Culture Matters

Culture matters. And not a little bit either. Culture matters a great deal. That’s not meant to be a facile observation. Nor is it meant to be a statement of the obvious. It’s an exploration of a particular challenge that most of us face—personally and organizationally—in trying to navigate and support change within organizations.

The decidedly odd thing is that we have a tendency to ignore this. We do so in many ways, both explicit and implicit. The idea of “best practices,” for example, presumes there is a single best way of accomplishing a task. And while there may certainly be an optimal way do things in an operational sense—when we get into routine processing of simple transactions—even here there is a need for context. Place matters. Meaning matters. Intent matters. And culture matters.

What’s interesting is exploring why this needs to be said, and why we wrestle with the reality of it. There seems to be an inherent reluctance to concede that organization change might be extremely contingent and variable. That what works in one place may not work in another. That there is no such thing as universal, objective, best ways of accomplishing things.

What has become an increasingly important realization in my work as a consultant is that—more than anything—the aspect of what I do that is most valued is being an interpreter of culture. The fact act I ‘get’ the reality of an organization is considered valuable—as well as being viewed as exceptional. That I am able to do so as quickly as I do is seen as an important and essential talent.

I have always believed that answers are contextual, and that the right solution “depends.” Most important in defining this is being able to articulate what the right solution actually depends upon. A very real consequence and corollary is that there is no one universal right solution, as tempting as this reality might seem. This theme has very much been the focus of the process articles that I have published over the last few weeks. An inherent message within each of these articles was the need to adapt and evolve process to reflect what works—and can work—in the organization.

The challenge for many people in designing process is that—while it’s all well and good to say “it depends”—there needs to be a clear way of defining what good process depends upon. There needs to be an understanding of how we should adapt process, and to identify the influences that should guide what we actually put into place. We need frameworks to understand culture, how culture differs, and what practices may be more appropriate in different realities.

At the same time, we need to exercise caution. For everything that models do to help, they also generalize. They provide the common characteristics and features that define the landscape, but they do so in a way that stereotypes. We get a broad-brush understanding, while not necessarily appreciating individual nuances that still exist. Models are helpful with generalities, but they manage that by deliberately ignoring the particulars.

The particulars are incredibly important. The particulars shape what needs to be put in place in terms of process and template and guidance. They define what is already known and assumed in the organization, and therefore the building blocks on which new capabilities and understanding can be arrived at. The particulars shape the particular knowledge that people have and the challenges that they have faced, and directly guide us in terms of communicating new perspectives and building new understanding.

People do what works for them, and what they can see working. In order to adopt a new and different way of doing something, people have to be able to see themselves being successful in the new process. They need to be able to clearly appreciate why the new practice is relevant and desirable. They have to believe that it is materially better—and will allow them to be more successful—than whatever is in place today.

That means that change is guided by creating capabilities that fit into their realities, and by presenting information about the change through stories that speak directly to their current understanding. This may sound like it’s complex, difficult and arduous. It’s really not. People will tell you everything you need to know to help them. The challenge is listening to what they have to say, being willing to let their reality constrain and shape the work that you do in designing process, and making sure that what you design continues to connect back to where they find themselves today.

There is, built within this truth, a big challenge for the process designer. This challenge is about letting go. In particular, it is about letting ego take a back seat to reality. The biggest problem that is typically encountered in any organization change effort is that it is more often done to people, not with them. The advocates for a new way of operating run the risk of believing that they have all of the answers, that they know what is good for others and that the organization simply needs to listen to what they have to say, and to do as they are told.

There is an astonishing arrogance in that presumption. It’s understandable, and it’s human. We want to be seen as experts. We want to be seen as knowledgeable. Many of us, unfortunately, still believe in best practices. We find models that work, or processes that resonate, and we fall into a false presumption that what we love everyone else should absolutely adore. In essence, we fall into the trap of finding a hammer and believing that everything we encounter from that point forwards looks like a nail.

