Are the values on the wall or in your heart?

I recently came to thinking about agile culture while running along the Grand Union Canal on a beautiful sunny morning. I get lots of inspiration that way, from mentally rehearsing the presentations I’m giving that day, to things I may want to write about.

On this particular day, it was the world of agile that once again caught my “flowcus” (the area of focus within my flow state). Specifically, how behaviours and values are key to any team or organisation making agile work. It occurred to me that, in many ways, organisations have been championing some of these behaviours for years. Yet, each time I have seen a new CEO, MD or super senior HR person enter an organisation, one of the first ways they appear to attempt to make a mark is to revamp the values and behaviours of the organisation; to put their own stamp on things so to speak.

It is then (apparently) down to the OD team to corral the leadership around the creation of these through effective facilitation. Granted, a switched-on new leader will want to lead the charge on this work, and an evolved leader will also want to sample the thoughts of the people throughout the organisation. If they are a wise leader they use as much of this data as possible to inform what they do next. They may even enable the people within the organisation to almost create their own buy-in to a new and fresh direction. I realise this is a highly new-age approach for many leaders, but the good news is we’re not here to address how you let go of the reins completely – perhaps that’s another blog post in the making.

Of course, the flip and perhaps much darker side of the utopian “let them build it for you” approach occurs when your initial discovery work reveals what we might describe as a toxic culture; where resistance to change goes beyond the normal fatigue and doubt but is, through personal agenda, both pervasive and destructive. Here we have to make some tough decisions about who we want to become as a collective and thus take steps to ensure we have the right people to take us there. Sadly, this often means we also need to support those who may need to find a new place to belong, for they risk us not reaching our transformed existence.

But, my guess is, the above considerations – be they Utopian or more Dante’s Inferno – are not always centre stage with a new senior hire landing within an organisation. Yet the work on changing the behaviours and values, to rehash wonderful buzz words like trust, open communication, collaboration… agile begins in earnest. A process has begun.

At some point down the line, the behaviours and values get “launched”, for want of a better word. There is usually a well thought out comms strategy, some new guidance for what these values and behaviours look like in action, and in many workplaces, the values end up being proudly displayed somewhere on various walls as a mural that testifies to a goal: “This is who we are (or aspire to become)”. For a while, these new directives seem to revive a sense of drive and focus in some, while some others will spend much of this time resisting them, perhaps stating things like “we’ve tried this all before… nothing will change”, stop me if you’ve heard this one…

For some time now I have been saying that the journey of change we humans go on is far more complex than the change an organisation goes through. Often the change an organisation seeks is that of moving from fixed point A (where we are now) to fixed point B (the new way). Sure, an agile programme will adapt along the way to ensure that once we reach point B it is still as relevant as when we set out on the path towards it. But even this is not a truly agile organisation. It can be difficult for people inside their traditional towers of hierarchy to grasp agility with both hands because in some ways there is the fear, even the highly probable chance, that “if we succeed in doing agile well, A) will I be able to go on that journey? B) will I still be needed or relevant? C) where will that leave me?”

I guess in here lies a neat cliché of “change is constant”, and to meet this constant demand “innovation needs to with open arms be met, and not perceived as a threat” (if you will forgive the somewhat Yoda turn of phrase). We do well not to badge a programme as being agile just because we have the right processes in place and ideal values set displayed beautifully somewhere on the wall. Agile is a state of mind, nay, it’s a state of heart. The passion we have for the place we choose to belong (i.e. our workplace) and the direction it is going (i.e. its vision and purpose) are pretty fundamental. Heart and mind are key. And while the walls around us can be adorned with timely reminders of how we might choose to be while at work, if the heart is not in it and the mind is not ignited by it, the messages on the walls can fade into the background.

As someone who has seen many new values sets, vision statements and behavioural frameworks come and go in my time I have arrived at the conclusion that trying to force a set of specific behaviours through frameworks will only take you so far when attempting to review and develop organisational culture. Moreover, you could place almost any set of values and behaviours on the wall with the confidence that those pulling together and shaping them are doing so based on some pretty good science – Basically, we kind of know what good working practice and the ideal working environment looks like on paper. So, if the positive intention is sound, where is the issue? My guess is there is more than one, and three stand out to me as useful things to think about at this time:

Ego

Not always, but sometimes the whole “make your mark” thing is very overrated. If ego, or the need to protect one’s ego, drives one towards what Michael Wilkins (author of The First 90 Days) called “The Action Imperative”, then we often start taking action too early and before we have really understood and acknowledged the culture. No big deal you might say. Well, if I counter that with studies that have shown consistently for more than a decade that 40% of executive hires fall out of bed within 18-months and never break even on the investment that went into finding them, you might see why ego can become a thorn in the side. So, the question in all activities as a leader is “who am I doing this for?” – if the answer is a selfish one, then perhaps caution is advised. Watch out for the undercurrent of your ego, for it can drag you down and way off-course. If big work is afoot and you’re at the helm, one of many questions to have close in mind is “Who is it for?”

Application

The comms plan is great. Any programme needs good comms to make it live and to then keep it alive, but comms in whatever form is not the application. It is a tool for application. The secret to good application is knowing the journey your people need to go on. Again, processes and frameworks will take you part of the way, but the true internalisation of “the way we all want the workplace to feel” is different, and getting there can be messy.

There is a reason why many OD professionals say that it takes years to shift an established culture. Doing surface work is just one of the reasons it can be so slow. Ultimately if we want a workplace to look different, feel different and perform differently we need to work on application of the difference that will make the difference at all levels. Being clear on the Why, the What and the How are important, it’s phase one. Phase two is about learning to live these things in the real world. So, in many ways application relies on good support, healthy challenge and the cultivation of readiness for the change. A key question for reflection here is, “can everyone see themselves in the new world?”

Another good steer would be to look as the ADKAR (Hiatt & Creasey, 2012) model and assess whether your change effort meets all of the stages for effective application of change.

  • Are people aware of what needs to change and why?
  • Are they enrolled and do they desire the change?
  • Do they know how to change and what it will look and feel like?
  • Are they equipped with the tools and abilities to go on the journey?
  • How will you and the organisation as a whole help to sustain change?

Transference

Cultural adoption is the goal of any change programme involving behaviours, and yet it is the part of the programme most commonly under-funded. The two biggest mistakes I have seen organisations make is at the front end and the back-end of their programmes: little research was done before the change is prescribed and then no reinforcement/adoption activity and support afterwards. This is why many see what is called “behavioural rollback”, only this time you’re not slapping your back pocket to hear the sound of all the money you’ve saved. No, this is the sound of money being poured down the drain. By not supporting the transference activity even “successful” programmes can become a future-paced failure. What’s the reflective question here? “Have we still got momentum and has it now started to self-perpetuate in useful ways?” If the answer is no, there is yet more work to be done, so don’t end the programme too soon and live to regret it later.

If you’ve read my stuff before, you’ll know I love a model that spells something topical and memorable. So, remember to EAT – furthermore remember the common phrases “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and “you are what you eat”, for they may even carry wisdom for us at an organisational level.

Ed Midson

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