Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles Applying Genetic Engineering to Your Organization Culture

Applying Genetic Engineering to Your Organization Culture

Key Takeaways

  • Direct messages or instructions can be translated in different ways and can take different forms according to people’s perception, which are created by interaction with the surrounding environment.
  • When we want to change a culture, we should look not only at the messages that we deliver directly, but also at how messages are perceived and translated into actions by the general population.
  • If any circumstances contradict direct messages, unexpected results can occur.
  • The best way to assess undesired cultural influence would be to go back from the expected results and assess the entire flow chain that contributed to it.
  • There are known anti-patterns that can drive away the organizational culture from collaboration, alignment, trust and transparency.

Almost every player in the software industry is heavily invested in the journey of becoming better, more modern, and relevant to their end users. But many Digital transformations and Cloud initiatives have not paid off as initially expected. Common barriers to transformation value remain people, mindset, and organizational culture.

This barrier is so significant that it can halt any transformation from achieving meaningful delivery capabilities or scaling business impact from a company’s investment. This topic is too important to be overlooked.

Our approach at Kenzan was to act as investigators in this space and look for inspiration in other scientific fields.

We diagnosed a hidden code that everyone was aware of and acted on. But, the code was not written anywhere and was not accessible to anyone by any means. The inaccessibility of the code made our ability to manipulate and influence change almost impossible.

The behavioural mechanism works as a sophisticated DNA blueprint that directs actions.

We started to explore mechanisms for DNA manipulation, and looked for ways to explore the same concepts in the organizational environment. To ensure that changes in processes and communications will not solve one problem and create new ones, we established baseline metrics to measure the impact for the changes implemented on the company’s performance and the company’s culture.

Definition of genetic engineering and organization DNA

Organizations are groups of people who share a common goal of how they should influence their industry and customer segments.

Organizations are shaped by their history, proud moments, failures, values, and standards. Humans are the living organisms within the organizations. People need to navigate toward the organizational goals in their daily work equipped with a filter that the organization gives them to inspect reality at each level and in each role.

Organizational culture is the organization’s behavioural blueprint; we can also call it Organization DNA. It includes the unspoken instructions of how one should behave as part of the organization, those are the human behaviour boundaries in the working environment.

This concept of hidden behavioural codes that are unique for each organization has been demonstrated many times; when an employee from one organization joins another organization, they sense those codes and change their behavior.

One of the greatest challenges in finding a suitable mechanism for manipulating the behavioural codes was that most of the genetic engineering concepts did not work at scale. Many of the methods needed very specific indicators in order to allocate specific cells that were candidates for manipulation.

Deepening the investigation, we came across a field of science called epi-genetic. This field explored the environmental influence on DNA replication, and scientifically proved that cell manufacturing is influenced not only by the DNA blueprint, but also by the cell environment. The cell environment influences how specific DNA code will be replicated.  That was all we needed in order to explore new methods in the organizational field.

Culture learning components and process

To understand what culture consists of, we explored how culture is learned. We focused a magnifying glass on the new employees’ organizational culture learning curve. We used surveys, Gemba walks and many in-person meetings with new employees to collect and validate the information. Our first conclusion was that the culture of a new organization requires on average about six to twelve months to learn.

There are a few reasons that explain why the culture learning process takes so long. New employee learning mechanisms consist of interactions, observations and validations.

A perception of the rules and boundaries gradually develops over time for each employee. Later, that perception is verified and eventually after about a year the employee understands the codes and expected behavior. From that point on, changes to the perception are minor.

Every employee is exposed to culture-related messages that result from many different interaction types and dimensions such as:

•           An employee’s immediate physical and virtual environment consists of the employee's immediate team and direct manager. Immediate environment introduces work routines, and normally expected interactions between the team individuals. Employees subconsciously learn through those interactions the expected behaviour on the team level.

  • External work environments, like family and friends. Casual talks about work can influence an employee’s perception of their workplace.
  • Internal work environment that is external to the employee unit or team. For example, random corridor gathering and chats in the kitchen. We have fewer of those interactions in remote work.
  • Business unit or the larger organization to which the employee’s team belongs. Sometimes big enterprises consist of multiple layers. Employees will learn about desired behaviour by participating in executives’ reviews and feedback, observing management behaviour, leadership open door or closed door policy, alignment between messages given by different managerial hierarchies, and much more.
  • The organization leadership, C-level management team. Usually C-level are communicating messages to employees by having town halls, quarterly mails and general announcements that also demonstrate both expectations from the employee and demonstrate leadership behaviour.