I have been studying, working with and reading about project management for my entire adult career. I’ve done a doctoral thesis that explores how projects get initiated and project success is realized. It would be incredibly easy—for me and others—to presume that I have all the answers and that I know what works best. In actual fact, I know a lot of different ways of managing many different aspects of projects. And what I know with absolute certainty is that a lot of what I know won’t work for most of the organizations and practitioners trying to get better at managing their projects. Too often, what gets recommended as optimal and ideal is simply too detailed or cumbersome or abstract or otherwise irrelevant for most organizations to embrace.

What I also know is that I can’t define what will work within an organization in a vacuum. Without understanding of where an organization is, the challenges it faces and where it wants to go, it’s impossible for me to make a meaningful recommendation of what would work—or work best—for them in moving forward. Trying to do so would be irresponsible and dangerous. It would be no different from a doctor prescribing a treatment without ever seeing or interacting with a patient. It would be management malpractice.

Our ability to be successful in assessing organizations can be defined simply and clearly as the degree to which they indicate that “you get us.” Attaining this means that there needs to be resonance on a specific, detailed, pragmatic level. What we are not striving for are general platitudes or vague pronouncements. It’s not about making broad statements that everyone can see themselves in. This involves recognizing the specific nuances of where an organization is. It also means navigating the intersection of where they want to go and what moves them towards that.

Defining the new capabilities to put in place, though, is key. It is also complicated. Think about the path between current state and future state as line. This is not a straight line, necessarily, but is is also not one that is overly convoluted. The challenge for the process designer is identifying an improvement point along this line that is sufficiently meaningful as to make a difference, while currently relevant enough to be accepted. It is about defining practices that make a meaningful step forwards, without setting the goal so far ahead that the gap seems insurmountable.

Identifying this point is an art, not a science. It means calibrating improvement in real, human terms that can be embraced, understood and accepted. In particular, it means paying a lot of attention to where the particular organization is. And it means letting go of any obsession we might have with what the industry thinks, what best practices might suggest or what our egos wish we could build. It means paying a lot more attention to culture and current reality, and positioning proposed improvements in a way that acknowledges where the organization is while still meaningfully nudging them in a positive, appropriate and relevant direction.

An illustration might be helpful here. In the not-too-distant past, I did an assessment of project management practices for an organization. The stated intent was to identify recommendations by which they could increase the relevance, robustness and consistency of their project management capabilities. What became all too clear in conducting the assessment, however, was that there was already a fairly significant gap between where the organization was and the practices described.

Simply put, the organization didn’t get—or appreciate—the concept of project management. Individual managers, who were responsible for guiding specific and meaningful change, didn’t see project management as something that helped them in their role. Instead, the practices in place were seen as cumbersome, formal, rigid and irrelevant. They didn’t see what was being asked as helping them with their current day-to-day challenges. Instead it was simply overhead, representing more work with no corresponding relevance or value.

This is a pretty big gap to bridge. And the answer to this challenge isn’t about defining even more process. It’s about finding approaches and perspectives that are meaningful and relevant, and actually making a difference. Yes, the organization did projects. And yes, the individual managers were struggling with doing so effectively. But formal process did not speak to their world. What was needed and relevant was finding ways to improve collaboration, communication and the management of capacity. It was about giving managers a language to work with their clients, to shape expectations and to agree on commitments that were possible and pragmatic. From there, they may get to more formal project management practices. In the meantime, they are focussing on what works now, for the problems that they face today.

Culture matters an incredible amount. It has to shape and guide everything that we do in supporting and navigating organizational change. That means that we need to lead with culture, and follow with practice. For too long now, too many practitioners have had that backwards. No one signs on for more process. But everyone will sign on for more value, and more success. Helping organizations to be successful depends upon knowing what people struggle with, recognizing what they care about and guiding them to solutions that meaningfully supports their current reality. All of that is shaped—and fundamentally defined—by culture. We forget that at our peril.

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