The sea of culture

The following post is part one of a three-part blog post series, called From the boat of product to the sea of culture, that touches on the interconnectedness of culture, product and agility. Subsequent parts include:

The sea of culture

There it lies in all its vastness – the sea of culture. It’s not tangible, because as soon as you try to hold it, it eventually slips out or evaporates. But you can feel it, see it; and without it existing, your boat would not exist as the vehicle it is. How do you tackle such an esoteric beast? As an organizational coach, this has been a key focus area for me when supporting current and past clients.

“Why culture? Why don’t you focus on coaching people on leadership, product, agile and lean skills and practices?” Well, I still do. But only after I’ve ensure that the right culture is there to enable those tools and practices. The goal on the boat is to get to the lighthouse; the goal isn’t to use the oars or boat engine (agility) for the sake of using it. You can only use the tools effectively if you know what your goal is and have an environment that enables you to do so. As the stoic Seneca once said, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”

Let’s talk about that environment – the sea, in our case. To have an effective cultural shift in a typical organization, the leaders must go first. They need to be coached through the differences between leading people and managing people, unlearn some existing ways of working with others, co-create some values and operating principles with a top-down and bottom-up approach, and set the stage for incentivizing the ideal behaviors.

The Culture Iceberg

The Culture Iceberg above depicts the relationship between values, operating principles, and behaviors. Using the metaphor of an iceberg, the values and operating principles are invisible but important starting points for creating the desired behavior, which is visible to all members of the organization and beyond. The invisible portion of the iceberg can also be referred to as mindset, and the water-line is the point at which decisions are made on how individuals act and manifest their thoughts and beliefs.

As a change agent, it’s a good idea to kick things off with defining the values that the organization would like to represent and embody. This list doesn’t have to be static – it’s often a good idea to revisit them periodically and discuss potential changes, if any. The values should be closely couple with the vision and mission of an organization. For example, if your vision is “To be a platform that democratizes access to real-estate data“, then some of your values may include “Transparency”, “Ease of access”, and “Data accuracy”.

While the values are often geared towards the benefits your organization provides to the external customers, you also want to think about how you’re encouraging your employees to live up to that. This is where operating principles come in. Operating principles are statements that describe how individuals that are building the product will interact with each other, as well as with different levels of users and customers. “It’s better for us to build nothing than something we’re not proud of”, “Build something that customers need”, and “Understand the problem, validate your solution, then scale” are some examples. At the end of the day, principles exist to help employees make better decisions.

You can use a sense-making approach to understand what the operating principles are, and what behaviors are currently exhibited in an organization/department/team. One model that can be used for sense-making for displayed behaviors is the Schneider model.

There are two types of operating principles – declarative and emergent. Declarative principles are ones that a team or individuals create upfront, typically in a workshop that was set up to define principles. In such sessions, individuals would say “One of our principles should be…”.

Emergent principles, on the other hand, look at how teams or individuals are making decisions; and the principles emerge from those experiences. Take the example of Tom, an airline worker working the gate of an airport. Tom noticed a trend that he often gets requests from family members to be seated next to each other because the online booking system didn’t give passengers the option to do so. In order to better address these customer requests and improve the design of the online reservation system, there can be a booking criteria for the reservation system, that says “keep families together.” This is a specific principle that emerges out of noticing that families were consistently separated, and that didn’t align with the experience that the airline wanted to deliver.

Once this principle exists, every time there is a decision on how to write code or change the online reservation system in any way, employees can use that principle as a check. The airline can then think about how to measure that and see that they are living up to these principles. Emergent principles are born out of trends and patterns from real-life interactions between customers and your product/service.

Because emergent principles are specific to a problem at one point of a product’s life-cycle, it will eventually fade away as other principles will emerge to take its place. Once the online reservation system of the airline is redesigned and families are booking their seats together, Tom no longer notices the trend of families requesting to be seated together at the gate. By assessing this pattern and other “success metrics” of this redesign, the airline can assume that the system redesign was successful. The principle of “keep families together” has served its purpose and can potentially be replaced with another emergent principle reflective of another customer pain point.

An emergent approach that I’ve used with past clients is by gathering the participants of an organization/department/team together and asking them to share past stories of success and failures in their teams/departments. Once they have done that, you want to describe the different archetypes (watch the Organic Agility video reference) that can exist in any given context and ask the leaders to group their success and failure stories into the archetype categories based on the behaviors that were exhibited. This approach has the value of being empirical by relying on past data – the stories that have already occurred, rather than non-specific behavioral questions which may or may not be reflective of the current climate. Based on the groupings, you will notice more stories in one (or a few) archetypes than the others. This information can then be used to baseline the current behaviors and use it to move towards the desired archetype/set of behaviors.

Non-specific behavioral questions

Treat the problem, not the symptoms. Rather than trying to directly manage the behaviors of individuals, change agents and leaders need to start at the bottom of the iceberg, by defining and clarifying the values and operating principles, to create a lasting shift toward the desired culture. This approach has a higher likelihood of impacting the visible layer of the Culture Iceberg – the behaviors that individuals exhibit day to day in your organization.

Want to continue the conversation? Connect with me on LinkedIn and let’s chat about how I can help you and your organization out.

3 thoughts on “The sea of culture”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s