January 25, 2023
by John O. Burdett
Culture and change walk side by side. One serves and supports the other. In the midst of this ongoing tumult the question becomes “Who owns the culture?”
Culture and Change
Driverless cars lie – in some cases literally – just around the next corner. We are building bridges and large buildings with 3D printers. Robotics and cobotics are irrevocably changing the face of manufacturing. The supermarket, call-centres, medicine, even your lawyer sit on the edge of a social revolution of epic proportions. As for technology … quantum computing will change everything. Today it would take our fastest computers about a billion years to crack the most complex algorithms. For the same task, think in terms of seconds for quantum computing. Today is the slowest things will ever be!
Culture and change walk side by side. One serves and supports the other. Attempts to force-fit today’s technology into an organisation designed for a steady-state, mechanical world will suck the energy out of every unwarranted level in the business. Assuming that the future of the organisation lies in the hands of traditional, middle-aged managers who think that mastering their iPhone is pretty cool – when technology savvy millennials and iGen employees are about to be in the majority – is to sow the seeds of one’s own failure.
Loyalty without allowing people to make real decisions is a non sequitur. Seeking to do things faster without changing how those involved learn is, paradoxically, destined to slow things own. Reinvention, whatever form it takes, without a supportive culture is the organisation equivalent of thrusting a large stick into the spokes of a rapidly moving bicycle.
Who owns the culture?
In the midst of this ongoing tumult the question becomes “Who owns the culture?” The obvious answer is “everyone.” A more considered answer might refer to the Board, the CEO or even the top team. I might have given that answer. Until I was recently persuaded to buy a cute puppy, that is. My kids love this little guy and lavish all sorts of attention on him. All well and good, but “who exerts the most influence over the puppy?” “Who shapes his behaviour?” Ownership certainly isn’t based on status, size or even assumed power. The simple answer is that, above all else, he bonds with and pays the most attention to the person whose responsibility it is to feed him. And guess who “feeds” the informal organisation? Middle managers.
The only time the formal hierarchy dominates the informal organisation is for a brief time every 29th of February. And never before lunch. Perpetuated through a need for inclusion, self-protection and loyalty to one’s immediate group, fluid and highly adaptable informal networks are remarkably effective. Lack of attention to this network (grapevine) is an “organisation heart attack” that hasn’t yet happened.
Four issues are vital here:
- Make middle managers matter.
- Build a bridge to the organisation’s informal leaders.
- Traditional, corporate-sponsored, trickledown communication is like going into the fray armed only with a water pistol when those who would seek a different outcome (malcontents and cynics) come armed with a fire hose (social media).
- Act on the knowledge that millennials are about to become the bulk of your workforce.
Think social media, blogs, interactive technology and any other means possible to provide the organisation with a voice loud enough to interrupt the communication pollution that we are all drowning in.
Meanwhile, it’s a mistake to think you can change the organisation one person at a time. The team is the basic building block of the modern organisation. To be a successful leader is to always keep in mind that the team doesn’t work for the leader – the team leader works for the team. Tomorrow’s organisation will be a team of teams. But they have to be great teams! The multiplier effect of even one ineffective team is astounding.
Culture Imperative: If your marketing literature, reception area, intranet, website, boardroom, social media work, conferences, town hall meetings and/or your next middle management workshop don’t grab people emotionally – if they don’t capture the company’s story – if they don’t remind everyone involved of what it is that makes the business special … you have work to do.
This article is an extract from “The 7 Questions Every CEO Should Ask About Culture“, © Orxestra® Inc.
John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »