In my last article I promised a specific, illustrative example. Here it is :
For ~3 years, they made “steady but slow” progress towards a full digital transformation. Despite high engagement scores and reported “high confidence” in the leadership team… the SLT was growing more frustrated and confused by how much faster competitors were making the same digital shift. “What’s wrong with our culture — why can’t we go faster?”
During that three year time period, a substantial amount of effort and money was invested in operating model “fixes” (e.g., agile, lean startup, digital skills training, scenario planning, creative work spaces, tech replacements and a complete or restructure) to overcome organizational level quality and external adaptability outcome issues. The organization was well equipped but nothing seemed to reduce friction or increase transformation velocity to help meet the expectations of their customers let alone the board. They concluded that “our people are resistant to change; they lack the courage to try new things; they lack vision and scenario planning skills; they are just unwilling to make decisions and accept accountability in the face of uncertainty.”
This seems to be a familiar storyline for misdiagnosis; this is in fact, not an inexplicable culture quandary — this is a textbook culture bypass.
When they finally engaged in a culture strategy that looked beyond their version of the culture bypass (i.e., just measuring engagement/climate), they were able to see with much greater precision what behavioral norms were at play — and what they should try next, to drive more constructive behavior norms (BLUE below).
It wasn’t that their people were cowards or didn’t know how to do scenario planning well…their people believed (learned together, over time) that their boss was just going to do whatever they wanted to do anyway, no matter what alternate scenarios they might recommend. It turns out there were very specific, passive defensive behavioral norms at play (GREEN above) that had been engrained in very specific parts of the culture by a series of specific, aggressive defensive behavioral norms (RED above) going back to one of the original founders. Culture norms usually stick because they “work” — or at least at some point in history they did…it makes total sense if you know how to connect the historical dots.
Over time, as power and perfectionism creep up, they create more conventional expectations/norms. People will then tend to protect themselves by playing it safe. As Conventional behavior norms creep upward they may start bringing up Dependent & Approval behavioral norms with it (related ways of trying to blend in with the crowd). This is a text book case & easy to diagnose if you know what to look for and are curious enough to look/ask.
Culture change is easy if you stay curious and know what to measure.
When you only measure engagement you are only measuring work climate. You’re not measuring culture — it’s not the same thing. It isn’t bad to measure engagement; it’s just incredibly incomplete.
A culture bypass increases the likelihood of misdiagnosing, mistreating and failing to optimize organizational health. That’s why the “close enough” approach isn’t good enough anymore.