Culture is nebulous, focus on what you can change

Candida in Culture Gram StainWhat is this quote talking about?

So, focus on your management system, on targets you can see, such as leader's behavior, specific expectations, tools, and routine practices.

Knowledge management? Human resources? Theory of Constraints? How about some more of the quote - actually the preceding paragraph:

Culture is no more likely a target than the air we breathe. It is not something to target for change. Culture is an idea arising from experience. That is, our idea of culture of a place or organization is a result of what we experience there. In this way, a company's culture is a result of its management system. The premise of this book is that culture is critical, and to change it, you have to change your management system.

This quote is from Creating a Lean Culture by David Mann, as quoted by Alan Shalloway in his blog entry Why Not to Focus on a Company’s Culture. Don't bother fixing the culture. Make the system work, and the culture will arise.

But how do I justify this thinking with the many times I have written about culture or pieces by my friends, like Luis Suarez' recent The Soft Skills of Collaboration and The Social Enterprise, which appears to say that we have to focus on creating the right culture to enable the Social Enterprise. I am pretty sure I have had that sentiment and used those words.

We want the results of "the right culture" or "a collaborative environment," so the natural inclination is to create those things. I like Alan Shalloway's take on this: would you reject working with an organization because it had the "wrong" culture, or would you take that assessment and implement the mechanisms required to do the job?

It turns out that things like "culture" and "collaboration" are easy to spot but very difficult to create - when you focus on creating culture. They are concepts rather than behavior. Rather, as the blurb above suggests, focus on the behaviors you want to see and the system that you are trying to change. When those changes occur, take a look and see if the culture / collaboration are happening - or if you need to look at other behaviors / measures

[Photo: "Candida in Culture Gram Stain" by Albaraa Mehdar]

10 Comment(s)

David Buchan said:

I've rejected working in an organisation with the wrong culture because the very culture itself was not open to change. I've forwarded a link to Steve Simpson who deals with this on a daily basis. Check out for his idea that culture is a system, but a system of unwritten ground rules about how to operate in the workplace. In that sense, you are changing a system. It's just not one of those with procedure manuals and KPIs.

A thought-provoking piece. Thanks, David.

Thanks, David. Always good hearing from you. I like this Unwritten Ground Rules concept. They have to be surfaced - and the new behaviors modeled. I think there is a lot associated with the way we measure each other and the system that creates the undesired behaviors, so we have to find out where those rules are written and change those. Interesting.

Luis Suarez said:

Hi Jack! Very insightful blog post and rather thought-provoking, indeed, as David mentioned above. I, too, have rejected in numerous occasions having worked for companies where the culture wasn't just "right". I, too, believe culture is a system and, like any system, it can be modified, adjusted, enhanced, enriched, enlightened towards a common goal where collaboration and knowledge sharing flow naturally.

On that link you quote above I would have an issue with the wording of "management" and changing "your management system". For a good few decades we have seen how management surely hasn't changed much from what was first envisioned, as it's been following that tailorism model of conducting business all along which, in a way, if anything doesn't promote an open, public, and transparent culture where hierarchies mingle nicely with networks and communities, which clearly seems to be the future of work as we are seeing it and experiencing it today.

We don't need to change the management system, in my opinion, but the leadership model. Move aside, as much as you possibly can, management and incorporate leadership, as I have blogged about over here and somehow I feel we would be in the right direction to help influence culture to change as a system and lead forward towards we would all want it to be: that one where we would all feel comfortable working at as part of who we are: networked professionals.

Thanks, Luis. Management behaviors are part of the org culture too. Maybe what we need are gentle (or not-so-gentle) ways for people to move away from Taylorism and everyone-must-be-busy mindsets to leadership and direction-setting mindsets. Lead by example! Everyone can do that from front line to back office and everywhere in between.

Luis Suarez said:

Exactly, Jack! That's the kind of forward-thinking I was thinking about, when transitioning from that changing the management of the system mentality to leading the pack into providing an opportunity to help redefine the corporate world as we know it by inheriting plenty of the 2.0 traits that the Social Web has made worth while embracing and living by: openness, collaboration, publicy, transparency, agile, trust, (knowledge) sharing, networked, interconnected, etc. etc. Somehow it feels a whole lot more empowering to unleash all of that hidden talent and break loose of those human batteries we all know all businesses have, but that they have been neglecting for decades...

David Buchan Author Profile Page said:

Last night's reading has me looking at this, and may other things, from a slightly different angle. I was reading about "Wicked problems" in Jeff Conklin's Dialogue Mapping. One of the indicators of a wicked problem is that you don't understand the problem until you have a solution. We say it's management or leadership or culture but until we get some feedback from trying to adjust it we don't really know what we should be adjusting. We certainly can't be sure we have the solution.

Jack Vinson Author Profile Page said:

Thanks for all the comments. Also note that Luis Suarez started a thread on Google Plus that has gotten some traction.

Luis Suarez said:

@David, that's just fascinating stuff, indeed, and it surely puts things into perspective! No wonder we have been having a hard try at cracking it with regards to the culture "issues" when embracing "social" and it looks like we may have been looking from the wrong angle. Perhaps we should be looking for the solution to the problem and let it define the problem itself, if it is still there ... Good stuff!

@Jack, thanks for the heads up on the Google Plus thread... Sorry to have hijacked the conversation going there! :-(( This is one of the times where I wish Plus would have HTML enabled so that we could embed the entire convo over here... Hopefully, one day! :-)

No worries, as usual, Luis. I was thinking with this conversation happening in two places that it would be AWESOME to embed a little widget at the bottom of blog posts that creates the conversation in G+ if people are so inclined.

Luis Suarez said:

Oh, WOW! Finally, I am able to comment again! Jack, not sure what happened with the comment form, but it kept disappearing and couldn't leave any more comments... I was going to suggest that a few folks have been hinting how Google should acquire disqus to integrate the commenting system from disqus into Google Plus and that way we would have the best of both worlds: comments here, comments there, all in a single spot, easily accessible!

Sign me up, Scotty! :-D

Leave a comment

Previous entry: Are we really ready for social?

Next entry: Slacker!

Picture a steaming coffee cup. Better yet, grab one and have a read!

KJolt Memberships

Follow jackvinson on Twitter

View Jack Vinson's profile on LinkedIn