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Paradoxes in Culture Change

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Organizations should realize that organizational culture is an important factor in increasing agility, and then act on this realization, argues Dick Nijman. The desired organizational culture must be promoted by example top down; what is happening at the top of the organization concerning values, communication and customer involvement will predict what will happen in the "underlying" layers of the organization.

Dick Nijman, organizational change agent, trainer and coach at "Werkplaats voor Organisatiecultuur", will give a keynote about organizational change when culture is involved at the annual conference of the Agile Consortium Netherlands. The conference theme is "The Power of Paradox as a driver for organizational change".

InfoQ asked Nijman about the paradox in culture change, what kind of culture organizations should aim for if they want to increase their agility, how to manage organizational change and the role of leadership in culture change, what organizations can do to learn from the past, and what managers should do to support employees when an organization is going through a change.

InfoQ: Can you give an example of a paradox in culture change?

Dick Nijman: To connect with customers and markets that change very quickly, your organization needs to be flexible, intrinsically motivated to provide the best and constantly on the look out for improvement. Changes will have to be implemented quickly and with full support.

Many organizations struggle with questions like:

  • How do I adapt to my environment faster?
  • How do I anticipate changes?
  • How can I better serve my customers?
  • How do I motivate employees and make them more self-managing?

And leaders seek answers to paradoxes like:

  • How to best roll out organizational change; top down or bottom up?
  • Is the organizational structure or the culture the engine for change?
  • Is a coaching and developing leadership style recommended or should we just give instruction?
  • Are we a learning or a planning organization?

Paradoxes are apparent contradictions, with emphasis on apparent because on further investigation they do not contradict each other. Think of a plane flying from London to Amsterdam. For 94% of the time the plane is not flying to its destination in a straight line. But how often does that plane arrive on time? This paradox is therefore valid in organizational change: "Organizational change is not plannable but we always arrive and mostly on time."

Earlier InfoQ interviewed Michael Sahota about Organizational Culture and Agile and asked him if it’s worthwhile to try and change your culture:

Michael Sahota: There’s no alternative to changing culture. I think that Agile practices induce a culture shift and that’s what creates a lot of backlash against Agile transformations. People keep saying, well, these rules are stupid. We don’t want to follow them anymore and the organization says, oh yes you will. And then there’s smoke, noise, and explosions. This is what has caused challenges with Agile adoptions. It’s that people have been inducing culture change without being aware that that’s what they’re actually doing.

InfoQ: What kind of culture should organizations aim for if they want to increase their agility?

Nijman: A lot can be gained when organizations realize that organizational culture is an important factor, and then act on this realization. Consider how much time we now spend on organizational culture. We often give much more time to our processes, organizational structure, tooling and technical training.

Successful organizations:

  • Pay attention to undercurrent and upstream, culture and structure, soft and hard goals on a daily basis.
  • Are agile because they focus on hard and soft goals in their change programs.
  • Involve the entire organization in drafting and executing change processes. They focus with the entire organization on the entire organization

There is no clear answer as to what organizational culture we aim for to increase our agility. That depends on many factors such as:

  • Who are the customers?
  • What is the service or product?
  • In what stage is the organization?
  • How responsible is everyone in the organization?

However, in all cases, a culture of learning and responsibility is always conditional. Therefore elements such as responsibility, focus, openness, (self) reflection, respect, courage, customer and organizational interest above the individual are definitely a vital part of a successful organizational culture.

Dan Mezick explained in the InfoQ interview on his book The Culture Game how tribal learning supports a culture that increases agility:

Dan Mezick: Business organizations that learn fast are clearly superior to those who do not. They routinely respond faster to change to identify and take advantage of opportunities. Levels of Tribal Learning in an organization are mostly a function of cultural support for such learning.

Tribal Learning is group-level, social learning. It is organizational learning. It is the kind of learning that is required to rapidly respond to the big opportunities that change creates. Genuine Agile teams generate lots of Tribal Learning. To do this, they actively hack the culture of their teams. They intentionally use practices like information radiation, pair programming, coaching and meeting facilitation to create a culture of learning.

InfoQ: Is it possible to manage organizational change? And if so, how?

Nijman: This is simple; organizations are systems that change by nature and these elements always play a crucial role:

  • The necessity for change. If this doesn’t come from within, then it always comes from the customer or the market.
  • This necessity legitimizes the need to educate or train your employees. It answers the question: why do I want you to change?
  • Do you have a clear vision for your organizational change?
  • Do you set a good example top down?
  • Are you ready to build a close knit group of team leaders?
  • Have you learned from the past? You cannot achieve a new organizational culture with the behavior of old one.
  • Do you have a clear path supported by the entire organization?
  • Are your leaders dedicated? Do they have the skills to coach your employees?

InfoQ: Which role does leadership have in culture change?

Nijman: In organizational and team development we talk about parallel processes. In short, what is happening at the top of the organization concerning values, communication and customer involvement will predict what will happen in the "underlying" layers of the organization. Or more simply, compare it with a family quarrel: if the parents have a quarrel, the children often refuse to eat at the table.

This concludes that the desired organizational culture must be promoted by example top down.

InfoQ: What can organizations do to learn from the past?

Nijman: When you travel with a city map of Groningen in Amsterdam and you can’t find your destination, it is clear to most people that you’re using the wrong map. Normally you would do away with it.

But when in work and life things don’t work out, few people and businesses abandon their floor plan (their idea of the world). We usually put the blame on difficult customers, recession, or employees who don’t listen or don’t understand.

Why do we not question our own floor plan more often?

Making annual plans is common sense with companies. The reasons their goals are usually not achieved is because organizations do not learn from the past.

There is only one reason to talk about disappointments: to learn from them!

In our change programs, the starting point is learning from the past. We ask questions like "what can you do to repeat successes?", "what are the lessons you learned?", "why don’t we take those lessons more seriously?", "What does that say about our mindset?" etc.

We do not create a business plan without a change in the core beliefs of the key employees.

InfoQ: What should managers do to support employees when an organization is going through a culture change?

Nijman: I prefer to talk about leaders, not managers. The difference is: leaders do the right things, managers do things right.

The answer to this question depends on the phase of the organizational change. First of all, leaders must be able to make customer and market demand a top priority with their employees. If they can’t, their employees won’t claim ownership of their own problems and take responsibility.

A successful leader gives his employees the problems they have.

In this phase some confrontation is required and often there is some tension. Leaders must keep in mind what employees think they will lose. Perseverance, guidance, setting limits and providing structure are necessary skills.

Only when employees claim ownership of their problems and take on greater responsibility, coaching and development is possible. Only then there is a possibility of support on a more substantial level: new courses, other tasks, etc.

A successful leader is a jack of many trades. The good news is that you can make mistakes in the process as long as you learn from them and stay committed. Just like the plane, you can deviate from the set course; just keep your destination in mind!

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