Employee’s organizational perception is shaped by many factors:

Previous expectations

Employees are not born when they join a company. Every person has expectations and history to compare to, whether from personal life and interactions, from previous work experience, or both. Every message that the employee receives passes through a filter that categorizes and determines how the person feels and connects to that message from past experience.

Direct messages

When a new employee joins a company, a lecture is delivered to educate the employee about the company values and expected behavior. Most organizations invest in this area to sharpen the messages, assuming that a lecture is all it takes to create culture. This assumption is incorrect.

Demonstrated behavior

Behavior is one of the most significant means of communication. As a new employee, you observe a lot and your subconscious learns to imitate. When there is a conflict between demonstrated behavior and company values or direct messages, that kind of organizational conflict creates internal conflict for the employee. According to the employee’s perception and judgment, an understanding is created on whether the demonstrated behavior is desired or a one-time mistake. Of course, this determination will be made over time with multiple observations.

Immediate team processes

Processes and ways of working encourage specific behaviors. Team routine, or lack of routines, also teach the new employee what is or is not expected from them.

Greater organization processes

Usually every company has annual processes, on the higher company level, that originated by external units like HR, Finance, and Legal. When a new employee experiences those processes, the employee validates what already has been learned about the organization's expected behavior.

Personal experience

When an employee feels confident enough with learning about behavioral expectations, they start to experiment themselves and validate what they have learned.
After six to twelve months, employees have a good understanding of the company’s cultural code and expectations. From there on, changing that learning and understanding the culture becomes more difficult.

From theory to a reality

Wherever a company's culture does not serve the general company direction, there will always be significant signs for that deficiency. It can be demonstrated as an employee's disengagement and frustration. It can manifest as trust issues and disbelief in management direction. It also can manifest as a lack of connection between company vision and strategy to employees’ everyday work.

One example is a large enterprise that struggled with frustration from executive management about the quality of software delivery. As much as the executives tried to convey a message to the employees that quality could not be compromised, employees still put milestones and on-time delivery before product quality, and overlooked the very specific request that was communicated to them by the management.

Day-to-day behavior was diagnosed as "smell" for the resistance of the company employees to the strict request that was delivered from their management team.

Quality first

We started to analyze why employees did not emphasize quality as being most important.

We found significant contradictions in messages being delivered by mid-management and low-level management to the development teams. The source of that misalignment was the measurement KPIs imposed on those managers.

Executives wanted quality. Middle managers were measured on "on-time" delivery and commercial obligation. That disconnect in priorities is how inconsistency in messages affected development and created unexpected behaviors.

The solution was to align the mid-management measurements with the executive vision. In this situation, only a manipulation of the surrounding environment could create the circumstances in which doers could prioritize quality as desired by executive management.

Another example took place in the IT department of a large enterprise. In this department, many projects run in parallel and although the department was very experienced running those types of projects, management was constantly surprised with delays, production issues, and unsatisfied internal and external customers.

After investigating the value chain, it was clear that blaming culture was in place. If any employee raised risk they were often blamed for the problem. In other cases, risks were overlooked. Many employees felt that there was no point in calling for help, they felt it might even risk their careers. They were simply afraid.

First, we relayed what we learnt to the IT management. It was very hard for them to realise the impact of their deeds. They were certain that they were keeping people accountable and responsible, and had no idea what culture arose just in front of them as a result.

Second, together with the management we created a complaining event. The management team shared failures and learning with the IT teams for the first time, demonstrating vulnerability.

This failure share became a quarterly event. In addition, the head of IT started to visit his employees' offices quite often. He demonstrated to them that the rules of the game changed and they can approach him personally.

When the next employee satisfaction occurred, there was an amazing increase of employees’ trust in the management; results were better than ever. In addition, employees were not afraid anymore to raise risks, and as a result the number of unexpected crises decreased almost to zero.

Oftentimes, our gut feeling captures disputes quite quickly. Having a solid approach for culture manipulation is key.

The approach that worked best for us was to work back from desired results, looking at the entire value stream or process chain that contributes to those results.

Define desired results

The first step in approaching any problem is to understand and define what the problem we want to solve is. Problem boundaries need to be well-defined and also need to consider metrics to improve and out of scope areas.

Situation value chain assessment

The second step would be to gather information and assess the current situation. In order to do so, one needs to make no assumptions and go through the entire value chain that contributes to the specific problematic outcome defined in the problem space. Learn as much as possible on the current processes, interactions, communications and perceptions.

Root cause analysis

After sufficient information was collected about the problem space value chain, it is time to separate symptoms from behavioural causes.

Define remedy

List actions that can influence the value chain for the better. Consider using existing processes and interaction with minimal manipulations in order not to overwhelm the system.

Employees have commitments; the system can not be stopped and changed. The best way to change systems on the run would be to make very small changes with a meaningful impact.


