Culture is an Egg. Practice is a Chicken.
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
New systems and practices will always default to conformity with an organization’s culture over time.
You cannot simply impose a new way of doing things on an organization and expect that alone to build a new culture. You can disrupt an existing culture that way, but it’s unlikely that you’ll build a healthy new one that lasts.
For instance, highly-engaging workplaces that allow people to maximize their creativity, experience a higher sense of belonging and exercise more agency are very fulfilling places to work. Such companies typically out-perform and out-innovate their peers.
However, you cannot simply borrow a few participatory best practices, horizontal supervision systems or creative group-learning strategies, layer them on top of a low-trust authoritarian culture and expect that things will be fundamentally transformed.
For any new practice to stick and last, it must be paired with and grow from a culture that supports the mindsets, philosophies and values of which the practices are a natural and logical extension.
This explains why many organizations, especially in industries whose cultures demand the appearance of constant innovation (e.g. education, high-tech, start-ups) tend to rapidly cycle through third-party training and development programs.
Each time a program and its suite of new practices fails to generate a new culture, the organization determines that the program is not effective, discards it and seeks a new program promising similar results.
Without an explicit focus on internal culture, organizations will blame the program for lack of results and not themselves.
This program-churn cycle can be repeated ad-nauseam for a very long time in the life of an organization. The desire to innovate and new program “implementation” unfolds on one track, while the evolution of its culture develops on another separate track.
Change-related cynicism among staff will be proportional to the disconnect between these two lines of action and development – the gap between “what we say we’re doing” or “say we believe”, versus “the way things actually are” and “what we actually do”.
If the goal is culture change, an organization must make it okay to talk openly about the existing culture, what works, what doesn’t and the implications of change. New practices and systems are certainly a necessary part of this process. There is an interplay and praxis between the two. However…
New practices must flow from a deeper conversation about, and commitment to, culture change. That conversation is something you do, not something you buy.
Organizational conversations around culture should explore:
What does our organization want to be to the outside world? What do we provide? Who do we serve? Why is this work important and needed?
What has drawn everyone to this work and this particular organization? What needs, dreams and aspirations are each of us trying to fulfill by working here?
What do we believe about what makes people happy and effective in this work?
What do we believe about those we serve and what they need from us? To what extent to do we put their needs and serving them at the center of all we do?
What about our existing culture supports the above?
What about our culture does not support the above?
What would we need to do differently to do the above more deliberately?
What new learning and practices would help our culture evolve in this direction?
Once that conversation is well underway, an organization is ready to seek new practices that:
have new cultural mindsets embedded within them,
are disruptive to current informal behaviors and semi-formal practices, and
make existing formal systems that do not match the desired culture unnecessary or obsolete.
Patient care and attention to culture is the only path to hatching new systems and practices that last.
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