This week, so very many of us are watching Twitter veer wildly on a path of wanton destruction, wondering when it will finally implode under the weight of too many expectations and too few competent staff left to keep the wheels on.
I don’t normally comment here on immediate current affairs. Things could be massively different tomorrow. As it is, there are already signs that the systems that collectively make up what we know as Twitter are failing. It was being mourned en masse last night, even while it stuttered along to facilitate its own collective wake. Twitter could have completely fallen apart by the time that you read this. Or it may have miraculously revived. I’m just not sure how.
Technologically, Twitter is a bunch of servers and code that function together in order to give us the bird app that we know, love and loathe, sometimes in equal measure.
What really makes up Twitter, however, is the people that manage those servers, maintain and develop the code, and keep everything working coherently. At least, it used to be the people. In what seems like an impossible decline of unimaginable proportions, the vast majority of the company has been laid off, fired or opted into a severance package that was theoretically supposed to renew commitment to Twitter 2.0, and instead failed spectacularly.
It’s hard to know where to begin in terms of where things have gone wrong, and why they are falling apart. There is so much to point to. The day of the takeover and taking Twitter private—a mere three weeks ago—Musk fired four top executives, including the CEO. There was an entirely misguided attempt to monetize verification that resulted in chaos, rampant mocking and the market value of organizations plunging as they were mimicked and undermined. Half the company was then unceremoniously laid off in a mass firing that was astonishing for its gracelessness.
Internal dissenters protesting the changes on social media were also unceremoniously fired—on social media. The companies vaunted and guaranteed work-from-home policy was cancelled, and employees were ordered back to the office within 24 hours. An entirely tone-deaf all-hands meeting was followed up with an email expecting employees to opt-in to delivering on what were described as “extremely hardcore” expectations. Several hundred more employees opted out rather than committing to a drastic change in working conditions.
All told, this has been a master class in how not to take over a company. The detailed minutiae of the last three weeks will be parsed apart in future books, business school case studies and numerous articles in both popular media and the business press.
What it represents right now, however, is an illustration of what happens when the culture of an organization gets radically undermined. More particularly, it clearly highlights how a change in executive leadership can undermine years of investment in growing culture and building capability and capacity—almost literally overnight. This is not the first example of an executive completely destabilizing organizational culture, but it is certainly one of the most dramatic examples in living memory.
As a management consultant, I have facilitated and provided guidance on both sides of the divide represented by executive transitions. I have been part of the theoretical solution working to build and establish a new culture and way of operating. I have also been responsible for developing the solutions that become unceremoniously dismantled and discarded when a new executive takes over.
One of the enduring insights from that work is that sustaining positive, supportive and collaborative cultures is exceptionally difficult . While it is possible, it isn’t easy. Even where positive culture and meaningful practices take hold, maintaining a successful change through subsequent executive transitions is challenging. The shifting dynamics, differences in personality and formulation of new strategic intentions in the wake of leadership change can all conspire to threaten even the most valuable and useful capabilities.
In my career, I have supported and guided the implementation of organizational practices in what would easily be at least fifty organizations. If you were to go into almost any one of them, you would be hard pressed to find the remnants of the work that I have done. That’s not a complaint, it is a simple statement of fact. Change begets change. The intervention I might have led fifteen years ago evolved into another transition, and then another.
Some capabilities remain. Legacies of concepts and ideas may still be there, adapted and remembered. But the core practices that I would have built, implemented and supported are very likely no longer there in the form in which they were developed.
Some of those changes happened quickly. One of the most extensive cultural change efforts I supported utterly disappeared after the client organization went through three CEO transitions in the next year. One of my most enduring success stories, however, was the business planning process that was adopted and embraced by an organization for a period of more than a decade. While it required significant support to take root, the organization took operational ownership of it over time and continued to use it largely as designed to support strategy development, business planning and budget development.
Impressively, the overall practices that emerged from that work survived through the transition of two chief executives, and the evolution of three-quarters of the senior management team. It was sufficiently embedded in the organization’s culture to endure. Most significantly, managers in the organization saw themselves as being able to be more successful using the process as designed than what they did previously. Because it worked—and worked well—it lasted for an extended period.