Use blue green deployment concepts to define a small one population segment that represents the value chain behaviour, and apply changes only to that specific group.

Measure and refine

Measure results of behavioural change of the specific group, follow metrics that were defined previously to ensure change impact. Collect feedback from the group about the implementation process.

Refine the implementation plan according to the results and feedback.


Once confidence is gained in the approach to the solution, it is time to expand it to the entire value chain.
Even after desired results are accomplished, it is recommended to keep the measurement tracking in order to make sure that old habits are eliminated completely.

Points to consider

A few common anti-patterns are often observed in organizations that have culture problems:

Not starting with "why"

The laws of physics determine that every object always prefers to stay on its track and that external intervention is required to create a change.

One of the reasons why it is so important to explain what stands behind a decision is to create an understanding and a sense of partnership as a call to action, and raise a sense of urgency with the wider population regarding the problem that an organization is working to solve. People are not machines. They do not act on commands.


Traditionally, organizations used competition between individuals, teams, and departments to push people to excel. Competitive human instinct is used for the benefit of the company.

Over time, the software industry has changed. End-user experience forces us to be more unified than ever.

Poorly designed competition can create internal tension which harms the ability of the company to excel.

We encourage companies to replace competition with light gamification.

Gamification is the addition of a game element to non-game activities. An example of this is champion boards for effective code check-ins in order to encourage developers to check-in their code more frequently.

The emphasis is on what a company strives for, and desired behaviours, and prizes for winners should be very small; recognition for desired behaviour should be the focus.

One-way communication

Directions and instructions traditionally are delivered top-down. The main problem with this approach is that capturing a problem fully in a meeting room with the smartest management team will never be able to truly reflect reality and demonstrate the full impact of the decisions made.

I do acknowledge that it is difficult to impossible to consider everyone in the company when trying to make urgent decisions. What we suggest is to maintain an open feedback channel to the decision-makers at all times, and give people the opportunity to raise concerns, identify risks, and give the management team more information about the decisions that they make. This channel of communication will help eliminate surprises and enable management teams to use the wisdom of the organization. It will also help with the resistance that is today’s number one reason for failed transformations, and create better alignment in the organization towards the organization goals.

Local optimization

Because of structure and budget allocations for different units and departments in enterprises, investing in local optimizations is easy. Those local optimizations can create waste and even harm the global company. We must make sure that optimizations are implemented by a mechanism that enables alignment across the board to prevent such situations.

Lack of tolerance

Many organizations nowadays strive for innovation. Every manager hopes that brilliant minds are hired that will propel the company into a successful future.
There are environmental aspects that must be considered when people are encouraged to innovate. Many innovations by default will fail and not produce the desired outcome. That scenario is just the nature of innovation. If we want to promote a true culture of innovation, we must invest time and resources. We must tolerate failures and perceive those failures as learning experimentations. Without creating supportive environments, innovation will not occur.

Are we there yet?

Another common anti-pattern is to assume that company transformation has a due date. We do know that the human environment is always changing. Technology changes, people change, market demand changes -- when organizations stop reacting to those changing factors, they are left behind.

Taking the safe road for outstanding culture

Organizations must use meta-analysis as a common practice. In addition to delivering software, product, or services periodically, they will observe how they are delivering, aligning and communicating; immediately they will be able to sense the indicators of a problem that are influencing perception.

Organizations are a network of interactions. They hire the best people that they can. There is not a single employee who comes into the office in the morning with the intention not to perform at their best. Organizations must trust their people and give them more accountability, responsibility, and opportunity to influence the future of their own network, and the future of the organization itself.

Involving as many people as possible in shaping the organization's methods and working to pave that way forward is a must for keeping the organization resilient and refraining from making those kinds of mistakes that drive culture away from the intent.

If we will look back on the first example about quality, we can clearly understand that it could have been prevented if even one of the following elements were in place:

  • Metrics alignment on organization level
  • Communication between different managerial layers and departments
  • Employee feedback

Because none of these were in place, there was misalignment and no mechanism was available to the employees to raise the unclarity back to management.

Culture consists of many elements. Deepening our understanding of the working environment and its influence on the employees’ perception is key to driving messages that will penetrate through all the layers and will ensure change. Considering all of the above will help organizations influence their behavioural DNA for the better. Create a supportive environment that will allow seeds of positive behaviour patterns to flourish and the company to succeed.

About the Author

Liat Palace is a director of Agile solutions and an enterprise scaling coach at Kenzan, working in the IT industry for over 20 years with extensive coaching and consulting experience. Her goal is to help companies unleash their potential, connect business to technology, and by doing so influence society for the better.


Rate this Article