Let the Cultural API nurture your organisation’s culture

New Thinking 26 April 2016 Ben Hayman

Culture change is one of the heavy rocks we need to lift to change an existing organisation. It’s quite shapeless as rocks go, maybe more like a partially tied sack of gravel. But it’s what we all know the ideal state is delivered from. What people do and how they go about doing it with each other. Very human, very personal. Not a process or organisational structure. Something we need to create the right conditions for. Not something we can generate, specify or mandate.

For many organisational transformations (could be Agile, could be digital, it really doesn’t matter), leadership rightly identifies culture as a critical aspect to care for. It must be nurtured so it allows the right kinds of new behaviours and ownership for all staff to flourish. At the same time, the leadership needs to support a subset of their people to start doing new things in a different way in a part of the organisation. They need to start somewhere. The new thing then gets lots of attention to assemble new skills, the colocation of specialists to work to Agile methods and experiment. It’s the new thing after all...

But doing new things inside an existing organisation or in the case of complex systems like large multi-nationals or governments, involves a lot of friction. For a period of time, one part of the organisation works quite differently to the rest. They feel that they speak a different language and often work to totally different rhythms. Of course, there are plenty of techniques to mitigate this and do properly scaled agility or organisation-wide shifting of the culture. It’s all too common though that this isn’t happening fast enough and the friction gets worse.

Juggling pressures

Within the part that’s trying new methods, it has to juggle two pressures – the need to learn how to be different and the need to support demands from outside the unit for information, data and updates in the old language of the dominant culture. The operation of business becomes a burden. There is a tendency for people within ‘the new unit’ to find the operation’s function frustrating. It seems to work at a different pace. HR needs things that are not really relevant and procurement doesn’t support their needs. HR doesn’t get it – ‘we need to just get on’… Procurement is taking too long – it’s not that complex… ‘How can I get on with being in a self-organising team and show leadership when people keep asking me for reports and to join pointless meetings’…

Introducing a new way of working into an existing culture has its parallels in the medical and horticultural worlds. Newly grafted tissue can be rejected by the host until a new balance is reached. The boundary between the two can become inflamed. It can often feel like this when building a new team that works in different way inside an existing culture. Inside the new culture bubble, it’s hard to work in new ways without the friction outside intruding.

The organisation as loosely connected blobs

One solution I’ve used to help teams understand the change cycle that everyone’s going through at the time is to describe the changes to the people’s culture as truly organic – drawing loosely connected blobs, not graphs or boxes to visualise the organisation. To show the evolution of the business as you would an organic life form. As one part gets bigger and its surface layer gets stretched, it might become vulnerable to rupture unless the skin is thickened or becomes two entities. Talk in these terms with the teams. Make the organic and fragile nature of things tangible and visual. Acknowledge the tensions and frustrations.

Over time, we shouldn’t need the API to be so complex. Over time, the method calls will be more elegant, numerous and valuable. Until then, we can flip the language and attitude from one where operational roles are seen as slowing progress to being essential to protect. They become seen as the ‘protectors’ allowing new ways of working to grow. When those new ways are strong enough in themselves and the host ready, the API can help them become the ‘new normal’.

So I think we should try to keep it organic, steer clear of org design by org charts and make the Cultural API highly visible. Celebrate that API as an essential protection layer around what is a fragile and young new culture. After all, the outside world is generally not hostile on purpose. The API is there to broker an increasingly better relationship and push the new language out into the wider system.