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The Culture Game - Extract #1

Posted by Dan Mezick on Jul 26, 2012 |

Chapter 1 - Introduction

What is the culture game? It is a game you win by upgrading your company culture to value continuous organizational learning. Because of the current pace of change, organizations that learn fast can repeatedly outflank and outperform their so-called peers. New companies can seemingly come out of nowhere to develop and dominate new opportunities and prosper. The pace of change bestows nearly immediate rewards on the most adaptive company cultures. To be adaptive as an organization, that organization must intentionally engage in continuous learning. Organizational learning is by no means random but rather, a highly intentional act. Getting there is a game. . . and culture is the name of the game.

The culture found in typical organizations is ripe for substantial improvement. The typical company culture does not encourage in high levels of group learning. Instead, all sorts of artifacts clog company culture, including policies, practices, and procedures, some written and some unwritten. This clog reduces learning flows by discouraging experimentation, an essential raw material of organizational learning.

Developing a New Culture of Learning

Culture in a company exerts a powerful force on the participants. The observant need not look further than the career histories and current behaviors of respected leaders to get a clear understanding of what is actually valued in the organization. Those who get ahead are not giving lessons in the rules of the current game. Instead, participants typically must figure out company culture for themselves. Wiser participants rapidly learn to pay attention to what is done while discounting what is said.

This arrangement works against development of a culture conducive to group and organizational learning. Those who advance in the culture learn the game and perpetuate the current cultural arrangement. A few “win” by choosing to play by the rules, while the majority becomes disengaged. Meanwhile, the business environment, driven by technology, changes rapidly and effectively punishes low levels of group and organizational learning. Our company cultures act more like closed systems that respond slowly to change.

We are at a tipping point for management. Managers occupy unique positions to engage in the intentional shaping of culture in the direction of more adaptation. As a manager, you have the authorization to convene meetings, deploy budgeted funds for expenditures, and occasionally hire people. As a manager, you can encourage a new culture of learning by implementing learning practices proven to work at the group level. When your people learn as a team, they become more adaptable and achieve much better results, especially when the pace of change is fast. Teams that learn quickly are more adaptive than teams that don't. Adaptive teams are teams that can get better results, by rapid response to change.

Culture Hacking and Software Hacking

Prior to the late 1970s, it was difficult to gain access to computing power. Mainframe computing power resided behind glass walls in data centers; only a privileged few were able to gain access. That all changed when hardware manufacturers began creating small, inexpensive computers in the late 1970s, when the cost of computing power began to decline. In response, software hackers starting writing computer programs for personal use, and the era of software hacking was born along with the birth of the personal computing revolution. These applications often improved the quality of life by automating routine tasks and creating forms of entertainment like games. Before long, tech-curious people were programming small, inexpensive computers and building software applications for personal use.

As time passed, the microcomputer software industry was born, and the rest is history. The early software hackers created that industry.

That industry changed the world.

We are now facing a similar tipping point in the domain of company culture. For computers, the disruptive influence was the advent of the microprocessor, which made personal computers possible. In the culture space, the disruptive influence is the pace of change, driven by the widespread influence of technology in every aspect of society. Technology is accelerating the pace of change in business.

This acceleration of change is mandating an increase in (and more frequent) adaptation on the part of businesses, if they are to cope. Traditional corporate cultures are no longer adequate to succeed in the new world of business. Cultures that originated in the era of the industrial revolution are obsolete, precisely because they discourage learning at the level of organization. There is huge demand for a new culture of learning in our organizations. At issue is where to find tools to create this culture.

Culture Hacking Tools

With the advent of the computer revolution, it became standard practice for businesses to launch projects to develop software for their internal use. Dedicated, in-house information technology (IT) departments became the norm for most successful organizations. It was also typical that software design projects would fail, because software development is a complex process. This failure came at enormous cost.

Advanced forms of teamwork became necessary to deliver working software consistently. Agile methods, essentially team-learning practices, emerged in response to the enormous cost of failed software projects. For IT, the harsh complexity of software development became a laboratory for the development of repeatable team-learning practices. Pioneers like the signatories of the Agile Manifesto [1] developed techniques such as working in small iterations, inspecting frequently, and collecting continuous feedback from end-users. Agile processes harnessed change for the customer's competitive advantage.

In the end, technology essentially created the crisis of rapid change, as well as the solutions for coping with it. Agile software development methods are in fact group-learning techniques. The sixteen practices described in Part Two were derived from Agile software development. They are in fact culture hacking tools: practices that, if implemented correctly, can immediately raise the level of learning inside a team and the wider organization as a whole. It is now possible to apply these practices inside any organization that needs to become more adaptive.

Culture Hacking is a Bottom-Up Approach

Culture hacking is a bottom-up rather than a top-down process. Managers can deploy culture hacking tools, such as Agile methods, to alter the way the culture works inside a small team or a department. Such alterations to the culture are local in scope: when team or department members venture outside, the wider organizational culture will continue to dominate the thinking (and learning levels) of all participants. Even so, bottom-up culture hacking holds the promise to develop more effective teams and departments. And when managers are engaging in culture hacking actively coordinate their efforts, the impact on the wider organization can be very impressive.

Culture hacking tools include new forms of structure for interactions, new forms of meetings, and new organizational designs. The building blocks of these culture tools include specific interaction protocols and specific fundamental social structures, such as triads and Scrum. [2]

Just like the computer software hackers of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the culture hackers of the early 21st century are building the tools needed to construct their programs, but instead of computer programs, culture hackers are rewriting the culture in organizations. Figure 1 compares the software hacking of the 1970's and the culture hacking of the early 21st century:

Figure 1.Software Hacking Compared to Culture Hacking

Disruptive Influence

Computer Software Hackers

Company Culture Hackers

Advances in technology

Microprocessor, driven by science

Rapid change, driven by technology

Platform to construct operating systems and applications

Microcomputers

Business Organizations

Timeframe to emerge

1975-1985

2010-2020

Platform building blocks

Machine language code, low-level functions, and software structures

Cultural codes, interactions, meetings and related social structures

Operating Systems

CPM, MS-DOS, Windows

Yet to be determined, still emerging

Engineering Practices

Software architecture and design

Cultural architecture and design

Early thought leaders

Donald Knuth, and others in the domain of software development

Jay Forrester, and others in the domain of organizational development

Nature of the coding task

Create new code from scratch, using homebrew tools

Refactor or modify existing cultural codes, using homebrew tools

The early computer programming hackers had to create all-new application code for all-new platforms. These platforms for software applications included the early microcomputers such as the Altair. In the present day, culture hackers do not create new code from scratch. Instead, they modify the existing cultural codes, mostly by tinkering with meetings and interactions. Instead of an all-new platform, the platform is the existing organization. Culture hackers are actually in the business of refactoring existing cultural code on existing platforms. In computer programming, refactoring is the restructuring of existing code so that the overall system displays more robust performance, and so that new levels of performance are more easily extended . . . and maintained.

Efforts to refactor the culture of an organization have the same goal.

Summary

Culture hacking is the active, intentional and iterative modification of existing cultural norms in your existing organization, with intent to create a stronger culture of learning. The Culture Game is a handbook for managers who want to alter the culture of their teams and departments. The Tribal Learning Practices found in Part Two are a set of tools for your toolbox as you embark on the journey of hacking your culture.


[1] Beck, K., Beedle, M., Van Bennekum, A., Cockburn, A., Cunningham, W., Fowler, M., Grenning, J., Highsmith, J., Hunt, A., Jeffries, R., Kern, J., Marick, B., Martin, R. C., Mellor, S., Schwaber, K., Sutherland, J., & Thomas, D. (2001). “The Agile Manifesto.” Retrieved from Manifesto for Agile software development website: http://agilemanifesto.org/

[2] These building blocks are described in detail in later sections of this book.

About the Book Author

Dan Mezick advises leaders, teams and organizations. An expert on culture design and business agility, Dan speaks frequently at industry conferences on culture change, organizational learning, and teamwork. He is an organizer of the agile CULTURE Conference, the signal event coming to Philadelphia & Boston in September of 2012. Sponsored by INFOQ, this event is keenly focused on the emerging art & science of culture design for teams and organizations. You can learn more here.

Dan's organization New Technology Solutions provides training programs, consulting & coaching to businesses of all sizes that are seeking more business agility. You can reach Dan at dan@newtechusa.net , by phone at 203 915 7248, via Twitter @DanMezick, or via his blog.

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