Thoughts on Culture

Lately I have had a lot of conversations about the culture of IT teams.  These conversations tend to have one of two themes.  The first is whether their team has a positive culture or a negative culture. Typically, these conversations are quite negative and focus on why our culture is so bad and whose fault it is that it is so bad.   The second conversation is focused on how, or indeed if, culture can be changed and improved.  It started me thinking and reading about culture and I got drawn in.

There is a huge literature on culture and the impact of culture on performance.  My reading of at least some of this literature is as follows:

  • Everyone agrees that culture is an important factor in organisational performance. Exactly how important varies across commentators, but if Peter Drucker reckons “culture eats strategy for breakfast” then that’s good enough for me.
  • Almost everybody believes their culture is suboptimal and needs improving. In one study the banner headline proclaimed “96% Think Culture Change Is Needed In Their Organization”.
  • Changing culture is one of the hardest if not the hardest thing that a leader can take on. Organisational culture has persistence and an ability to survive change efforts, fighting back at the most unexpected moment to reassert control. Indeed, many researchers express the view that it is impossible to change culture at all. Take this quote, for example “the best you can do is work with and within them, rather than fight them” (Katzenbach et al, HBR July/August 2012).
  • Despite the agreed level of importance of culture and our desire to change it, there is surprisingly little agreement on what actually constitutes organisational culture.

All of these conversations and research got me wondering, how I have addressed culture and culture change through various leadership roles?  No matter how many times I asked the predominant answer was always I haven’t, or at least, I haven’t directly.   The closest I ever got to managing culture was a combined focus on performance dynamics and on encouraging the type of behavior I believe the team needs in order to be successful.

I can’t address both these topics in one blog so here I will focus on the behaviors.  For those that are interested in performance dynamics I suggest you download my recently published white paper “Fulfilling IT’s Potential”, which provides an overview of the IT value chain and which describes the performance dynamic of a technology services team.

To be honest, as a predominantly left brain logic based thinker, I find the whole concept of culture a little bit too “squishy”.  Thinking about behaviors however is much easier for me because behaviour, and the impact of behavior, is directly observable and I believe behavior is a reasonably useful proxy. Indeed, while I understand it isn’t necessarily true, I think of a team’s culture as being the cumulative expression of behaviors that are encouraged and tolerated within the team.  Thus, if you want to change culture, the best place to begin is to change the set of behaviors that are being encouraged and / or tolerated within the team.

It is the mix of encouraged and tolerated behaviors that give form to what I and I believe most people mean when they observe that we have a poor or toxic culture.  So, if you change the mix of behaviors you will begin to change the culture, or at least the perception of culture and the way in which your culture is expressed.

As I move around various IT teams the most common mistake I see is leaders attempting to address behavior change by focusing predominantly on one of the dimensions only.  How often have you seen an organisation define a wonderful set of behavioral expectations which they have all publicly committed to, posted on the wall and then not followed through on?   I see it all the time (and let’s be honest, have done it a few times as well).  But you also see the opposite, organisations that take a stand against some behavior that they believe is unhelpful without providing any guidance to the team about what they should do instead, or worse yet they make the alternative healthy behavior unsafe.

Getting the behavior mix right is easier said than done or else everybody would have done it and if you do not get the mix right, you can create some nasty unexpected consequences.  One common example of this is the leaders who quite rightly make missing deadlines and lack of accountability a behavior that they are no longer going to tolerate.  Looked at in isolation, it makes perfect sense as “delivering on your promises” is a critical behavior seen in some form in every high performing team. The issue is the only way you can truly keep all your commitments is if you don’t make any, or, only make very easy commitments.  So how do you get people to take on assignments with risk, stretch goals if you will?  The ability to take on ambitious goals and risking failure is also a defining characteristic of high performing teams.  Both behaviors are appropriate, but they are potentially in conflict if handled badly. You need balance.

So how to start?  Here is a simple 5 step process that you can use now to begin to change your encouraged and tolerated behaviours.

  1. Identify a critical performance issue within your team that you are committed to changing.
  2. With your team, ask what behaviours are contributing to this performance?  Look at all contributions to your current performance, not just the negative as it is likely you are doing some things well and as the old saying goes you don’t want to throw out the “baby with the bathwater.”
  3. Decide on a set of behaviour changes and implement them.  Start small with 2 or 3 changes at most.  Lead the change by example and observe the results.
  4. Review and adjust.  It is unlikely that you will get the changes perfectly right first time, so it can be useful to view the changes as a public “experiment”.  As with all experiments if it doesn’t work come back and readdress why (see step 2 – stop, start, continue).
  5. Repeat as often as needed until the changes in behaviour and performance occur.

I continue to think about culture and I would love your views and feedback on my thoughts.  I would also love to hear from those of you who have successfully improved culture / behaviours and understand how you did it.


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