The movie trailer for the newly-released film, The Company Men, has the following tag line: “In America, we give our lives to our jobs…” It succinctly sums up a key aspect of the prevailing American culture—our attitude towards work, and its centrality in shaping our choices.
Organizations, too, have cultures that make them more or less desirable places to spend our time. But what is “organizational culture”? Simply defined, it is “the way we do things around here.” While company values, policies, and goals are widely communicated, its culture is rarely captured in any formal way but is widely understood among those in it. As one wag said, “I don’t know what fish think about, but it sure isn’t water.” It’s not part of the environment. It is the environment.
Organization culture breathes in a world of stated and implied expectations and norms. For example: we respond to e-mail early, late, and over the weekend, we take conference calls in the evening during family time, or we change vacation plans according to unforeseen business needs. It can mean wearing a suit or never wearing one. The culture may support “cube farms” or open work spaces, support or forbid skateboards and dogs at work, reward team effort or rogue individualism. Culture can fuel or blunt innovation. As management guru Peter Drucker has concluded about its power: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
One thing I know for sure (to borrow the name of Oprah’s monthly column), organizational culture is really difficult to change. Nor does it happen quickly. The most helpful thing I was ever told on the subject is this: expect culture change to happen “like water on rock.” Drip, drip. Slow erosion of old forms—particularly in the case of long-established companies or institutions. Yet it is so often those corporate giants that decide their culture needs to change, and by the way, let’s hit that objective by the end of the year. Younger companies are less encumbered by the weight of their own history and tendencies. Take the young airline JetBlue, for example, which is intentionally building a value-based culture, instead of having to rebuild one that has grown warped.
So this got me to thinking about geology and water erosion. Here are a few facts about the physics of “water on rock” that could prove to hold lessons for organizations, large and small, seeking to change their culture.
Lesson #1: Water always flows from high terrain downward, towards lower terrain. This is why rivers carve valleys.
In organizations, the high terrain is the C-suite (AKA Chief Executive Whoevers). Are the leaders in the organization just declaring the need for culture change or designing and investing in systemic changes? Yes, Virginia, there is a culture and “it” comprises systems and sanctions, processes and people, rules and rewards. Think of it like sedimentary rock—fused layers, all of which must be worn away to erode, reshape, and free it to become something else. These layers have to shift and align to a new way of thinking and doing to realize and reinforce true culture change.
Are leaders participating in culture change (what do I need to do differently?) or delegating it as a strategic intention and waiting for results as observers from the high terrain? Here’s an example: I recently heard that an executive in a recently merged Fortune 100 company wondered with exasperation why the culture change scores weren’t better yet (within the first year), while at the same time not knowing who was responsible for training its supervisors. A counter example? Ann Rhoades, architect of Jet Blue’s corporate culture, has successfully employed a critical equation: Leadership drives values, values drive behavior, behaviors define culture, and culture determines performance.
Leaders who seek culture change need to get their suits wet, feel the current, and start swimming in the realities (JetBlue’s CEO David Barger is also a crew member, helping with food service and cleaning the aircraft when he flies). They must be able to speak from the heart about why it needs to change because they have listened to not only their business analysts but their frontline employees. And then commit to the time and resources it will take.
Lesson #2: Raindrops (especially in dry environments) create splash erosion that moves tiny particles of soil.
So if you are frustrated waiting for the headwaters to make their way downstream, start by making a splash. Whether you are an employee, team leader, or manager, take a risk. Risk = splash.
Ask yourself: “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I defy (with even the smallest gesture) the way we do things around here?” Then test your hypothesis and notice what happens. Were you applauded openly or underground, discouraged, or met with passive-aggressive humor? In any case, you will have discovered something critical about risk tolerance in your culture. Your team may be less rigid than the overall culture. And who knows, those watching may just start to do their own rain dance.
Lesson #3: The faster water moves in streams the larger objects it can pick up and transport. This is known as critical erosion velocity.
A few starter ideas:
Share the splash impact—real-life stories of culture change occurring in teams or small units widely. Virally. Give the soil particles hope of movement. Lots of rivulets converge as streams.
Create a survival narrative. The need for culture change usually means there is big trouble. In other words, unless we can create a raging river torrent to reach the arid plan, people and animals could starve.
Make sure people get in the boat before you head downstream. There is usually plenty of talk about buy-in and catchphrases created to generate excitement (“All Fired Up!”—oh please). While processes and systems must be revamped to drive culture change, the people who have to adapt and use them better be onboard. Research from the Forum Corporation’s identifies three key people factors that drive speed: Clarity, unity, and agility.
Of course, companies want to speed up culture change, which is usually linked to gaining competitive advantage. But be careful out there, most of those who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel died. If you’re going to go fast and furious, be ready for the ride, and the results. Or cultivate some patience.
Me? I’m going outside to check for signs of rain.