Culture Club

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Recently I’ve been challenged by the question, “Can you change culture?” I think this is pretty common for folks who work in large organizations. The question of culture and how it blocks or allows us to get things done is a thorny one. There seem to be two opposing schools of thought in the agile community on the subject of culture:

  1. You can’t change culture, you can only adapt to it (customize your process to fit)
  2. You can change culture (through influence, good looks, and the right practices)

Of course, perhaps the first question is, “What is this culture thing anyway?” Most definitions of culture are terribly vague and in my opinion not especially useful (although, couched in the delightfully hand-wavy  terms of corporate sociology, they usually sound very smart). Just for giggles, here are some definitions:

  • Culture is the accepted norms of behavior for a group
  • Culture is the collection of social contracts that a group depends on
  • Culture is how we treat each other
  • Culture = people

I forget where I saw that last definition (Tobias Mayer?), but it’s probably my favorite of the bunch. You see often culture is used in conversation to hide or excuse problems with people. It’s kind of like referring to employees as “resources” (Ooh! Now I can be that irritating agile guy who corrects people’s terminology! A word to the wise: Don’t be that guy). So where was I? Oh yeah, culture. So here’s the deal, I don’t like the term culture because it’s just too damn vague. Often times I get a lot more clarity if I use more specific terms to describe the problem. For example:

  • Our culture won’t permit us to do that = Manager X won’t permit us to do that
  • Our culture only supports hierarchical decision making = Bob likes to make all the decisions

Once I take the time to replace culture with more specific terms (Who, What, Where, When, Why), I usually find that the problem feels more manageable to me. More human and less onerous. On the one hand, “Our culture” is vague and hard to put strategy around. On the other, influencing Manager X is a simple exercise in winning friends and influencing people. That’s something I know how to do. People I can work with. Culture…not so much.

So if you accept this definition of culture (culture = people), then your ability to change the culture directly depends on your ability to influence people. That’s Dale Carnegie stuff. It’s not easy, but it can be done – one person at a time. When you are in a small company, that’s not too daunting a challenge – win a handful of people over and you are done. However, in a large company, it’s quite a different matter. In a large company you have to win over hundreds or even (heaven forbid) thousands. That’s a very different challenge – and it’s an order of manure…uh…magnitude more difficult. It can be done, but it’s a long term challenge that may take years – and while some strategies you will use with larger groups are the same as for small groups, often they can be very different. If you are accustomed to trying to change the culture in small companies, you almost have to learn a completely new language in order to try and change the culture at large companies.

But seriously, can you REALLY change culture in big companies? One way to answer this question is to look for examples of successful culture change within large corporations. There are one or two that I can think of:

  1. Richard Semler, SEMCO (As described in the book, “Maverick”)
  2. James Collins, “Good to Great” (A series of stories of dramatic corporate change)

If you accept these stories as true, then the answer must be that culture change can indeed happen. But perhaps you are an inveterate cynic (like me) and don’t believe everything you read in books. Maybe culture change is just something that people with extraordinary power can achieve (like CEOs). Then what hope do those of us who exist much lower down in the corporate hierarchy have? Two thoughts:

  1. Sometimes we have to accept that our sphere of influence is limited. Those limitations are things that are very real like geography. You may only be able to influence folks that you work with in your particular office (which makes a lot of sense). Influencing the rest of the organization is going to be much harder. This has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with constraints. Start small, gather your wins, and grow.
  2. You can just wait. Bide your time. Sometimes you have to wait for the right opportunity. How long should you wait? I don’t know. There is an element of patience when dealing with culture change. You need a lot of patience. Focus, prioritize, and be ready. There’s nothing wrong with that approach.

OK Tom, what if I still don’t buy it. My company is HUGE and there is just no way that I can influence these clowns…er…people. No matter what happens, once an organization gets above a certain number (perhaps the Dunbar number) then it becomes extremely difficult to change. So difficult in fact, that it’s just not worth fighting. If that really is the case (and in many cases it just may be), there really are two approaches:

It may be that there are kinds of change that will never be accepted within some organizations. However, usually, that is a relatively small set of invariants. There usually still remains a broad spectrum of change that can be introduced successfully. Just stay away from the hot buttons. Does it really matter that you introduce every single one of the 12 XP practices? Or would it be enough just to introduce a few (there is still some benefit gained). Can you bring change in small amounts rather than a huge batch? There is plenty of room for creativity in this sort of culture change.

In the end, even after all this, you may come to the conclusion that you can’t change the culture in big organizations. Maybe it’s just too hard. Perhaps you just don’t like Dale Carnegie. I don’t know. That may just be the way it is. If that ends up being the case for you, then saddle up Rozinante. Grab Sancho, and go find some more giants to tilt at. The world is full of them.

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