Changing Culture

Does your organization discuss changing the culture? What do they mention they are going to do to change it?

I have a passion for organizational behavior and design. Having been a Scrum Master, one of the key areas of focus for me was driving change within the organization. Throughout my experience and learning of organizational behavior and design, Larman’s Laws of Organizational Behavior has been an observation I refer to when it comes to changing culture. I have observed this multiple times now in my career.

Larman’s Laws of Organizational Behavior state:

“After decades of observation and organizational consulting, here are Larman’s Laws of Organizational Behavior. These are observations rather than laws to follow.

1. Organizations are implicitly optimized to avoid changing the status quo middle- and first-level manager and “specialist” positions & power structures.

2. As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be reduced to redefining or overloading the new terminology to mean basically the same as status quo.

3. As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be derided as “purist”, “theoretical”, “revolutionary”, “religion”, and “needing pragmatic customization for local concerns” — which deflects from addressing weaknesses and manager/specialist status quo.

4. As a corollary to (1), if after changing the change some managers and single-specialists are still displaced, they become “coaches/trainers” for the change, frequently reinforcing (2) and (3).

5. Culture follows structure.

Or, Culture/behavior/mindset follows system & organizational design. i.e., If you want to really change culture, you have to start with changing structure, because culture does not really change otherwise. By the way, this is an observation in large-scale; in small start ups, it’s the reverse: structure follows culture (org design follows mindset).

And “culture follows structure” (in large scale) is why deep systems of thought such as organizational learning are not very sticky or impactful by themselves in large scale, and why systems such as Scrum (that have a strong focus on structural change at the start) tend to more quickly impact culture — if the structural change implications of Scrum are actually realized.

I discovered that the well-known systems-thinker/advocate John Seddon also observed this: “Attempting to change an organization’s culture is a folly, it always fails. Peoples’ behavior (the culture) is a product of the system; when you change the system peoples’ behavior changes.” ~Larman’s Laws of Organizational Behavior by Craig Larman

Culture follows structure.  I find this to be key in my understanding as to why so many culture initiatives fail and so many surveys continue to show the same problems to an organization even though it seems like some things have been put in place to improve it.

One of my biggest recommendations to put an organization and it’s people in the right direction to improve culture, is to put a backlog in place that truly shows the problems captured from retrospectives across all team members and areas in the organization and a visual board to build transparency/ownership of the items across the organization. Leadership should ideally own this backlog from the executive team as they will most likely be the ones who can change the organizational structure.

For example, an item in the backlog may be that the organization has too many silos of teams that work on the same product. In other words, the organization lacks feature teams. If the organization doesn’t change their structure for example by making feature teams with a flat hierarchy, the culture will most likely continue/revert to the same despite small improvements.  The organization can add touch points for communication, department outings, etc, but the status quo will remain in the end.  The morale of the team members will continue to be the same and potentially become worse. Also, the product and customers will most likely be affected negatively at some point.

Knowing that culture comes from the organizational structure, helps me in understanding and knowing that there is only so much you as an individual can do to make a difference. It will take the top level of an organization to truly move the mountain. Until then, there are things that you as an individual may do to help chip away at the mountain. See some of my other posts on ways to help drive change.  While you won’t change the culture permanently, you may help improve small areas of the system structure that lead to bigger change.

What have you experienced when it comes to changing culture?

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