break free. Even when we change one piece, the other pieces hold us back by blocking the benefits of our change. When our change fails to produce benefits, we revert to our old approaches.

Donald G. Reinertsen, The Principles of Product Development Flow

The Exercise

This exercise can be run with the group whose culture we are looking to change.

At the end of the exercise, you will have a list of concrete actions that can be taken to change driving questions, and will have identified potential blockers to plan around.

To prepare:

  1. Observe the group and its behaviours
  2. Identify instances of counter-productive behaviours
  3. Analyse these behaviours to propose driving questions
  4. Pair current, undesirable driving questions with new, desirable driving questions
  5. Find examples to illustrate why each question should change

You should have something like the table below:

Example set of driving questions to change
Example set of driving questions to change

The exercise can then be run as follows:

  1. Discuss the premise of changing culture by changing questions
  2. Share your first example of a pair of driving questions, and the instance of the behaviour (this should be an instance widely understood and accepted by the group)
  3. Work through the other question pairs in your list, and ask the group to come up with examples themselves. They will generally do so enthusiastically! It’s unlikely, but if they don’t, you have your prepared examples to fall back on.
  4. Because you won’t be able to solve everything in this session, prioritise as a group (through dot voting, etc) the question pairs to focus on (no more than 3 for the first session). Allow 30 mins to 1 hour to get to this point.
  5. Now for each question pair, run an “anchors and engines” exercise to identify – in the group’s context – the potential blockers (“anchors”) and the supporting factors or concrete actions (“engines”). Take 15-30 minutes per pair. Synthesise individual contributions into themes.

You now have a set of concrete actions to support, and real issues that might hinder, the type of culture change you are seeking to achieve. It might look something like:

Culture change anchors and engines
Culture change anchors and engines

Of course, effort remains to make this change happen, but it can be directed very precisely, and that is valuable when dealing with culture.

Arguments with Agency

Here are slides from my talk at LASTconf 2015. The title is “Bring Your A-Game to Arguments for Change”. The premise is that there are different types of arguments, more or less suited to various organisational and delivery scenarios, and the best ones have their own agency. In these respects, you can think of them like Pokemon – able to go out and do your bidding, with the right preparation.

Change agents
Change agents

The content draws heavily from ideas shared on this blog: