Culture vs systems.
Recently, I had a chat with a friend who was frustrated by their company culture. They’d been pushing the company to operate with more urgency, but didn’t feel like it was landing. “How do we,” they wondered, “get the team to recognize that urgency is essential to our success?” They were convinced this was an internal cultural problem, mentioning the classic, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” quote often attributed to Peter Drucker, although probably incorrectly.
One of my great sins as a leader is falling too deeply into the systems thinking trap, which I’ve spent years digging out from, but whenever folks talk about failed cultural change, I believe they’re stuck in one of two common traps:
- Their strategy for changing culture is to announce a new culture. Unfortunately, they soon recognize that announcing culture doesn’t work, you have to change the culture first, then you can further cement that change with an announcement
- They are earnestly trying to change culture, but their own actions and structure are getting in the way
The first of those I recently explored in Setting engineering organization values, so I won’t belabor it more here, and will focus on the second. Starting with some representative examples:
A company wants to move with urgency, but insists all external facing work is reviewed by their founder. This works extremely well at a small scale, but becomes a bottleneck as they grow. Employees lose a sense of urgency because they know they’ll, regardless of how quickly they do the work, get stuck in the approval process.
A successful cultural shift towards urgency requires addressing the systematic bottleneck in productivity
An executive team collaborates well together, but are often misaligned on the latest strategy. The founder changes details of the strategy frequently, and doesn’t communicate the changes consistently to the executive team. Even though the team collaborates well with each other, they spend a significant amount of time stuck or reworking approach, because they are rarely operating from the same information. Worse, when they’re not on the same page, they don’t know who is right, so they block on the founder clearing up the issue.
A successful cultural shift towards urgency requires either clearer communication about strategy changes, or a more durable strategy to operate against
An executive team collaborates well together, but are struggling to align on the budget. One executive gets the CEO to approve an urgent hire outside of the budget. The CEO agrees with the need, and reasons with themselves that they’re almost done with the budget anyway. The other executives start ignoring the budget and privately escalating for budget from the CEO. The CEO’s private approvals are now the de facto budget, rather than the budget itself, and costs spiral out of control (and away from the desired portfolio allocation).
A successful cultural shift towards company-first decision making will require either a shift away from private decision making or accountability to the shared budget
Looking at these examples, the point I want to highlight is that: successful culture change requires an alignment between systems and behavior. There’s a desire to see a primacy between culture and systems, but they’re both tightly connected, and changing one requires changing the other. Attempts to shift one without addressing the other simply won’t work.