That isn’t to say that it continued forever, though. After being substantively embedded in the culture and producing results for nearly 12 years, the entire process didn’t make it past the third CEO to be hired. From the perspective of the incoming executive, what was in place didn’t meet their expectations or respond to how they wanted to develop strategy and manage budgets. It was too different, too transparent and too flexible. (It’s true that—while theoretically valuable—those attributes can also be looked upon as being undesirable).
The dismantling of what had been built did not take long. Although the CEO’s tenure not being that much longer—he left within nine months of his arrival—the capabilities stayed dismantled. The organization reverted to a much more traditional approach to planning and budget development. Despite the success that was experienced and the institutional memory that still exists, what worked as a capability for the organization for so long now remains unused.
This is the challenge that started this particular thought exercise: Once something has been dismantled and abandoned, how do you put things back together again?
Taking the example of Twitter as a case study, it’s not terribly clear how that might happen. There has been so much radical transformation in such a short space of time, that it is difficult to contemplate how the damage that has occurred might be undone. In time, systems can be fixed and emerging problems with the technology can be sorted. That’s technical work, and probably enormously difficult, but with enough thought, effort, focus and expertise, it should at least theoretically be do-able.
The larger problem is how you rebuild the culture. It has literally been ripped asunder. So many people have left the organization, many under exceptionally difficult circumstances. A fraction of the original work force remains. Trust and belonging have been completely destroyed. Connection and expertise and organizational knowledge have been lost, likely irreparably.
It would be impossible at this point for someone to simply say, “Oops. We didn’t mean it.” There is no easy to unwind the damage that has been done. Some of the people who have left might be lured back, but it is an open question how successful an effort like that would be. It would at minimum require a change in leadership, first. Even with a new chief executive, and a renewed commitment to rebuild Twitter, it is questionable whether that would be enough.
Every organization has a culture. There is still, today, a culture at Twitter. While I speculate—with a great deal of supporting evidence to back me up—it is a much more toxic and distrustful culture than existed even one short month ago. This is incredible to contemplate. Whatever positives may have existed prior to Musk’s takeover have been significantly weakened .
This is the challenge that every organization faces, whether it’s on the scale of tragedy of Twitter or the still significant setback experienced by my former client. Rebuilding from a cultural crash takes time and a great deal of work.
My former client could decide to implement the system again. You can implement the tools, adopt the process, reiterate the policy and create expectations around compliance. The challenge is rebuilding the culture that wants to use that process. Rekindling the commitment to working together cooperatively and investing the time to use it well, when it has now been demonstrated that what has built can also be taken away.
The rebuilding of commitment is where the role of leadership comes in. It comes from encouraging and reinforcing. It is a result of leading by example and modelling the behaviours that are expected and sought. It is a product of praising those that commit and follow through, and holding them up as examples of what success looks like.
This starts with acknowledging the mistake or the challenge that is being recovered from. It’s important to address why it occurred. Don’t sugar coat or explain away the challenge; own up to it, and discuss why a choice was made, why it was a mistake, and what’s been learned as a consequence. Be clear about what people can expect going forward, and why that is important—for the organization, for the culture and for them.
This is not a one-time conversation. This is on-going effort and work from leadership, that requires commitment to support. It needs to come from a place of integrity and humility and positive intention. It means being wiling and able to listen to concerns, and responding to them honestly and meaningfully (including being honest about when you don’t know an answer, or when an answer might be unpopular but is nonetheless still necessary).
The work of cultural repair isn’t easy. It is not straightforward. It has a lot of risk attached to it, and requires a great deal of reinvestment of commitment and trust. Not everyone is going to buy in. Some are going to resist, some are going to be skeptical, and some are going to need to be persuaded. That truth needs to be embraced. If repairing the culture is important—and it should be—some of the biggest shifts will occur when those who resist see the value and eventually support the transition. That doesn’t happen overnight.
It is an open question of where Twitter goes from here. It is an open question of where my former client goes. In other organizations, on other days, around other issues, the same cultural challenges will be created as leaders change and cultural norms get undermined. It would be better not to make the mistake in the first place. The next best strategy is owning it and working hard to make it right.